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AKB48 - The Japanese Idol Group from Akihabara
It is difficult to move about in Japan without hearing about AKB48, a female idol group based in Akihabara. Their presence becomes even more powerful when you arrive in the Tokyo neighborhood of Akihabara itself, as the plaza by the entrance is dominated by the official AKB48 cafe and gift shop, around which hoardes of expectant fans are constantly gathered.
What is AKB48? It is a group of 60 (for now) young female idols created by producer Yasushi Akimoto in 2005. Akimoto designed AKB48 as a group of "idols you can meet every day," and indeed, the rising stars are surprisingly accessible, performing almost daily at the Don Quijote theatre in Akihabara, Tokyo.
The "AKB" in AKB48 stands for Akihabara, a neighborhood of Tokyo famous for catering to otaku (anime, manga, and idol-enthusiast) culture. The success of this group has spurred the creation of similar accessible idol groups in Osaka (NMB48; "NMB" standing for the Namba neighborhood, and SKE48; "SKE" standing for the Sake neighborhood of Nagoya, and SDN48; "SDN" standing for Saturday Night).
AKB48 is the world's largest pop group and consists of four rotating teams (Team A, Team K, Team B, and Team 4). The group also has several members-in-training, ready to fill any openings resulting from an existing performer's graduation.
The different teams perform separately, which is one of the aspects of this group that enables it to hold performances almost daily. Each single released by AKB48 is also recorded by only a handful of the group's singers, and recently, a voting system has been occasionally utilized to allow fans to choose which of the performers participates in the next recording. In other instances, the performers have competed for the opportunity in a massive rock-scissor-paper competition.
AKB48 Cafes and Shops
A successful idol franchise would be nothing without merchandise, and AKB48 is positively swimming in it! In even a very short visit to Japan, I saw three different AKB48 gift shops (two in Akihabara and one in Harakuju). I also noticed the AKB48 cafe next to the major gift shop in Akihabara, which is so popular that fans line up in droves just to get inside!
One of the most popular collector's items related to the group are photos of the performers. When I passed outside the Don Quijote Center in Akihabara where the group performs, I found a large group of fans outside holding large photo albums stuffed with images of their favorite performers- and AKB48 was not even performing that day!
AKB48 also occasionally endorses the odd brand, and thanks to their massive popularity and devoted following, the endorsement goes a long way. When AKB48 did a special campaign with Japanese lingerie shop Peach John, for example, male fans (hardly the shop's target demographic) flooded the shops to buy a sufficient amount of underwear to get a special edition poster. Impressive, no?
AKB48 has produced quite a few high performing singles. Their songs are catchy, cheery, and full of energy, plus (and this much is a matter of course) filled with adorable outfits and dancing. Below is one of most popular ones. I'll be honest and say that it creeps me out just a bit, but then again, I'm not the target demographic!
Additional Fun Details
Though I'm not much one for female idols or pop groups, I am quite intrigued by Aimi Eguchi, a virtual AKB48 member that was introduced in a Glico commercial in early 2011.
Aimi Eguchi's features were taken piecemeal from the faces of six different AKB48 members. You can see which parts came from which girls in the video to the right, which is pretty neat!
I wonder if we'll be creating more virtual celebrities in the future. Perhaps Aimi Eguchi is the first of many!
Cast Your Vote!
Can idol groups make it outside Japan?
What do you think?
AKB48 is an interesting phenomenon because of its size, popularity, format, and frequent performing schedule. Perhaps a group like this could only be wildly successful in a country like Japan, where hardcore otaku fans will show amazing levels of dedication to their idols.
Then again, with loads of loving fans following stars such as Justin Beiber in Canada and the United States, perhaps there is a market for frequently-performing, carefully pruned and managed idol groups.
Do you think that a sizable group of idols like AKB48 could be successful outside Japan? Weigh in in the comments, or cast your vote in the poll to the right!