A member of a hugely popular Japanese girl band has shaved her head and issued a tearful video apology for breaking the megagroup's no-dating rule.
Her actions have sparked a national debate over whether the band's management exerts too much control over its performers.
Pictures of Minami Minegishi in closely-cropped hair have been splashed across Japanese newspapers and triggered heated discussion on Twitter and television talk shows. The 20-year-old made the video, posted on the group AKB48's website, after she was caught by a gossip magazine leaving a boy's apartment.
AKB48, made up of more than 90 girls and young women divided into several teams, forbids its members from dating to project a clean image and signal their devotion to the group and their mostly male fans. Ms Minegishi belonged to one of the top teams, but her manager announced her demotion to the bottom-ranked "research student" status.
In her nearly four-minute video released on the group's internet site, a tearful Ms Minegishi, shorn of her silky black hair, sobbed hard and pleaded with her fans to let her stay with the band. She said she shaved her head as an act of contrition to her "thoughtless and irresponsible behaviour."
"I don't think this is enough to get your forgiveness for what I did, but the first thing that came to my mind was I don't want to quit AKB48," she said. "This is maybe wishful thinking, but if it's all possible, I wish to stay as part of AKB. It's entirely my fault. I am truly sorry." She lowered her head for a long eight seconds in the video, which has since been removed from the AKB site.
The group denied forcing her to cut her hair. "If you ask me whether it was necessary for her to shave her head, I would say it wasn't," said AKB manager Tomonobu Togasaki. "But Minegishi said she felt strongly about it."
AKB is arguably Japan's most popular pop group. It performs almost every day at its own theatre in Tokyo and has spawned affiliates across the country and in Indonesia, China and Taiwan. The singing and dancing are not always perfect, and the group's ever-changing members are hard to keep track of. But fans view them as friends or sisters, not out-of-reach superstars who date other celebrities.
Ms Minegishi damaged that myth when Weekly Bunshun magazine reported on January 31 that she had spent the night with a 19-year-old member of a boy band last month, and published photos showing her leaving his apartment wearing a baseball cap and surgical mask.
Traditionally, head shaving is a serious way of showing contrition, though rare among women. She is reportedly the first girl idol to do so in Japanese entertainment, where dating and love scandals are taboo.