I’ve been thinking about writing a column about “guilty secrets” for quite a while now.
It’s something lots of people mention when they admit to liking some Music or TV show they think “normal people” would find embarrassing. One of the subjects of this prospective column was going to be AKB48– but when it came to writing the piece, I realised that I’m not one bit guilty about liking AKB48.
So, for the uninitiated… What the heck is AKB48? Well, they’re like a Panzer Division of Cuteness–striding across the Japanese music landscape crushing all their rivals. They are the biggest band in the world you’ve probably only barely heard of… Named after the AKiBahara district of Tokyo from which they originated.
Idol groups have dominated the Japanese Music Charts for about 40 Years. The difference between idols (there are male idols as well as female, btw) isn’t just about the music– they are selling themselves as personalities. Idols can work in music, acting, comedy, voiceover sessions and other fields. The difference between AKB48 and the idol groups that came before them? Previous idol groups were trained within an inch of their lives before being revealed to the public. With AKB48, fans follow the girls as they progress and improve until they become fully fledged idols.
AKB48 is the brainchild of Yasushi Akimoto (nicknamed Aki-P), a producer and lyricist who has been in the idol business for 30 years. He came up with the idea of “Idols You Can Meet”– to contrast against the remote, lofty (almost godlike) status of previous idols. Akimoto held auditions for the concept in 2005– and after only a few months of rehearsal, formed the first team of girls. Another key difference between AKB48 and previous idol groups: AKB48 has its own 250 seat theatre in Akibahara where regular performances are given, allowing fans to see their idols close up and personal.
Currently the group numbers about 65 full members, split into Team A, known as the original ace team…
Team K, known as the slightly raunchier team…
and Team B which is known as the cute team…
There was also a Team 4 from 2010 to 2012– known as the young and fresh group. This team was subsequently disbanded at the 2nd Great Team Reformation in August of last year– with its members spread to teams A, K and B… Giving each of the main teams a complement of 21 to 22 members.
In addition to the main teams, there is also usually a cohort of 20 or so trainees who perform at the theatre every weekend. Girls can spend anywhere from 2 months to 2 years as trainees depending on their level of talent and ability… Before they get promoted to one of the main teams. By continuously replenishing the teams, Aki-P makes certain his organization replaces all members who leave.
Like all overnight successes, AKB48 spent years building up slowly until it reached the public consciousness. At the first theatre show in December 2005, only SEVEN paying customers showed up– but over the course of the next year, AKB48′s notoriety spread via word of mouth. Since late 2006, the theatre has played to capacity crowds. This swift rise in popularity allowed Akimoto to quickly add Teams K and B to the original Team A. But even then, the groups’ first singles sold less than 30,000 copies, until they experienced their first Number 1 hit in 2008. AKB48′s last 19 singles have reached the top spot, with the last 12 selling over 1 million copies each– a feat never achieved by any Japanese group. In an era where physical CD sales are dropping in every other country in the world, AKB48′s staying power is near legendary. The group was originally known for being the otaku idol group, but now they are true National idols– completely permeating the Japanese Media and Entertainment venues.
The group has become so successful, it’s launched sister groups in other Japanese cities.
SKE48 in the SaKaE district of Nagoya…
NMB48 in the NaMBa district of Osaka…
and most recently, HKT48 in the HaKaTa district of Fukuoka…
In the last few years, they’ve even been able to franchise the concept overseas with JKT48 becoming a huge success in JaKarTa, Indonesia. Only new group SNH48 is having a troubled startup in ShaNgHai, China… Idol groups apparently are not exempt from Far East or international tensions!
You might wonder how fans can keep track of a group with 65 members– let alone all the sister groups. Admittedly, it’s hard enough to remember all their names, let alone match those names to actual faces. That’s where the concept of the Oshi comes in. As this video helpfully explains, fans are encouraged to oshi (this means to support or push) one member over all others. Being a Japanese concept, rules are necessary. For example, you can only have one oshi in a group… But you can have another oshi in different sister groups– but never 2 oshis in the same group. And switching oshis is heavily frowned upon! International fans tend to be a little more relaxed about these things though… And you might hear quite a bit of cheering in some of the videos I’ve linked to. Naturally, this has been codified.
Management uses the different groups’ own Variety Shows as one of the main ways to promote various members as individual personalities.
and Shukan AKB…
Both shows allow the girls to have a bit of fun– and more importantly, be made fun of. AKB48 members frequently appear on many other Japanese TV shows too… They are fairly ubiquitous at this stage.
The Minegishi Minami head-shaving incident caused AKB48 to recently become more widely known in the West. This video (by an American living in Japan) explains the context quite well. AKB48 has a strict no-dating rule. Minegishi famously broke with this precedent and the story was published in a tabloid magazine (the Japanese equivalent of the National Enquirer.)
This isn’t the first time such a scandal has hit AKB48– and member’s punishments have ranged from demotion, suspension, transfer to another group or being made to retire. As a first generation AKB48 member, the shock of possibly being riven from her peers in the group caused Minegishi to react in the extreme– by shaving her head. Social isolation is one of the cruelest punishments imaginable in Japan and Minegishi is someone who closely identifies with the group– as she has been in it since its inception. In the end, founder Akimoto demoted Minegishi to the Trainee ranks… Which denies her a lot of the media opportunities she formerly enjoyed. Now she has to work her way up from the bottom again.
Inveterate Media Junkies was one of the few Western Pop Culture Sites to treat this incident with maturity. Most of the other sites that ran the story used it either as a chance to sneer at “those wacky Japanese” or to exercise cultural imperialism against the country’s citizens. English-speaking nations generally have very similar values, morals and attitudes– primarily due to their similar religious and moral backgrounds. This is why, I, as an Irish person can speak with some authority on American entertainment culture– since it shares so many touchstones with my own.
However, Japan does not fit the anglo-centric mold. It is not a Christian country and possesses a different moral landscape. And I think it is the height of cultural arrogance for Western commentators– most of whom are desperately ill-informed about Japanese culture and idol culture in particular– to try to impose Western values on the Japanese people. Considering Japan has lower rates of murder, rape and pretty much every other crime one can think of– they must be doing something right there, eh?
The dynamic between the various teams and their members is one of the fascinating aspects of AKB48 and its sister groups. Who is popular (at certain times) and who isn’t… Who is pushed by management and who isn’t are just two areas that interest fans. The interaction between AKB fans and management is much closer than with any other big group. However, none of this would have mattered to me if I hadn’t been turned on to the music and very quickly came to like a lot of it.
When I listen to an AKB disc or watch one of their concerts, there are numerous tunes where I almost seem to enjoy the music too much– and my brain isn’t able to process it properly…. It’s like a short-circuit in my mind’s enjoyment centre. Strangely, this kind of effect is not something most people seem to talk about a lot. (Perhaps the expression of emotion in regard to our enjoyment of music gives others too much of an opening into our inner selves.)
It may also be that these kind of effects can only be shared with people within the AKB48 fandom– between fans who have experienced something similar. Maybe these aren’t feelings which can be shared with “outsiders”– and why those outside this particular fandom can’t understand this communal emotional experience. It’s funny, but the similarities between the fandoms of supposedly radically different groups like Iron Maiden and AKB48 are uncanny– both have extremely rabid fanbases who are ultra-loyal to the groups they follow.
I’ve been trying to decipher why music in general (and why AKB48 specifically) has such a strong effect on me. I’ve found a term called the reminiscence bump– which is a theory that “most adults have a particularly strong reminiscences for the period from the ages of 12 to 25– and that it’s well-known we tend to prefer, know more about, and have stronger emotional responses to the music we hear during this period of our lives than to any we hear earlier or later. AKB48 embraces such a wide range of musical styles, many of which were popular during my formative years (whether it be euro-pop, italo-house or whatever) that it makes sense I may be in some way subconsciously remembering things from my youth through their music. Whether or not this is a conscious strategy by Aki-P to appeal to the widest possible demographics, it’s certainly a successful and winning one, proved by AKB48′s massive success.
I think the overall positive nature of the music you enjoy also has a dramatic effect. The release of endorphins being about as close to taking drugs as you can get without actually consuming them. These are effects that occur in the brain automatically… You can’t will your brain chemistry to activate if the stimulus isn’t correct. Music has a power to affect emotions in a massive way and the most intelligent (or calculating) writers and producers know exactly how to provoke this.
But being a foreign AKB fan is not easy. Their products are not generally on sale in the West and when they are– they tend to be fantastically expensive. Even ordering directly from Japan is high-priced, as shipping costs tend to be significant… But it somehow feels more satisfying to be into something that’s so difficult to attain. Also, Japanese CDs, DVDs and Blu rays tend to be inherently more expensive than Western ones– as they pack them with more content.
AKB48′s Tokyo Dome: 1830m Yume na Kawa Blu ray Set from August 2012 is the most spectacular concert film I have ever seen– beating even Iron Maiden’s Live after Death concert set (which had always been the gold standard in my experience.)
The Tokyo Dome concert series has 7 blu ray disks, 150 songs, 230 girls, thousands of costume changes, the AKB48 team reformation and features their most popular member graduating from the group. Since it’s an AKB event, it’s also full of drama. For the uninitiated, this Blu ray set is probably the best introduction to the AKB48 family, as it showcases a lot of their hit songs alongside lesser known theater songs. (But as I noted earlier, it ain’t cheap.)
The next big event for the group starts today, May 22nd, when AKB48′s 31st single will be released. This will also signal the start of voting for the 48-Family’s 5th Annual General Election– where fans vote for the girls they like the most. There are several ways of voting, from the Japanese-only fan-clubs and the like. But the biggest voting method (and the one most accessible to foreigners), is through buying the New Single CD– which has a voting code on it that can be submitted through the group’s website. This year 246 girls have put themselves forward for the election.
The top 64 girls will be announced in a concert from Nissan Stadium in Tokyo– which will be broadcast live on primetime Japanese TV (and hopefully via livestream on the groups YouTube channel.) It will inevitably be a tear-fest, as girls are either happy or devastated by where they rank within the group and whether they gain popularity– or lose it. Even though I don’t speak Japanese, it’s easy enough to get the gist of the occasion– and the drama of the entire event is fascinating. The ranking attains more significance than just a fan popularity poll– because the higher up the ranks a group member finishes, the more likely she is to be signed by one of Japan’s big talent agencies… Which is how she can go from being moderately wealthy to becoming rich. The agencies arrange for the popular girls to get acting jobs, solo music deals, magazine work, advertising endorsements and a myriad of other entertainment opportunities… So it is in the girls’ best interests to do as well as possible.
Aki-P and the AKB organization have developed an all-encompassing entertainment juggernaut. With over 600 original songs in their repertoire, there’s something here for just about everyone– which is why it’s extremely hard to see any group overtaking their popularity in the immediate future. As long as their founder keeps things as fascinating as they are, I’ll keep purchasing and enjoying their product.
There are too many people out there who are only too happy to tell you what music you should like (and what you shouldn’t)– and why you’re an idiot for liking one type of music over another. Well fuck that, I have no time for elitist bullshit… Like what you want to like is my philosophy.