Few would disagree that members of "AKB48" have become national pop stars in Japan. Their climb to the top is a modern success story -- their debut on Dec. 8, 2005, brought only seven people to see their first performance.
The Mainichi Shimbun talked to the girl group's producer Yasushi Akimoto, member Minami Takahashi and others about AKB48's rapid rise to fame and the group's future.
Besides group performances and other regular activities, AKB48 has captured the public's attention with events like its rock-paper-scissors tournament and its "general elections" through which members are chosen to be featured in the following singles. Ticket sales for AKB48's planned 10th anniversary event on Dec. 6 started an incredible seven years ago. The tickets were included in a limited 2,000 copies of an AKB48 photo collection sold in February 2008. Those who purchased these collections are now the holders of these hard-to-get tickets. Did Akimoto predict seven years ago that AKB48 would grow into the popular pop group it is today?
"Actually, I suggested selling the 10-year anniversary tickets from the day of the group's debut," he says. "I even told the staff to do so. But our work got pushed back and sales ended up starting only seven years ago. My thoughts 10 years ago were, even if AKB is dissolved, it would be nice to have a chance to get everyone back together and remember old times. Of course, as a producer, I also did it because I thought the group would be popular."
AKB48 was created on the concept of pop idols you "can go to meet." They continue to hold performances at their dedicated stage in Tokyo's Akihabara, known as the center of Japanese "otaku," or geek, culture.
Akio Nakamori, a pundit on "idol" pop stars, first met the AKB48 group the day before their debut performance. He says what he thought then was, "It's an interesting group, but how will they keep it going?"
The reasons for his doubts included that the dedicated stage only fit 250 spectators, that the group would not be appearing on television for some time, and that they did not have immediate plans to sell CDs or hold any large-scale concerts. At the time, the way to sell a new pop star was to get that star on TV or in magazines. The fact that AKB48's management was not doing this stuck out as unique.
Nakamori's concerns turned out to be unfounded. Once the group starting putting out CDs, sales of their titles reached the 1 million mark again and again.
"Still," ponders Nakamori, "Do they want to make the group popular on TV? Or do they want to sell CDs? The outline of their strategy is unclear." His doubt from 10 years ago remains even now, he says.
AKB48 is not only popular among youth, but among adults as well. Journalist Soichiro Tahara, manga artist Yoshinori Kobayashi, and Kazuto Hongo, professor at the Historiographical Institute of the University of Tokyo, are all fans.
Hongo says that the source of the group's popularity is in its bringing "geeks" to its side. Those so-called "otaku" are passionate about very particular topics and once they are hooked they become devoted fans. The members of AKB48 are approachable, and to geeks who felt the more mainstream pop groups were unapproachable, the bar to entry was lowered.
As for why Hongo became a fan, he says, "I have geek-like tendencies, and when my job wasn't going well, I stopped by the stage and saw AKB for the first time. The pop stars of the Showa Era (1926-1989) were created by the media, and it was like they came down before us and we were told to worship them. But the AKB members were regular kids trying to make it, and it made me want to cheer for them, and I became a fan."
What, then, is the appeal of AKB48 in the opinion of Akimoto, the group's creator? He compares them to high school baseball.
"The reason that high school baseball is popular is that, even if they are inferior in skill to the pros, their dedication to their goal moves people and creates a story." In other words, the members of AKB48, smiling and clad in their fancy costumes, are actually similar to muddy high school baseball players shedding sweat and tears.
What did Akimoto intend to sell through AKB48? "Memories," he says, or "to put it another way, the creation of shared experiences for everyone that we can then look back upon."
AKB48 is currently facing a major turning point -- the leading member, Minami Takahashi, is set to leave at the end of March next year.
"Minami Takahashi represents AKB," Akimoto has gone as far as to say.
Looking back on her 10 years in AKB48, after she joined at age 14, Takahashi says, "Right from the beginning of our public performances, (we were so busy) we didn't even have the opportunity to be worried. Our audiences grew to eight, then nine people, and two months later, all 250 seats were full, and I felt it was all worthwhile. I think I have benefitted from being able to acquire that kind of experience, because a person can't suddenly climb the stair five steps ahead, they have to go one step up at a time, and that's what AKB's activities were like."
She adds, "No matter how big the group gets, its base is the Akihabara stage, where we are close to the fans." Regarding what the group itself is like, she used the same comparison given by Akimoto.
"People may think it's like a girls' school, but actually it's more like a boys' school. It's not beautiful, it's down and dirty, like high school baseball."
She is reluctant to give AKB48 advice upon her departure.
"If I, as someone leaving, say something, it will just be pressure (on those who are staying). I want to leave it to everybody to do as they will," she says.
What path will AKB48 take from here? "My role is like that of a shepherd," says Akimoto. "Not all the kids will necessarily go forward as I had intended. There are ones who will stray from the path, or who will become stuck and be unable to move forward, so I myself wonder where things will go."
As for the future path of AKB48 members, he says, "My ideal is that they will start businesses or become politicians or do other things like that. I want AKB to be a step towards that."
He also touched on his own future with AKB48. "I, too, will eventually leave AKB. Will the next producer be a passionate musician, or someone from the world of theater? I look forward to seeing a way of doing things that is not just a continuation of my way."
Lyrics in AKB48's hit 2010 song "Beginner" go, "Atarashii michi o sagase! Hito no chizu o hirogeru na!" (Look for a new path! Don't open another person's map!) The girls of AKB48 are likewise continuing to run forward in a world without a script.