When it comes to anime, Japan and music, one of the first things that come to mind for many people is a girl pop group named AKB48. This article provides a very good overview of AKB48, but in summary AKB48 is an unusual girl’s pop group for a few reasons:
- The group is based out of a specific theater in Tokyo, right in the heart of Akihabara, which for many Japanophiles and Japanese “nerds” is a kind of haven of anime and technology. The slang name for Akihabara is akiba in Japanese, and AKB is also frequently called akiba for short.
- The group is really large, and fans can vote members in for specific albums, songs and such.
- The group is marketed as a very approachable group, unlike other idol groups in Japan, Korea, etc. The Akihabara theater they perform daily at is very small and cozy, and according to AKB48 members, they had a mostly empty seats in the early years.
I’ll be honest, I am not a fan of anime, Akihabara or AKB48, so I’ve avoided talking about them for a long time. I have never been to Akihabara, and I have no desire to go anytime soon. Also, I’ve heard AKB48’s music a few times on Japanese commercials or TV shows, and I just didn’t like it. It’s just not my thing, I guess.
However, I finally decided to post about AKB48 because I was surprised by their cultural impact on Japan itself, not just “otaku” culture. Last year, I watched the annual Ekiden marathon in Japan on TV. The winning team was interviewed on TV the following day. The members were asked what they would like to do now that they’ve won, and a surprising number of them had said “meet AKB48”.
Somehow I was surprised by that, since these guys were college atheletes not “otaku” types. But again and again, I see people on Japanese TV of many backgrounds talk about AKB48. I get the impression that people in Japan may feel a certain sense of pride toward AKB48 because of their positive image and their increasing popularity abroad. They’re frequently mentioned on English-language Japanese news sites like Asahi Shinbun as well.
And now the small theater where AKB48 hosts daily shows has become so popular, that it’s very difficult to get tickets now, and they have created a separate cafe to accommodate fans who failed to get into the theater.
The producer of AKB48, Akimoto Yasushi, has compared the girl idol group something like natto (fermented soybeans) in that people might be put off at first, but grow to like the unique flavor.1 Elsewhere, Akimoto explained that AKB48 is an aidoru group (idol), but he spells aidoru as 会ドル, not アイドル. The “ai” here (会) means “to meet”, meaning an idol group you can approach and meet. Their singing and dancing is less polished than traditional Asian idol groups but some people find that more endearing (i.e. they’re more human 🙂 ).
Admittedly, it’s an interesting experiment in creating something new and different, and it’s certainly worked well. Similar groups have existed in the past, but not at the size of AKB48. AKB48 originally was associated with Akihabara “otaku” culture, but has reached mainstream and grown increasingly popular. I am always happy to see people work hard and succeed, so I am glad to see they’re doing well. I am impressed by the scale of the phenomenon and how mainstream it’s become, so I figured it was time to write a post. 🙂
Update: I forgot to mention that the success of AKB48 has also led to the creation of additional, regional groups like SKE48, based out of Nagoya, rather than Tokyo. Similar format, same management, just more of a “hometown feel”.
P.S. Yet more scheduling mis-fires (4 posts in about 24 hours? :p). I’ve got so many posts circulating right now, I admit I am having trouble keeping everything straight. Think of it as “unintended house-cleaning”. 😉
1 I actually do like natto, and eat it a few times a week over rice. I often eat it with kimchi too for that extra pungency (no joke) with some coffee. I have weird eating habits, but hopefully healthy ones.