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Japan Imports a Democratic Pop-Culture Twist: Random Musical Stardom
November 3, 2013  | By TVWW Guest Contributor  | 4 comments

By Rich Greenhalgh

Sometimes pop music is a beautiful snapshot of a generation brimming with joy and youth. Other times, it’s a sad view of a former teen star tongue-jutting and twerking in front of an equally jaded audience. It’s a curious question: who defines what sells – the fans, the artists, or the industry? But what if you left it all up to chance?

What if you gambled your future on something as arbitrary as the game “Rock, Paper, Scissors”? Could you sell over a million singles and launch a career that way? In Japan, most definitely.

The Japanese case in point here is AKB48, and they're not your average pop girl group. AKB48 actually is a rotating roster of four teams of girls, created in 2005 by Yasushi Akimoto under the experimental concept of “Idols you can meet” – pop stars performing live everyday instead of showing up on sparse tour dates. (AKB is short for Akihabara, the city where the show is staged.) Fans can vote for their favorite girls, to see who gets to be the lead singer on records and concerts.

The concept grew so popular in Japan it now has three other competing sister groups - SKE48, NMB48, HKT48 (with expansion teams in Indonesia and Hong Kong). It was Akimoto’s desire to create Japanese pop stars out of ordinary girls, and let the fans interact and participate in the group’s evolution.

The producers of AKB48 also build on the reality concept by leaving a few of those spots up to chance. The televised Janken Taikai tournament, held every fall, has girls against each other in games in to be part of the lineup for the group’s next single. (Seen in top photo, and below left.)

The TV journey these girls take, with its simultaneous fan involvement,  is the main event here. And it has made AKB48, surprisingly, one of the highest-earning musical acts in the world.  There are plenty of lucrative offshoots, including ’s a late-night variety show called AKBingo, where the girls are featured playing game-show stunts such as "Punishment DodgeBall” or “Honesty Chess,” so the fans can see more of their personalities. The show also serves as a half-hour informercial for AKB’s new music and performers.

The group holds a popularity ranking election every June to see who the new media face of AKB48 will be. The top members are called “Senbatsu” (the top 16 faces). The Janken tournament is used as a “Wild Card” position to introduce new faces and give all the struggling AKB hopefuls a chance at being the “Center” (or “Ace”, 1st position) of an official AKB48 single release.  The winner is an instant celebrity in Japan, known as the “Janken Queen.” 

That’s exactly what happened last year to Haruka Shimazaki, nicknamed “Paruru."
Paruru had been in AKB48 since 2009, juggling school and Idol duties. She quickly gained a cult following from fans, but was not a typical Idol in that her personality is quiet, and she's a bit eccentric in dealing with fans. Her personality became the story after her Janken win, and management played up her “Tsundere” (hot and cold) style. Her Janken single was even about her social awkwardness: It was called “Eien Pressure” (Forever Pressure).

With the help of B-side extras, that release eventually sold over a million singles, and made her one the most recognized Idol personalities in Japan.

While most people haven't been watching, AKB48 has started to make inroads in the United States, clocking almost 1000 videos on YouTube. One of the group's singles, “Sugar Rush,” was included in Disney’s popular 2012 animated film Wreck-It Ralph, and one video performance has the girls dancing to their pop confection, thematically dressed up as cupcake desserts. Take that, Katy Perry.

And here’s a fan tribute of their very catchy “Koisu Fortune Cookie,” with Americans (of all ages, surprisingly) getting all the steps from the video. It has almost two million Youtube hits itself. (A clip from the AKB48 version is below that.)

On the surface, the happy beat and simple joy of AKB48 might be a breath of fresh air, given the recent lows of MTV’s antics. And it’s also worth noting that Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus’s twerking partner, recently released his “Blurred Lines” single through Universal Music Japan. For the Japanese version of the video, he used  AKB48 Idols Yuko Oshima and Haruna Kojima and skipped the usual over-sexed raunchiness.

And there’s not a jutting tongue anywhere to be seen.

(Visit the official AKB48 YouTube page here.)
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Nov 17, 2013   |  Reply
Phyllis Wilke
Great article, very comprehensive and thorough. The author obviously is well informed and educated on this topic....it is his passion!
Nov 9, 2013   |  Reply
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