AKB-48: ELECTIONS, MEMBERS, MARKETING AND RANKED WORLD'S LARGEST POP GROUP

AKB48

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AKB48---a roughly 48-member group consisting of subgroups Team A, Team K and Team B, each with roughly 16 girls in their late teens and early 20s---is one of the most popular idol groups in Japan. Mutsumi Morita wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Ubiquitous media darlings who sell more than 1 million CDs whenever they release a new song, the popularity of all-girl idol group AKB48 is nothing less than a social phenomenon. Since "River" was released in October 2009, AKB48's last eight singles have hit the top spot in the weekly singles chart, according to entertainment information provider Oricon Co. Three of these eight singles have sold more than 1 million copies.” [Source: Mutsumi Morita, Yomiuri Shimbun , June 30, 2011]

In December 2010, AKB48 was officially recognized by the Guinness World Records as the world's largest pop group. Their single Beginner topped the 1 million seller mark in January 2011. It was the first million-seller in Japan since 2007. But It wasn’t always that way. When the group was created in December 2005 to perform in Akihabara, Tokyo, at a theatre owned by its management company it was largely ignored. During the early days of AKB48, there were times when only seven of the theatre's 250 seats were occupied. [Ibid]

“Yet the group expanded its popularity, thanks mainly to the literal proximity and close relationship it developed with its fans,” Morita wrote. “Conventional idols appearing on TV, for example, were less accessible. These days, tickets to AKB48's Akihabara theatre are extremely hard to obtain. Unfortunately, some fans have been ripped off when trying to buy tickets to the immensely popular shows. But other events at which AKB48 members shake hands and "meet and greet" their fans are ongoing--though unfortunately still subject to fraud. The more popular members are said to spend seven to eight hours a day at such events. With the group's popularity showing no sign of flagging, the AKB48 juggernaut is looking to far-flung shores and becoming popular overseas. The election was televised at seven theatres in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, while official AKB48 stores have opened in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, where the all-girl group regularly performs.” [Ibid]

As of early 2012 AKB48 had sold more than 10 million singles and albums. In the JASRAC disc awards announced in May 2012, AKB48 claimed the top 3 awards: gold, silver, and bronze. These awards are decided based on a group's contribution to profits through royalties during a one-year period. Receipt of the awards means a group's songs were listened to the most, or sung most often at karaoke bars and other places. The win also reflects the group's popularity among the general public.

Monica Hesse wrote in the Washington Post: “How to explain AKB48. The group contains 60-ish members, selected through a rolling “American Idol”-esque audition process. It is the largest pop group in the world. When its members get older, they graduate and are replaced with trainee AKB48s. The group’s past 11 singles have topped Japanese charts, and Japanese citizens get to vote on which members will appear in which videos. Tickets to the band’s shows are distributed via lottery. AKB48 is huge. It is as if Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and the entire cast of “Twilight” were placed into a saucepan and simmered on a low boil until nothing remained but the sweet, cloying essence of fame, and if that fame were then poured into pleated tartan skirts and given pigtails. [Source: Monica Hesse, Washington Post, March 27 2012]

Early Days of AKB48

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Hideki Sukenari wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The basic principle of AKB48 is "idols you can go to see." While Onyanko Club and Morning Musume, former leading all-girl idol groups, became popular through a TV program, AKB48 started out in a small theater in Tokyo's Akihabara district in 2005. The group's membership grew to a size unprecedented in the nation's entertainment history to satisfy the demand for running the show every day. [Source: Hideki Sukenari, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 4, 2012]

AKB48 was formed in December 2005 for performances at the AKB48 Theater in Tokyo's Akihabara district. AKB48 is different from conventional idols that come to stardom through TV programs. Instead fans have such a strong connection to AKB48 that they feel like they can easily meet the idols. The group was developed by songwriter Yasushi Akimoto, who also produced Onyanko Club, an all-girl idol group in the 1980s. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 1, 2012]

Founding member Minami Takahashi said: “Twenty members passed the first audition, but only five remain. At first, it was only decided we would sing songs in events produced by Mr. Akimoto with a theater in Tokyo's Akihabara district as our activity base.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 1, 2012]

When asked if she had any difficulties after joining the group, Takahashi said, “Yes. I didn't have any stage experience. I was very nervous when I sang songs or danced under the spotlight in front of strangers. While we usually put on a show at a theater that can accommodate 250 people, only seven people showed up for one of our performances. It took time to attract enough people to fill a theater...We really were unknown for the first five years. We tried hard, but things didn't go well or we felt unrewarded. [Ibid]

In 2006, AKB48 debuted with the track "Aitakatta" (I Wanted to Meet You) and in 2007, appeared for the first time in the NHK's Kohaku Uta Gassen (Red and White New Year's Eve Song Festival). AKB48 expanded its activities and in 2008, its sister group SKE48 was formed in Nagoya. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 1, 2012]

2009, the Breakout Year for AK48

There were many surprise appearances by AKB48 in 2009. The group was the face of events to commemorate the 135th anniversary of the first issue of The Yomiuri Shimbun. That spring, AKB48 threw the ceremonial first pitch at Tokyo Dome to commemorate the 75th anniversary since the inception of the Yomiuri Giants. Also in 2009, the group held its first competition in which fans could vote to select AKB48's front-line members for a new song. The group performed at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan hall, the first time it held a concert at such a huge venue. AKB48's single "RIVER" topped the Oricon music chart, the first time the group held the top spot. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 1, 2012]

“AKB48 continued to grow stronger, with its 2010 single "Beginner" being the group's first to sell 1 million copies. As AKB48 has grown in popularity in Japan and throughout Asia, sister units--NMB48 in Osaka, HKT48 in Fukuoka, JKT48 in Indonesia--have been created. Plans are being made to develop other units in Taiwan and Shanghai.After the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, AKB48 visited the devastated areas and collected donations. In 2012, a core member of AKB48, Atsuko Maeda, announced she would leave the group, attracting public attention. [Ibid]

AKB48 Plays Tokyo Dome

In August 2012, AKB48 performed three shows on a "dream stage" at Tokyo Dome. They were their largest shows to date for the group. Founding AKB48 member Minami Takahashi said: Our biggest dream will finally come true. The title of our official blog is "Tokyo Dome Made no Kiseki" (Path to Tokyo Dome). As you can see in the title, we have always wanted to give a concert at Tokyo Dome. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 1, 2012]

“Before the shows Takahashi said : We can't go on stage at Tokyo Dome unless we are determined to do our best. Professional baseball players should be full of fighting spirit on the ground. Like them, we will do our best to put on concerts that the fans really enjoy. [Ibid]

Aiko Komai wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Maeda said the Tokyo Dome concerts have been a dream of AKB48 since its formation. The album 1830m was released on Aug. 15, so songs on the album likely will feature in the concerts. The album title means a distance between the AKB48 Theater to the Tokyo Dome. [Source: Aiko Komai, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 24, 2012]

Before the shows, AKB48 has held many rehearsals. "How to increase our sense of unity in rehearsals is important," she said. "The dome is huge and I'm excited to think about what I'll see during the concerts. I'll make sure I never forget what I see from the stage.” The next day the group returned their home theater. It is an AKB48 rule that even if the group gives a large concert, it must return to the AKB48 Theater the next day. [Ibid]

AKB48 Sales Strategy and Marketing Genius

Monica Hesse wrote in the Washington Post: “Is AKB48's target audience tweenage girls? Teenage girls? Something . . . else? The cutesy-saucy stereotype flounced about by AKB48 is not exactly subliminal. Anyone who thinks the group is G-rated has not seen their Puccho candy commercial, in which the members of AKB48 pass each other taffy, lips to lips, no hands at all. [Source: Monica Hesse, Washington Post, March 27 2012]

On AKB48 sales strategy Penn wrote: “The group's 20th single Sakura no Ki ni Narou! (“Let's be a Cherry Tree!” ) was conveniently released during cherry blossom in tandem with a an AKB48 television drama with a cherry blossom theme. “It will be sold in slightly different A and B versions, although ardent fans will probably want both. What better marketing tactic than getting people to want to buy the same thing twice? Other successful marketing strategies are designed to lure fans who want to help their favorite group member move up in the intramural rankings or want to obtain the special tickets that allow them to meet AKB48 members. The dizzying array of concert tickets, products and promotions at www.akb48.co.jp is rather mind-boggling.” [Source: Wm. Penn, Daily Yomiuri, February 25, 2011]

“The producer behind this marketing masterpiece is lyricist Yasushi Akimoto, who first created this new generation idol concept in 2005. It has been so successful, offshoots have emerged in Osaka (NMB48) and Nagoya (SKE48). Akimoto's impressive resume includes an array of titles: college professor, chancellor, author, movie director, and TV and radio producer. He writes all the AKB48 songs and was lyricist for Jero's "Umiyuki," Exile's "Exit," and the classic Misora Hibari hit "Kawa no Nagare no to ni." He also had success promoting other idol groups in the 1990s. “What is the amazing Akimoto's latest creation? In 2010, he formed OJS48, a group of singing sixtysomethings who are all former Osaka police officers. They released their first single last October. Will there be a TV detective series in their future?” Akimoto uses the title general producer. He was 55 in 2011. [Ibid]

AKB48 is popular with both young girls and otaku (middle-aged nerdy men). Daily Yomiuri television critic Wm Penn wrote: “The group's dedicated followers display an amazing ability to keep track of the A, K and B subgroups and, like supercomputers, smoothly process huge amounts of data on their performances, interactions and intramural competitions...I certainly could not pick the A, K and B squad leaders out of the crowd and it would take several pages of text to do justice to the complicated AKB48 organizational structure. For those who think they have mastered AKB48-ology, there are several "kentei" (proficiency tests) available online to measure one's level of expertise.” [Ibid]

AKB48 appeared at the New Year eve show in 2008. The mega-member formula gives individuals a chance to show off their skills while being able to hide their shortcomings in the group. It also allows otuka (Japanese geeks) to find at least one girl to like and raises all kinds of possibilities for spin offs. One of AKB48's spin-offs, Idolling!!! had a hit with the Shokugo: Idol (“My Profession: Idol”). AKB48 has performed in live in New York, where they also made a video in Central Park, and did their hit Namida Sapuraizu! (“Tearful Surprise”) at the Japan Expo in Paris.

In October 2011, Japan Post announced that they would begin selling stamps of AKB48. The stamp sheets were produced by order, and will be available in “Team A”, “Team B”, and “Team C” sets. It will include 50 yen stamps of each member, and a postcard and letter set for a total of 5,700 yen (approximately $73 USD). Those who purchased the had a chance to win a postcard with the members’ autograph. The stamps were so popular the influx of traffic caused the Japan Post homepage to crash. Fans rushed to the site all at once in order to grab a sheet, as it was the first time that AKB48 stamps were ever produced. [Source: Tokyohive]

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AKB48 Television

As of mid 2011 AKB48 members stared in 30 TV programs and 18 radio shows. Shinobu Mori, NTV producer of Naruhodo! and AKBINGO!, told the Yomiuri Shimbun the AKB48 phenomena can best be explained by the word "gachi", or playing for keeps. "The members receive support from their fans even when they have to perform almost-impossible tasks or participate in punishing games," he says. [Source: Mutsumi Morita, Yomiuri Shimbun , June 30, 2011]

On an AK48 television drama Penn wrote: “The girls' homeroom teacher, Maeda (Takaya Kamikawa), is unpopular with the students. He spends much of his time faithfully caring for a cherry tree on the school grounds that nobody thinks will ever bloom. As graduation nears, the students learn Maeda has just three months to live and he writes each of them a farewell letter. Meanwhile, the girls are coping with their own problems, which will be revealed in a series of dramas woven into the main drama. On Feb. 26, the first subplot deals with a student who must choose whether to take valuable time away from her medical school entrance exam preparations to compete in a lacrosse team competition in the United States. The matter won't be resolved until the fifth episode on Feb. 28. Likewise, the tale of the school's "wild bunch" begins on Feb. 27, continues on March 1 and is not resolved until Episode 15 on March 4. Other storylines revolve around adoption, "best friends," a pregnant classmate and a girl who slits her wrists regularly---plus the teacher's own secrets. All the storylines come together under the cherry blossoms in the final episode....The girls' rather limited acting ability is already evident in the trailers.” [Source: Wm. Penn, Daily Yomiuri, February 25, 2011]

AKB48 members also appear in 30 commercials. In a TV ad for "Puccho" candy that has been airing since August last year, troupe members are reinvented as caricatures on a cross-section of the candy's surface. "They accepted all of our suggestions when we made the commercial. We actually didn't think they'd agree to such warped changes," said a spokesperson from Osaka-based UHA Mikakuto, manufacturer of the candy. Program sponsors welcome the group's willingness to go along with such requests. [Morita, Op. Cit]

In June 2011, Kyodo reported, AKB48's ''new member'' featured in a TV commercial in Japan has been drawing public attention, as the ad's sponsor revealed that she is a virtual character created by computer graphics. Japanese confectionery company Ezaki Glico Co., which features Aimi Eguchi along with a few other AKB48 members in the commercial for its product ''Ice no Mi'' (Fruit of Ice), on Monday confirmed that she is a composite image of six members of the group.” [Source: Kyodo, June 21, 2011]

“The six members are Atsuko Maeda (eyes), Tomomi Itano (nose), Yuko Oshima (hair style), Mariko Shinoda (mouth), Minami Takahashi (face outline), and Mayu Watanabe (eyebrows), according to a TV ad by Glico aired the same day. As a result of the publicity created by the commercial, which began being aired that day, the number of hits on Ezaki Glico's website has sharply risen and some TV variety shows have featured the disclosure since the announcement. The company also launched step-by-step ''making of the CM'' footage on its website showing the process of generating the image. Following Eguchi's ''debut'' on June 14 on AKB48's website, fans had been speculating if she was a real person or a virtual character because of her flawless looks and resemblance to other members. [Ibid]

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AKB48 Elections

The annual election ceremony, which take place in June at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, were first held in 2009. Hideki Sukenari wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Before then, the decision on which lucky girls would sing a new song was made by Yasushi Akimoto, AKB48's general manager and songwriter. The membership of the all-girl pop group had already reached nearly 100 by 2009, including sister groups. [Source: Hideki Sukenari, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 4, 2012]

“After fans complained about their favorite members not being selected to sing, the general election was launched to give listeners a chance to cast their votes. Participation became open to AKB fans who obtained voting tickets through buying the group's CDs and other means. [Ibid]

“The girls' popularity is ranked to determine their next gigs and the results are publicized. The live broadcast featured comments from the girls and showed their real feelings as they reacted to the (often harsh) results of the public poll. At one point 28 percent of TV viewers in Kanto were tuned in. [Ibid]

“It is not an easy job to hold the top spot in the group. Fans are enthusiastic about supporting their oshi-men (favorite member), hard-working girls they feel close to who are in the lower ranks. "Oshi" refers to the word push, while "men" means member. "We, ojisan [middle-aged men], who are familiar with such a competitive society, are aware of the need to help our oshi-men gain favor. That is why we cast our ballots," said Hongo, reflecting on how AKB48's fan base is spreading among middle-aged and older men. [Ibid]

Appeal of the AKB48's Elections

Hideki Sukenari wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “AKB48's recent "general election" to determine which members will sing its new song demonstrated the spread of the group's popularity among the general public, as the total number of votes topped 1.38 million, an increase of 210,000 from the previous year. The TV program that broadcast the poll live also attracted an average of 18.7 percent of viewers in the Kanto region, according to Video Research Ltd. [Source: Hideki Sukenari, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 4, 2012]

“The first selection ceremony, held at a live house in Tokyo, had only 1,000 people in the audience. But this year about 12,000 fans were drawn to the venue. As many as 168 media organizations, both Japanese and foreign, covered the event, and the ceremony was broadcast live by Fuji TV, which dedicated more than two hours of its prime-time viewing slot to the event. [Ibid]

“Fuji TV producer Takatoshi Hamano said he thought the ceremony was suitable for a live broadcast because it could show the girls' true emotions through their facial expressions, which are not usually on display on talk shows. "Many people may have watched the program out of curiosity even if they aren't familiar with the girls," Hamano said. [Ibid]

“Prof. Kazuto Hongo of the Historiographical Institute at the University of Tokyo, who is a fan himself, compared the pop group to the Shinsengumi, an informal group of masterless samurai engaged in police activities at the end of the Edo period (1603-1867). "People were attracted to the Shinsengumi as they were interested in the group's inner power struggles, which led to the transition of leaders from Serizawa Kamo to Kondo Isami. You become more of a Shinsengumi fan as you learn more about the group since each of its members is intriguing," Hongo, 51, said. "You can find a similar kind of drama in AKB48.” [Ibid]

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AKB48 Election in 2011

In May 2011, AKB48 members garnered more than 1.16 million votes in a "general election" to determine the most popular AKB48 member among 150 girls and the girls that would appear on the group’s front line. The annual event, which was shown in 86 movie theaters across Japan and televised in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, selected 21 members for AKB48's 22nd single due for release in August from about 150 candidates including those in similar pop groups, SKE48 and NMB48. [Source: Kyodo]

To vote in the election, it was necessary to buy an AKB48 CD or become a member of an AKB48-related service. One person could cast more than two ballots, for example, by buying more than two CDs. The ballot counting was televised to about 38,000 fans at the 86 theatres around the nation and seven overseas, receiving extensive media coverage. [Source: Mutsumi Morita, Yomiuri Shimbun , June 30, 2011]

NTV touched on the event during a special bulletin on the group's regular programme, Naruhodo! High School. Immediately after the vote, TBS' midnight programme Ariyoshi AKB Kyowakoku reviewed the event and invited AKB48 members to comment on the results. TV and newspapers widely reported on the election the following day and in total, 150 media outlets covered the spectacle. [Ibid]

Some grumbled about the voting process to elect front-line members. Perhaps some said: "I don't know why they call it a general election. Some fans bought two or more of the group's CDs to vote in the popularity contest. They want to go that far just to vote for their favorites.”

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AKB48 Election in 2012

Yuko Oshima has won a much-heralded popularity contest for all-girl pop group AKB48. Oshima, 23, garnered 108,837 votes in AKB48's fourth "general election". Fans cast ballots to select 64 members, including 16 to sing on the group's 27th single, which will be released in August. In second place was 18-year-old Mayu Watanabe. Atsuko Maeda, the previous year's front-runner, withdrew from the contest as she will be "graduating" from AKB48 this summer. [Source: Jiji Press, June 8, 2010]

“The top finishers in the election were: 1) Yuko Oshima (108,837 votes); 2) Mayu Watanabe (72,574); 3) Yuki Kashiwagi (71,076); 4) Rino Sashihara (67,339); 5) Mariko Shinoda (67,017); 6) Minami Takahashi (65,480); 7) Haruna Kojima (54,483); 8) Tomomi Itano (50,483); 9) Jurina Matsui (45,747); 10) Rena Matsui (42,030); 11) Sae Miyazawa (40,261); 12) Tomomi Kasai (27,005); 13) Rie Kitahara (26,531); 14) Minami Minegishi (26,038); 15) Yui Yokoyama (25,541); 16) Ayaka Umeda (24,522). [Ibid]

“A total of 237 AKB48 and sister group members competed in the latest poll, with the top 64 considered winners. Fifteen members of SKE48, a Nagoya-based sister group, were ranked among the top 64; and middle-ranking members saw their ratings drop because of the major gains of SKE48. [Ibid]

“Mariko Shinoda, who ranked fifth in the poll, told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Anyone who thinks she can boost her ranking just by waiting for somebody [senior to her] to lose her place will never win." Aika Ota, who finished 52nd, ssaid "I'm sorry to have made many people buy CDs for me.” [Source: Hideki Sukenari, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 4, 2012]

Atsuko Maeda Wins the 2011 AKB48 Election and Quits in 2012

In 2011, Atsuko Maeda made a comeback to the coveted No. 1 spot of the all-girl pop group AKB48 in this year's popularity vote, dethroning the 2010 winner, Yuko Oshima. ''I'm really happy. I'll do my utmost,'' a tearful Maeda, the 2009 champion, said during an internationally televised award ceremony at the packed Nippon Budokan gymnasium in Tokyo. Oshima, 22, came in second. Maeda, 19, won the largest number of votes from the group's fan club members and those who bought the last single. Yuki Kashiwagi, 19, came third, advancing on her eighth-place finish last year. [Source: Kyodo, June 9, 2011]

"Even if you don't like me, please don't dislike AKB48," pleaded Atsuko Maeda during the group's annual election at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan on June 9. Drowned out by the roar of 8,500 AKB48 fans who had packed the hall, declaring they would never disown her, the tearful 19-year-old needn't have worried. In the 2011 election 1,166,145 votes were cast, including 139,892 votes for Maeda. Maeda's tally was 4.4 times larger than last year's winner Yuko Oshima, and about 30 times larger than her own total recorded two years ago. [Source: Mutsumi Morita, Yomiuri Shimbun , June 30, 2011]

In March 2012, Kyodo reported, Atsuko Maeda, the pop icon and original member of all-girl group AKB48 that she will leave the band. "I---Atsuko Maeda---will graduate from AKB48. I tried my best in the 6½ years" since the group began, a tearful Maeda said during a concert. "I must move forward to my dream at the age of 20." Maeda, 20, was among several girls who started the group in 2005 and was elected its most popular member in an annual vote by fans in 2009 and 2011. [Source: Kyodo, March 27, 2012]

AKB-48's Atsuko Maeda

Atsuko Maeda, who is known affectionately as "Atchan," ranked first in popularity votes among the AKB48 members in 2009 and 2011. Aiko Komai wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “This is all the more incredible when one considers that she is not your typical idol. For photo shoots, she only applies light makeup---as close to none as possible---and does not paint her nails. She seems uncomfortable in high heels. She is not gaudy or flamboyant, and yet Maeda has been widely regarded as the undisputed No. 1 idol. "I've been told I'm clumsy and too honest," Maeda said. Perhaps these qualities make her more endearing to fans. [Source: Aiko Komai, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 24, 2012]

In addition, her attractive looks are undeniable. She has smooth skin, beautiful eyes and a stunningly innocent and cute smile--all essential assets for an idol. Maeda has taken the lead in almost all the group's music performances. She has had a unique view of the audience from the closest position on the stage. Such a central role would seemingly bring huge pressure, but Maeda took it in her stride "I wasn't as self-conscious as I thought I'd be," she said. "But there were no other members in front of me, so I had to thoroughly learn the choreography.” [Ibid]

Around 2007, immediately after the release of AKB48's first single under a major record label, Maeda worried the reason for the group taking so long to burst onto the scene was because she was the face of the group. Through e-mail, Maeda confessed to Yasushi Akimoto, AKB48's general manager, her concerns, saying, "I don't think I should be in the lead role." But Even after hearing her opinions, Akimoto still replied, "For the next new song, I'll leave you front and center." Maeda replied, "If you let me stay in the role, I'll try my best at it." She had no choice but to believe in herself. [Ibid]

Maeda still sometimes struggles to believe that she has become a national idol after going through some tough times. "I don't know why it happened, but I'm really happy the way things turned out. Thinking back, I'm happy to have experienced so much," she said. [Ibid]

Maeda said her three favorite AKB songs are: 1) "Ogoe Diamond" (2008) "Many of my fans and friends like this song. This was the first AKB48 song released under a new record company. This made me feel that our songs changed somewhat, and we had made a new start. I like that the word 'daisuki' [love] is in the lyrics many times." 2) "Ponytail to Shushu" (2010)"We all had our hair in a ponytail when we sang this song. I remember we joked that the audience couldn't tell who was who! At that time, I was 19 years old and at the end of my teens, and many AKB48 members were still students. I felt this might be the last song that makes me feel we were young. We filmed the music video for this song in Guam, which was the first time we'd done an AKB48 video overseas. When I think back on it, we enjoyed the trip like a large family. The people in charge of costumes and makeup looked after us, and we were like a big bunch of kids enjoying a trip." 3) "Kaze wa Fuiteiru" (2011) "This was a song with a strong message to 'encourage people in a time of adversity.' It was released after the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the promotional video for the song makes me feel it really encouraged people. I sang it with a hope that we could transmit our feelings to the affected people. We visited the afflicted areas twice. I know that even if we went to these areas, we couldn't actually change what had happened. But I realized that it's important to meet the victims and speak with them directly.” [Ibid]

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AKB-48's Atchan Ready for New Challenges

Atsuko Maeda, a core member of AKB48, "graduated" from the group after concerts at Tokyo Dome and at the AKB48 Theater in Tokyo's Akihabara district in August 2012. Aiko Komai wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Although she will be putting down the microphone for now, Maeda might not be leaving the entertainment industry permanently--one of her dreams is to become an actress. [Source: Aiko Komai, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 24, 2012]

After Maeda had announced she was quitting AKB48, people around her told her that she looked as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulder. "Unconsciously, I might've felt pressure," she said. [Ibid]

Maeda has a lot of plans after leaving the group. "I imagine I'll probably be reluctant to do anything for about a week, and then I'll begin to live an ordinary life again," she said. At the top of her to-do list is watch more movies, study abroad and use her time to learn many things. Maeda's calm manner of speaking often makes people forget she is still only 21 years old. "One reason I decided to leave AKB48 is because I want to seriously pursue an acting career," she said. "I don't know when this will happen, but I'll still be nervous.” [Ibid]

Despite standing in the bright spotlight with AKB48 for seven years, Maeda apparently still has nerves about entering the world of acting. Maeda is stoic about her work and determined to keep her feet on the ground. Her fans hope she will relax a little and realize her dreams in the next stage of her life so she can be proud of herself in the future. [Ibid]

Yasushi Akimoto on AKB48's Success and the 2011 Election

Yasushi Akimoto, AKB48's creator and general producer told the Yomiuri Shimbun after the vote, “This year AKB48 held its third annual front-line member elections. Even people with no interest in the group wanted to find out who would win the popularity vote. AKB48 has been involved in a wider range of activities and is more visible this year. Its fan base has widened as a result.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun , June 30, 2011]

“The key to winning the election this year was getting votes from enthusiastic fans and undecided voters alike. Atsuko Maeda, who won this year's election, felt a great deal of pressure. She was glad to win, despite hearing directly from some voters they wouldn't support her. Her heartfelt plea after the election results came out--"Even if you don't like me, please don't dislike AKB48"--came from a genuine place. She felt apologetic toward those who do not like her and I couldn't help crying when hearing her speak out. [Ibid]

The fans tend to support members who give their absolute all to AKB48. For example, Tomomi Itano fell to eighth place from fourth last year because she made her solo debut and is pursuing a different style of music. The election results are a significant hurdle for her to overcome. [Ibid]

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Voting rights were only given to those who bought one of the group's CDs or became a member of an AKB48 service. Sales of one of the group's CDs totaled about 1.45 million, but only about 779,090 purchasers, or half this figure, voted. At first I thought the newer fans would vote, but it seems that many people bought the CD only to listen to the music. [Ibid]

If idol groups can be likened to baseball teams, AKB48's current lineup is like a weak high school baseball club which wins the national high school baseball tournament at Koshien Stadium. A few members later advance to the professional baseball league. In the future, I want AKB48 to be the best training ground for the entertainment industry. Ideally, the group will be a platform not only for girls wanting to become actresses, singers or "TV talents," but also a gateway to success for those who dream of becoming music composers, cartoonists and fashion designers. [Ibid]

When a project's concept and marketing efforts outstrip the reality of the project, it is doomed for failure. The important thing is to let the project begin its course. Even if there are failures, it's important to correct these and continue. With the AKB48 project, it's the fans who give us hints as to how we should proceed. For example, the idea of AKB48's front-line members being chosen via voting and rock-paper-scissors was realized after I received suggestions from the fans. Therefore, I've no real idea of the group's future activities. AKB48 members, the fans and I are all in the same situation. There's no knowing what will happen. This is the secret to AKB48's charm. [Ibid]

AKB48's Yuki Kashiwagi

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AKB48 preparing for a debut in 2006
One AKB48 member who did well in the 2011 "popularity election" was Yuki Kashiwagi. She won 74,252 votes---enough to sing on AKB48's 22nd CD, "Flying Get," which was released in August 2011. Kashiwagi jumped from eighth position in last year's popularity stakes to third this year behind only Atsuko Maeda (139,892) and Yuko Oshima (122,843). [Source: Mutsumi Morita, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 9, 2011]

Kashiwagi is not as flashy as other members and looks relatively undistinguished--she won fans' hearts with what is known as "orthodox idol" style. So what type of idol does she aspire to be? AKB48's general manager Yasushi Akimoto likened Kashiwagi to an "earnest politician." "She never makes a show of her eccentricities, does her job properly and has been expanding her fan base in a very polite way," he said.

In meet-and-greet sessions with fans, Kashiwagi shakes hands while looking firmly into their eyes, listening attentively to what they say. Sometimes, she widens her eyes and smiles, putting her hand to her mouth. Kashiwagi tackles singing and dancing lessons more enthusiastically than other AKB48 members, even taking notes during important explanations by the choreographer. But the 20-year-old idol doesn't show such seriousness in public; instead, she acts gracefully and lightly.

Kashiwagi's solid efforts have won over many AKB48 fans--the lines they form to shake her hand at greeting sessions are always among the longest of the group's members. It's easy to see how she has risen in popularity from ninth to eighth and then third this year. "I have a concrete image of what an idol should do and how nice an idol should be when spoken to by fans...I always act on that basis," she said.

From Idol Obsessed to Idol Herself

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AKB48 store in Singapore
"When I was a primary and middle school student, I was nuts about idols," Kashiwagi told the Yomiuri Shimbun. In particular, she liked female idols. She learned to sing and dance by listening to their CDs and watching their videos. "I was dancing with the idols while watching them on TV," she said.

When pop group Morning Musume and idol Aya Matsuura, who is nicknamed "Ayaya," held a concert in Kagoshima, Kashiwagi's birthplace, she attended with her mother. She was a big fan of the group, and posters of Morning Musume adorned her bedroom--especially ones featuring member Rika Ishikawa. "Enkyori Poster" (literally, "long-distance poster") is an AKB48 song on which Kashiwagi assumed lead vocals. The song portrays a girl who is encouraged by the idol posters she pins up in her room; the comparisons to Kashiwagi as a middle school girl are clear.

Kashiwagi initially applied to become an AKB48 member in 2005. "I wanted the experience and challenge of becoming like the girls I had idolized," she said. However, an abrupt reply to her application asked her to go to Tokyo to audition the following day. However, Kashiwagi could not make the journey from Kagoshima to Tokyo. "I couldn't persuade my parents to let me go and I wasn't fully ready to live away from them as a middle school student," she said. "I thought to myself, 'If only I lived closer to Tokyo..."

Despite this setback, her desire to become an idol surged, and for about a year she relentlessly persuaded her parents to allow her to audition. Ultimately, Kashiwagi passed the audition to become a member of AKB48. She entered the group as a third-tier member and, after graduating from middle school, embarked on the career she had long hoped for--to be an idol.

Making the AK48 Top Seven

AKB48 actually has 77 members, but the limelight only shines on the ones near the top of the pecking order. The top-ranking seven members in the popularity elections gain more magazine and TV exposure. Members say there's a big difference between ranking eighth and cracking the top seven.

Minami Takahashi, the 21-year-old captain of AKB48's subgroup "Team A" in 2012, told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “I'm one of the original members of AKB48. The latest members are from the 14th audition. Combined with sister units, there are more than 230 members. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 1, 2012]

"When we [AKB48] appear on TV or in a magazine, in many cases it'll be only seven of us. I've been trying my best for a while and am always thinking about how I can get recognized," Kashiwagi said.

After being voted third at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, Kashiwagi took to the stage and candidly spoke of the frustrations she had carried for the past year.It was unusual for "modest" Kashiwagi to express her sentiments in public. However, being appointed captain of Team B (the other three teams are A, K and 4), spurred a change in her awareness of the group. Kashiwagi became a pillar, pulling her team together.

"Before that, I was the type of idol who expected to speak last," she said.Kashiwagi is required to assume leadership and express her opinions more often these days, and she is gradually becoming better at expressing her true self. She even directs group rehearsals with a megaphone in hand and shows leadership among her team members. Asked about her future goals, Kashiwagi answered, "To be an idol forever."

AKB48's Yuki Kashiwagi Returns to Kagoshima

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About an hour into the Team 4 concert at Kagoshima Citizens' Culture Hall, the second day of AKB48's nationwide summer concert series, the crowd erupted when an unexpected guest appeared on stage. Yuki Kashiwagi is normally in Team B, and her surprise appearance generated the biggest cheer of the concert. It was the first time Kashiwagi had performed in her hometown. "It was my first experience of singing and being drowned out by the audience's cheers," she said. "I really love my birthplace, and it's been one of my dreams to sing in front of my fans in Kagoshima."

When AKB48's four teams were initially assigned to various concert venues, Kashiwagi was not included in the Kagoshima concert. She vented her frustrations on her blog, writing, "I won't be able to participate in the Kagoshima concert..." She went directly to the group's manager and tour organizers to ask to be assigned to Kagoshima. "I don't usually assert myself so strongly...But I wanted to appear in that concert so much," she said.

Billed as a surprise guest at the concert, Kashiwagi only sang her solo song "Yokaze no Shiwaza." But walking slowly across the stage, she performed as if it was something she had long hoped for. "I was allowed to sing one song at the concert, and I'll treasure that. I'd like to visit the same venue in future and sing all my numbers," she said.

AKB48 in China

Reporting from Shanghai, Atsushi Okudera wrote in the Asahi Shimbun: “As one of Japanese's hottest female idol groups, AKB48 thanked an appreciative young Chinese audience in its own special way. Sixteen of the AKB48 lovelies gave a free concert in Shanghai in September, their first performance in the city, to show their gratitude for Chinese support for Japan following the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake. [Source: Atsushi Okudera, Asahi Shimbun, September 25, 2011]

"Japan is beginning to walk forward step by step," an AKB48 member told the audience. The group sang more than 10 songs in front of about 1,000 young people. Outside the concert hall, on the Shanghai International Studies University campus in a Shanghai suburb, the area was packed with young people who were unable to obtain a ticket.

The concert was held as part of cultural exchange events between Japan and China during the three-day Shanghai Japan Week. After the March 11 disaster, Chinese companies brought donations to the Consulate-General of Japan in Shanghai, and many Chinese elementary students also donated their allowances for disaster relief. Those contributions totaled about 340 million yen ($4.43 million).

In October 2012, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura presented a letter of gratitude to AKB48 for performing at the 2nd Japan-Vietnam Friendship Music Festival in Hanoi.

In September 2012, Jiji Press reported: “More than 38,000 girls from across China have applied to become founding members of SNH48, a Shanghai-based sister group of AKB48, an all-girl idol group from Japan, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The seven-week application period closed on August 30. On the first day, the server for the group's official website crashed temporarily because too many people tried to access it at the same time, Xinhua said. Interviews will be held with girls selected from the 38,066 applicants in five cities--Chengdu in Sichuan Province, Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, Guangzhou in Guangdong Province, Beijing and Shanghai. SNH48 will be AKB48's third overseas sister group, after JKT48, based in Jakarta, and TPE48, based in Taipei. [Source: Jiji Press, September 6, 2012]

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SKE 48

AKB48 in Washington D.C.

“Monica Hesse wrote in the Washington Post: “The girls of AKB48 arrived in Washington this week, a buoyant, giggling mass of knees, dimples, hair bows, teeth. Do the girls of AKB48 own any pets? the American students asked the Japanese pop stars on the occasion of their first visit to the U.S. capital. Aki Takajo owns two Chihuahuas, she informed the students through an interpreter, beaming with the sheer delight of it all. Her two companions were elated by the news of these dogs; Sae Miyazawa began clapping her hands, and Rina Hirata---call her Hilary, she encouraged---revealed that she personally kept two snakes for pets. Oh no! The second-graders of Strong John Thomson Elementary School protested. Oh yes! Snakes, Hilary, 13, revealed, are very cute. She, like Takajo, 20, and Miyazawa, 21, wore a navy plaid blazer over the smallest schoolgirl skirt, followed by yards of gangly legs, then knee socks. A wee, jaunty top hat perched on her head. [Source: Monica Hesse, Washington Post, March 27 2012]

“AKB48 is an all-female singing group. Sixteen of its members were in town for just 36 hours, a whirlwind cultural exchange celebrating the 100th anniversary of Washington’s cherry blossom trees. They visited the school, accompanied by approximately 22 members of the Japanese press. They visited the residence of the Japanese ambassador, Ichiro Fujisaki, who speculated that “AKB” stood for Adorable, Kind and Beautiful. Such a joker, that ambassador. Everyone knows that the group name is a play on “Akihabara,” the Tokyo neighborhood in which the group holds nightly performances. [Ibid]

“They performed two free concerts at the Lincoln Theatre to packed, shrieking crowds. (The audience brought glow sticks, knew all of the words to all of the songs and were ecstatic when one member shared that she had studied the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in grade school.)

After the Thomson Elementary visit was over “the girls were whisked away, waving cheerfully. The approximately 22 members of the media also dispersed, catching taxis to the ambassador’s residence, where the girls were scheduled to give a news conference. The girls arrived about 10 minutes late to the open, airy room decorated with pictures of the Japanese emperor and empress. These girls were new girls, three different members of AKB48. The skirts and blazers were identical, however, and the replacement girls appeared to be equally adorable, kind and beautiful.A member of the media asked the new girls how they felt to be visiting Washington. “We are looking forward to giving you our show,” one girl says. “We are so honored and pleased.” [Ibid]

AKB48 Indonesian Sister Group JKT48

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Tomomi Itano in her second career
In November 2011, Mainichi Japan reported; JKT48, the first ever foreign sister group to Japanese pop ensemble AKB48, unveiled its inaugural intake of 28 young women at a news conference in Jakarta. "We want to be like AKB48!" enthused newly selected Ghaida Farisya, 16, and 13-year-old Rena Nozawa, a Japanese resident of Jakarta. [Source: Mainichi Japan, November 3, 2011]

The lucky 28 were chosen from a field narrowed down to 51 by a paper application screening. Though the group is Indonesia-based -- the letters "JKT" are drawn from the city name "Jakarta" -- tryouts were open to all nationalities as long as the applicant lived in Indonesia."Even if you don't understand the words, if you sing hard you can sing as one," Yasushi Akimoto, the producer behind both AKB48 and JKT48, said at the news conference. "JKT48 will become a bridge between Indonesia and Japan."Headshots and mini-biographies of the 28 girls were posted to the JKT48 website,

Suicide Prevention Slogan Inspired by AKB48

In February 2012, Japan Today reported: “The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has come under fire for using a catchphrase in an anti-suicide campaign that evokes images of popular all-girl group AKB48. During discussions in the Diet on Monday, a DPJ member called the anti-suicide slogan “deeply inappropriate,” TBS reported. [Source: Japan Today, February 7, 2012]

The catchphrase, which was unveiled last month, has already been criticized by mental health professionals, as well as members of both the DPJ and opposition parties for the way in which it apparently handles the issue of suicide, while simultaneously leveraging the popularity of AKB48. In Japanese, the slogan reads “Anata mo GKB47 sengen!” (“Declare yourself part of GKB47!”). The acronym GK is short for “gatekeeper,” which in Japan is used to refer to a person who recognizes symptoms of depression in someone else and recommends that they seek treatment, while the B stands for “basic,” which is reportedly an attempt to imply that suicide prevention is everybody’s duty and requires no specialist training. The 47 refers to the country’s 47 prefectures.

DPJ member Daigo Matsuura brought a poster of the slogan into the Diet and criticized it for trivializing such a serious issue with its “utterly improper” use of the AKB48 brand, TBS reported. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also expressed misgivings, during a question-and-answer session. “To speak plainly, I too felt uncomfortable. I think I’d like to see further research conducted on the matter,” he said, according to TBS. Deputy Prime Katsuya Okada admitted that the DPJ should have asked more party members how they felt about it. He told reporters Tuesday night that he will order the slogan withdrawn.

AKB48 was popular is made up of cute girls in their late teens and early 20s with questionable talent. The group has performed in live in New York, where they also made a video in Central Park, and did their hit Namida Sapuraizu! (“Tearful Surprise”) at the Japan Expo in Paris.

Image Sources: Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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