The National Decline that Lifted AKB48 to the Top

Mamiya Jun [Profile]

[2014.06.12] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | العربية | Русский |

Two years ago, around the time the Democratic Party of Japan’s brief spell in power was coming to a close, I met with two colleagues—one a noted political scholar and chancellor of a public university, and the other a well-known critic and sociologist. We were discussing plans for a new book, provisionally titled The Collapse of Japanese Politics, to be issued by the publishing house where I was working as an editor. Midway through our deliberations, the conversation turned to the recent “general election” held by the idol group AKB48—an annual event in which those who have purchased AKB48 singles can cast a vote for their favorite band members, with the results determining which performers have the right be featured at the center of the group when its next single is issued. As the conversation drifted further and further off topic, we eventually concluded that the popular group made for a much more edifying case study than the topic of Japanese politics. We even came up with a mock title for a book on the subject: The Politics of AKB48.

Toward the end of 2012, Japan had a real general election, resulting in a landslide victory for Abe Shinzō’s Liberal Democratic Party and the formation of a new government. This complete turnaround and the resulting upturn in Japan’s economic fortunes also meant that our plans for the book had to be shelved in the end.

Stars and Their Obsessive Fans 

AKB48 was in the spotlight again recently, but this time for an unfortunate incident that occurred on May 25, involving a saw-wielding fan who attacked and injured two members of the group at a handshake event in Iwate Prefecture as well as one venue employee.

Sadly, such attacks on public figures by crazed fans are not uncommon. Everyone recalls the fatal shooting of John Lennon outside his New York apartment in 1980, but Japan has also been the scene of many similar incidents. For example, at a 1957 concert an obsessed female fan hurled acid at the singer Misora Hibari; and in 1983, the leading pop idol of the time, Matsuda Seiko, was attacked onstage by a man brandishing a metal pipe. And there have been countless other incidents on a smaller scale.

The scale of the obsession that lurks within the fevered minds of fans who perpetrate such acts is a topic best left to criminal psychologists. What interests me more is why the young women who make up AKB48 have clearly attained a similar, quasi-religious status as those other stars, just mentioned, who were the victims of attacks, despite the fact that the group was originally marketed as a more “accessible” type of group that would be in closer contact with their fans.

Roots of Popularity

Since the group’s formation in 2005, AKB48 has had its own performance space in Tokyo’s pop-culture hub, Akihabara. Ordinary high-school girls are plucked from obscurity at auditions for the group and  packaged as “idols you can meet in person.” The constant signing sessions, meet-and-greets, and other opportunities for fans to enjoy direct interaction with the group’s members have been a major selling point. Although the name AKB48 refers to the original number of members, there are now well over a hundred in total, divided into subgroups of varying levels of prominence and publicity. This approach, nearly the polar opposite of the usual method of deifying a particular star, has contributed to the explosive CD sales that AKB48 has enjoyed since 2008. 

Many observers feel that the group’s massive popularity has been due to a string of hit songs that anticipated major trends and the prevailing social mood, but I hold a different view. It seems to me that AKB48 is organized in a way that rather caricatures the structure of society. Once selected at auditions, members must prove their ability in order to rise through the group’s hierarchy. But each year there is an election that can turn everything on its head. Part of the governing concept that I feel has been particularly successful is the way in which fans are able to observe and feel like they are a part of the members’ gradual growth and development as performers, from their debut through to their eventual “graduation” from the group.

A Mirror to Lost Virtues

AKB48 has a number of features that set it apart from other groups: a meritocratic system in which rank is decided according to ability through fan-based “general elections,” precise choreography that requires hour upon hour of intensive rehearsal behind the scenes, and the unwavering professionalism with which the members fulfill their obligations to fans at countless publicity events. All this presents a stark contrast with today’s politicians, whose rise to prominence often owes more to hereditary ties than to any genuine aptitude. These sons of a privileged elite lead a cosseted existence that deprives them of the kinds of life experiences they require for their positions of power and leaves them unprepared for the rigors of professional politics. 

This was exactly the same conclusion my colleagues and I reached at that publisher’s meeting two years ago. Around the same time, at a party hosted by a friend, I recall hearing a political correspondent loudly declare that he would “rather go to an AKB48 concert than meet any number of politicians in Nagatachō [the Tokyo district at the heart of Japan’s political world].” There seem to be a lot of people in Japan who feel much the same way, including journalists and academics.

Why is this, I wonder? The reason seems to be that many Japanese believe that the characteristics of AKB48, outlined above, closely correspond to what was at the heart of Japanese society during the height of its vitality. The fact that people today are longing for such qualities suggests that they are lacking in modern society. The question, though, is whether these traits were lost or rather never even existed in the first place, since it would be foolhardy to go on a wild goose chase for something that is just a figment of the collective imagination.

During our discussion, my colleagues and I concluded that the public’s overall dismay at the failings of Japanese society has been refocused as a disappointment with politicians and the rest of the social elite. AKB48 stood in contrast to that political world and served to highlight its flaws. In any case, that is what many of the people around me tend to think about the group and its fame.

It may be little more than a coincidence, but AKB48’s initial surge in popularity heralded the end of Koizumi Jun’ichirō’s time as prime minister, which also coincided with the world spiraling into what would end up being a six-year global recession. And now we have Abe Shinzō in his second time around as prime minister, leading a government that has engineered an upswing in the country’s economy while also while making a clear and concerted push for a return to conservative values. I think this context needs to be taken into consideration when seeking to unravel the social phenomenon that AKB48 has become.

(Banner image: AKB48 in concert, March 29, 2014. Photo courtesy Jiji Press.)

  • [2014.06.12]

Head of the Editorial Department and director of the Nippon Communications Foundation. Born in 1959 in Osaka. Graduated from Waseda University. Prior positions held include stints as editor-in-chief at the Kin'yū Bijinesu [The Financial Business Review] and at Chūō Kōron, and as a member of the editorial committee.

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