Japanese and Western media have feasted on the strange report of a Japanese female pop star shaving the hair off her head as an act of contrition after she violated her band’s rules by spending the night with her boyfriend.
Minami Minegishi, a member of popular all-girl group AKB48, even appeared on a video to offer a tearful apology, begging to be brought back into the band.
The group’s management forbids the girls in the group from dating, lest they destroy their fan’s “illusions.”
Minegishi, only 20 years old, was observing a traditional Japanese practice of making amends for violating society’s rules and breaching honor.
"I don't believe just doing this means I can be forgiven for what I did, but the first thing I thought was that I don't want to quit AKB48," she said in the much-watched YouTube video.
"If it is possible, I wish from the bottom of my heart to stay in the band. Everything I did is entirely my fault. I am so sorry."
However, the shaving of heads -- either voluntarily as a form of apology or as a punishment by the outside society -- has a long and notorious history in many parts of the world, particularly in South Asia.
Only weeks ago, an Indian blogger named Jeshen Josh reported on a young man in a remote village who was beaten by a mob for attempting to steal a lady’s handbag. After forcing the culprit to apologize, the vigilantes shaved half of his head and half of his mustache and made him run around the streets wearing only his underwear.
In Kuwait, the Arab Times reported, police shaved the heads of nine men to embarrass and humiliate them after they apparently harassed local women at the shopping mall. The suspects subsequently were forced to sign a pledge that they would behave themselves in public.
Sometimes, the shaving of a woman’s head takes on much more sinister tones.
In Pakistan, women often face the humiliation of having their hair shorn and paraded naked in public for a variety of offenses.
The Express Tribune reported that a 60-year-old woman named Seema Bibi in the town of Kot Marth in Punjab suffered this indignity for converting to Christianity from Islam by 27 fellow villagers.
Although her attackers were arrested by police, Seema and her family soon fled the village in fear for their lives.
In Mumtazabad, Pakistan, a man named Muhammad Akram beat up one of his wives (and shaved her head) for disrespecting his other, newer wife, Masooma, in front of 50 witnesses at a wedding reception.
“I was humiliated and beaten, because I was not happy about his second marriage,” the abused spouse named Kalsoom told the Tribune.
“How can someone expect me to celebrate such an occasion? ... I was scared that if I refused him permission he would kill me and my children. He had threatened to do so several times, so I said I wouldn’t oppose the second marriage.”
One witness to the violence stated: “Everyone just stayed silent and looked on. Then [the husband] shaved her head and eyebrows and painted her face black. He kicked her out of the house with her three children.”
In yet another similar case, in Faisalabad, Pakistan, a man shaved his wife’s head for allegedly “disrespecting” his parents.
"I was frustrated and angry, so I removed her hair. I cannot tolerate disrespect toward my parents, no matter who does it," the husband named Shehzad told police.
The couple had only been married for a few months. The bride, Saadia, claimed her husband and in-laws had physically abused her and threw her out of their house.
Saadia’s father, Shafiq, told The Tribune: “My daughter kept crying and begged for mercy, but they did not stop and hit her with the butt of a pistol. They threatened to kill her. She came to my house, and I took her to hospital.”
At the hospital, Saadia told reporters that the latest incident was only one of a long series of abusive acts perpetrated upon her.
“My mother-in-law used to fabricate stories about me and complain to my husband, who used to beat me up without hearing my side of the story,” she said.
India’s society is also replete with such head-shaving episodes as a form of punishment.
For example, consider the plight of millions of Indian Hindu widows -- in many cases, without a husband, they have no identity and are frequently ostracized by their communities. Sometimes, they are forced to shave their heads as a sign of their forced isolation from society.
They are also compelled to wear white, cannot remarry and are banned from wearing vanity items like jewelry, i.e., to renounce all “worldly pleasures.”
A 70-year-old widow named Rada Rani Biswas -- who has to beg for food -- in the holy city of Vrindavan told CNN of her misery.
"My son tells me: 'You have grown old. Now, who is going to feed you? Go away,' " she said. "What do I do? My pain had no limit."
There are an estimated 40 million such widows in India.
"Widows don't have many social rights within the family," Ranjana Kumari of the Center for Social Research told CNN.
"[In conservative rural regions], it is much more tradition-bound; in urban areas, there are more chances and possibilities to live a normal life. ... The government recognizes the problem. It can do a lot, but it's not doing enough."
The shaving of women’s heads as a manifestation of society’s rage at perceived wrongdoing is not unknown in the West either.
In fact, such practices in Europe date back to the early Middle Ages as a “mark of shame,” frequently as punishment for committing adultery.
After the French occupation in the Rhineland post-World War I, Germans publicly humiliated women who had sexual relations with foreign troops, often shaving their heads and parading them in public.
In the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, right-wing nationalists often shaved the heads of women from Republican families.
In France, after World War II (paralleling events from the prior war), women accused of collaborating with Nazis during the German occupation were beaten, shaved and paraded in public in front of angry, jeering crowds.
According to the Guardian, at least 20,000 women in France had their heads shaved in the wake of Germany’s defeat.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.