The AKB48 pop revolution in Japan

Pop music everywhere has become dull due to the use and abuse of song formulas and formats that are tired and are exasperatingly repetitive. A popular song in Germany can sound very similar to one in Finland or in the US. Still, innovation is possible with a little imagination. Japanese impresario Yasushi Akimoto has created an incredibly successful franchise slightly tweaking the typical model of the girl pop band. A Japanese television writer, lyricist, record producer, professor and vicepresident at Kyoto University of Art and Design, Akimoto launched the AKB48 concept in the year 2005.

This is not your regular pop band, although musically it still sounds like just pop. What is interesting is what’s behind. The AKB stands for Akihabara, a distric in Tokyo, famous for being a major shopping area for electronics, computers and anime and is always teeming with otaku -a Japanese word for “geek”. 48 is the number of girls that make up the group. The first original idea behind the group is that they are idols that you can go and see anytime, because they have their own performance venue in Akihabara. The 48 girls are divided into groups that can take turns performing, so there is always a daily show. The theater is located on the 8th floor of a Don Quijote store (a popular department store chain in Japan) and due to the enormous demand now tickets are distributed via a lottery.

The second innovative idea was introduced in 2009: girls aggresively compete against each other and face elections by fans, who decide the member line-up that will record the next single. Only the top 21 members appear actively in the media. Additionally, there are many aspiring members, kenkyusei, which means “trainees”. In 2010 a new and original selection method was introduced to pick which girls participated in a recording: girls competed against each other in a rock-paper-scissors tournament.

Akimoto has been criticized for sexualizing teen girls, because songs say things like “I want to take off my school uniform, I want to misbehave, you can do whatever you like, I want to experience adult pleasure”, but he replies that he simply reflects realities that young Japanese girls experience in their lives; their doubts, their problems, their aspirations and dreams. The lyrics also sometimes address serious issues like teen suicide, he says.

What is clear is that the concept, a unique combination of theatre company, girl band and reality show, is a huge success, with the girls becoming pop superstars and tickets to the theater permanently sold out and some singles selling more than a million copies in a single day. In the first six months of 2011, total sales of merchandise reached almost 70 million euros (aprox $93M). They will also have their own anime series and will have their own official shop where fans can purchase official merchandise and their own AKB48 cafe that will serve Japanese fusion food and desserts. They already have their own fight card videogame –AKB48 Stage Fighter.

Akimoto has already announced that versions of the band will be launched in Taiwan, Indonesia and in Singapore. He has also teamed up with Sony Music Japan to produce a new “official rival” that will be called Nogizaka46.

Below, a photo of AKB48’s new sister group: SDN48. This group is made up of older girls, 23 on average) and there are only 12 members. They will sing both in Korea and in Japanese.

(To read the original article in the BMR magazine, Mar 2012: AKB48)

4 thoughts on “The AKB48 pop revolution in Japan

  1. I know the band but I had no idea there are actually 48 members and a cafe with daily shows! It sounds like an interesting development but I think it will only work in Japan and similar countries. They already have a girlband culture and I think are less individually minded. But I think it won’t be that succesful in western countries because there it’s all about individualsm and standing out.

    • Hi! What I find really interesting is the combination of formats (reality show/theater company/girl band). I think there are possibilities everywhere, mainly because the usual formats are tired. The moment is ripe to bring this type of crosspollination between formats. From what I’ve read, they are playing around with the ideas still, it can be configured to different markets. I also find it incredibly interesting to mix girls from different countries that sing in two languages.

      • I think the format is certainly interesting. I think it will work in big countries, there will probably be enough people to watch the shows if they create a girlband based on what the country likes. But for smaller countries I think it will only work for a short period of time until people will lose interest.

        Maybe I’m wrong but isn’t a bit ”normal” in Asia for popular singers to also sing in different languages and release their singles in that language?

      • Yes, I think they do that often. But Julio Iglesias has been doing that for ages as well. What is really innovative is the format, because I think you can configure it for smaller markets. Since there are so many girls, they can all be touring around in different countries at the same time. Like Cirque du Soleil, they have at least two full groups that simultaneously tour.

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