The AKB48 Question

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AKB48. I’ve blogged before about J-pop and girl bands, and whilst I am still in Japan it’s hard to escape them. AKB48 was created many years ago now by record producer Yasushi Akimoto. The letters AKB represent Akihabara, a district in Tokyo, and ’48’ is supposed to (and originally did) represent the number of members. My understanding is that there was supposed to be one member from each prefecture in Japan. In some ways, the group was supposed to appear like everyone in Japan could call them their own.

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When a member leaves, there is naturally a TV competition to replace them. It’s a very emotional moment for the girl leaving. The girls should always be young, and always be cute. They should NOT have boyfriends. Yes, it is certainly manufactured in a big way. There is such pressure on not just girls but women here to be ‘cute’, and the unparalleled popularity of AKB48 contributes to that.

I have been introduced through friends singing karaoke a couple of their songs. This is ‘Fortune Cookie’ – apparently it became one of the most popular songs of all. It’s colourful and apparently was popular because the dance was really easy and everyone could do it. I must confess, this is the one I like. It’s very catchy.

 

This next video, I have to be honest, floored me. The song is called ‘Heavy Rotation’, which already sounds a bit sexified, and the video features a lot of skin, lingerie and very suggestive lyrics. Mostly the phrase ‘I touch you’. So do the girls really getting the sex angle that’s being used to sell this song? I’m not so sure. Despite the short skirts, there’s a big emphasis on ‘innocence’ when it comes to the way Japanese girls deport themselves. Are they aware that putting on ‘bunny ears’ is basically labeling themselves a ‘sex bunny’? I don’t know. The band members are very much kept in a glass cage. They are not allowed to have boyfriends. Although not specifically stated, they clearly are supposed to be virgins!


 

So, the conclusion on viewing this clip that I come to is that the producers know EXACTLY what they are selling. A three-letter word starting with ‘s’. The girls may or may not know, but either way they are getting used. With over $220 million in record sales, I do hope that they are seeing some of the money. Because sadly once they look over 20 they are pretty much done.

I worry at what Japan expects of the girls and women here. The expectations on women in society worldwide still have a way to go, but in Japan it seems a step or two further away from real self-determination. I haven’t heard of a girl band here that was conceived by a woman – someone out there tell  me please because I am sure there must be.

Just remember the girl from AKB48 who was caught with a boyfriend. Minami Minegishi shaved her hair off and made a youtube video pleading for forgiveness from her fans.

Minami Story in Japan Times.

Being an idol means a hell of a lot in Japan.

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9 comments

  • Wow. Interesting but sad. I guess we have old ways of exploiting women and modern ways disguised as ‘cute’.

  • Until today, I have yet to figure out how they work it out among themselves, there’s just so many of them and with different levels. I had heard of what happened to Minami and it was very sad for me to read about. But then, it’s just how the culture works out to be over there. It’s the same way with Korea as well. I’m more of a k-pop fan though…:)

  • Yeah there are different levels and groups and they will choose one or a few girls to feature from time to time. I think there are a lot of similarities with K-Pop in the way the groups are organised, publicised and created sadly. Of course there are individuals out in both industries, but I think the groups have very little if ANY self-determination.

  • I like AKB48 mostly because of their earlier edgier songs “Seifuku ga jama o Soru” and “Keibetsu Shiteita Aijō” for example not that the current pop songs are bad UZA and “Manatsu no Sounds Good” comes to mind and a few dozen more of their 400+ songs repertoire and their energy on stage.
    What I also like about the group is that you actually get to meet them after their shows at their theater in Akihabara, you have to remain inside the audtorium for about fifteen to give the girls some to cool off and then they are waiting outside for a high five with the audience.
    They have given a lot in donations to the japanese red cross tsunami relief the total is over a billion yen.
    So in all a very likeable group, but…
    AKB48 have gotten a lot of flak in Japan for promoting homosexualiaty mostly because of the video for Heavy Rotation and a TV commercial for a candy named pucchu. In the commercial the members pass the candy between themseleves using thier lips to hold the candy and when they pass it on the voice over is puc__chu(chu means kiss in japanese). Oddly enough there wasn’t any comments about that when the MV for Koisuru no Fortune Cookie was released or even for the MV Heart Ereki where the band in the video is called The G Fingers and lyrics like “with my finger I play you like an electric guitar”.
    And as how they pick which members to feature in the videos there is an general election every where the fans can cast their votes for his/hers favorite from AKB48, SKE48, NMB48 and HKT48 I don’t know if the members of JKT48 and SNH48 are eligible. The voting ballots are included with one of the AKB48 singles which helps thier sales since the diehard fans buys a couple of hundred CDs just to get the ballot (you can send in as many votes as you like) and then sell the CDs to Book Off to get some money back. (They do the same with the tickets to their handshake events.) The top 16 ranked are Senbatsu and are the ones featured in the song and video, then comes the Undergirls, Next Girls and Future Girls who are usually background dancers in their summer video

    • Thanks for commenting and adding more context to the post! It’s good to learn so positive things about the group.
      Watching ‘Heavy Rotation’ I didn’t get the impression of homosexuality being promoted, it seemed to be aimed at the male fans of the group more than anything. But I can see the interpretation now that you’ve brought it up, which you know would be fine in a lot of countries and I would think in Tokyo and surrounding areas wouldn’t raise an eyelid.
      Very interesting about the lyrics you mentioned.
      I took the words ‘heavy rotation’ as simply a very non-subtle reference to ‘sex’. but when I talked to Japanese people about it they seemed surprised that I equated anything to do with the song and indeed video clip with ‘sex’. which surprised me in turn. So it seemed it can be viewed with different interpretation. Maybe the intention is for it to be subliminal. I don’t know.
      My issues with the industry are more to do with the fact that the ‘talent’ is used to a large degree by managers and the like. Which does happen elsewhere of course. As you say there’s a whole voting system as to who fronts a song and who gets to dance, and generally they are performing a song written by someone else. I would love to experience an Akihabara concert, but I suddenly have a few days only left in Japan. Thanks again for your comments and for reading!

      • Thank you for your reply to my comment, there were a couple of words that got lost when I divided up the text from a giant block of words into paragraphs. The most important were “allegedy” before “promoting homosexuality”. It was the bathtub scene that caused the outcry. The video for “Heavy Rotation” was directed by a woman Mika Ninagawa and is intended to depict a sleepover party to attract more female fans.
        All their song lyrics are written by Yasushi Akimoto the groups producer.

  • One of the key things to remember about groups like AKB48 is that they’re not just singers, they’re idols and there is heaps more to what they do then just sing and do music videos. So much of their popularity is linked to other areas; photobooks, comic skits, merchandise, tv interviews, hosting or staring in their own tv shows or even forming the entire cast of a drama are all key to their sales and fanbase. There’s also a huge culture around fans having and supporting their ‘oshiman’ or favourite members. Without this kind of support, there would be no AKB48.

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