All eyes on yet another AKB48 annual popularity 'election'
TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Just as Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's Cabinet reshuffle was making headlines, some in Japan were gearing up for a closely watched "election" this week -- not in the political realm, but in the pop world as fans pick their favorites from the all-girl idol group AKB48 in a popularity poll.
The frenzy over the group's annual event is arguably almost on par with that of a real political election. Their latest single, "Manatsu no Sounds Good!" which came with ballots for the popularity vote, sold a record-breaking 1.17 million copies on its first day of release, according to music information company Oricon Inc.
In an era of sluggish CD sales, AKB48, now with more than 60 members, cruised with ease to its 7th consecutive million-seller single.
In reference to such sales statistics, many in the entertainment industry attribute the "abnormal figures," as one record company official describes them, to the fact that many AKB48 hardcore fans buy dozens or even hundreds of copies of the same CD for the extra ballots to help boost their favorite member's ranking, or for more lottery tickets to win a chance to a "handshake event" to meet that favorite member in person.
"One gets to actually be in touch with the top idols of the time, well of course that's an almighty sales point," a showbiz source said with a sigh of admiration.
On the other hand, some experts note that the pop idol group is steadily winning a broader mainstream audience -- beyond its initial core fan base of adult men plugged into Tokyo's subculture mecca Akihabara, for which AKB is supposed to stand.
"We started to see more female fans from around the time they released the single "Heavy Rotation" in 2010 and (AKB48 songs) began to find their way into the top spots in karaoke rankings," music analyst Takashi Usui said of the spread of the group's popularity.
When the group debuted in 2005 under the concept of "idols you can go meet," they only had an audience of seven people at their first performance. Now, not a day goes by without seeing the girls' faces on television shows and in magazines.
"AKB48 is constantly evolving," said Yasushi Akimoto, the group's producer and mastermind of the unique business model. "I too am looking forward to (the election results) to see what the fans desire."
Akimoto's ingenious strategy is the key behind the group's success. Instead of perfected superstar looks, the girls are rather ordinary looking and their strenuous efforts in striving to become an idol is apparently the recipe for winning the hearts of men as well as the affinity of women.
By launching localized sister groups in other cities in Japan, such as the SKE48 in Nagoya, NMB48 in Osaka and HKT48 in Fukuoka, Akimoto succeeded in further raising public interest. Recently, he has even ventured overseas, establishing the Jakarta-based JKT48 and Shanghai-based SNH48.
Aggressive marketing includes not only having AKB48 members appear in a broad range of company commercials, but also in government campaigns, from being goodwill ambassadors to suicide prevention poster figures.
Akimoto's business model also utilizes social media channels such as Google+ to expand the fan base by enabling its members to "meet" the idols via internet.
"To begin with, idols have always fared well in times of recession," said Jobu University professor Hidetomi Tanaka, author of the book "The Economics of AKB48."
"After the first oil crisis (in 1973) there was Momoe Yamaguchi, and following the second oil shock (in 1979) came Seiko Matsuda," Tanaka said, referring to two of the most revered female idols in postwar Japanese pop. He also cited Morning Musume, another all-girls idol group, as a more recent example during an economic slump.
"Pseudo-love doesn't cost that much money," he reasoned, saying the AKB48's overwhelming popularity is likely to remain for some time.
But some critics in the industry warn that the craze may subside rapidly all of a sudden.
"For fans nowadays, it probably feels more like participating in a game of raising and nurturing idols," a source in the music industry said, referring to how fans no longer only pursue the idols on stage but also know all the detains behind the scenes.
With Atsuko Maeda, winner of the annual votes in 2009 and 2011, set to leave the group in late August, attention will be on who will win the most support from fans to become AKB48's new No.1 girl and earn the privilege to be the center performer in performances -- until next year's vote, that is.
In Wednesday's election, to be held at the Nippon Budokan gymnasium in Tokyo, the top ranked vote-winners will get to appear in the next AKB48 single. The ballot-counting event will be broadcast live on Fuji Television.
June 05, 2012(Mainichi Japan)