- The Wall Street Journal
DECEMBER 28, 2011
By ANDREW JOYCE And KENNETH MAXWELL
ReutersMembers of AKB48 and sister groups from other cities in Japan performed this summer in Taipei. The pop stars market a wide range of products, including canned coffee and bras.
TOKYO—Pop quiz: What act sold a million copies of its last three singles the first day of release? Not Lady Gaga.
It was Japan’s AKB48, a group of 92 mostly teenage girls, armed with sugar-sweet pop tunes and sometimes-suggestive lyrics (“My school uniform is getting in the way”) that has saturated the country’s popular and commercial culture. The group is set to play a key role in Japan’s traditional New Year’s Eve four-hour-plus pop-song spectacular.
One day recently, members appeared on nine network-television shows and six radio programs, and blanketed magazine racks. An “AKB48″ search on Google Japan yielded 175 million results.
From a core fan base of adult men, the group is broadening its appeal to include younger girls. Top brands ranging from Google to Shiseido shampoo have signed up to be associated with the group. As Japan continues to struggle with its prolonged economic slump, AKB48 has become a one-group stimulus package.
Peach John, Japan’s answer to Victoria’s Secret, said an AKB48-sponsored Heart Bra aimed at teenage girls sold out in days. Drinks maker Asahi Group Holdings Ltd. said choosing group members to promote its Wonda line of canned coffee—a salaryman staple—boosted sales nearly 7% over the first half of the year.
The secret of success isn’t pop perfection, says the man behind AKB48. Quite the contrary.
“AKB48 are unfinished,” says Yasushi Akimoto, AKB48 lyricist, producer and mastermind. “Other groups make their debut after auditioning and practicing, but AKB48 are unpolished. Fans can watch them progress,” Mr. Akimoto says.
“Boys like them because they think the girls are cute. Slightly older men want to cheer them on, as they would little sisters or daughters,” he says. “Girls who like AKB48 want to be like them.” Following AKB48 is like rooting for your favorite baseball team, Mr. Akimoto says.
Mr. Akimoto has replicated AKB48′s success with sister groups in other cities in Japan like Osaka and Nagoya, but the group is less well known outside the country so far. Now the producer is ramping up plans to launch versions around Asia. In Jakarta, JKT48 is currently rehearsing. Groups are planned for Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and China. AKB48 cafés and stores have opened in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Mr. Akimoto doesn’t rule out a move in the U.S.
Japan Real Time
“Mr. Akimoto is not just developing an artist, he’s developing a business model,” says Alan Swarts, a vice president at MTV Japan, who asked AKB48 to present a June charity concert for victims of this year’s earthquake and tsunami.
One key ingredient: fan access and participation. CD releases come complete with lottery tickets for a chance to attend a “handshake event” to meet members, or with ballots for popularity contests for members, with the top vote-getters performing on coming singles or appearing in music videos. Many of AKB48′s hard-core otaku, or geek, fans buy dozens, or even hundreds of copies of the same CD to give their favorite girl a boost in rankings, or to win a chance to meet her in person.
At a recent AKB48 concert, 21-year-old factory worker Tomoyuki Yamada showed up in a elaborately embroidered black gown bearing tribute to favorite band member Tomomi Kasai. “With AKB48, you have each member making her own efforts, and as a whole you can see that everyone in the group is trying her best. That’s what I like about them,” he says. Mr. Yamada says he bought 210 copies of a recent single—at 1,600 yen apiece, that’s a total of 336,000 yen, more than $4,300—to give 210 votes for Ms. Kasai in the most recent election. She finished 16th.
The sheer number of girls in AKB48 means that members in different aggregations can perform almost every night at their own theater in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, the heartland of Japan’s otaku culture.
Mr. Akimoto says he chose to base the group in Akiba, as it is known for short, in order to tap into growing interest in escapist products like comics, anime films and videogames that have come to represent Japan’s pop culture overseas. The group takes the AKB part of its name from Akiba; “48″ was added to convey the idea of a somewhat secret, prototype project in development, Mr. Akimoto says.
At 55, Mr. Akimoto seems an unlikely impresario, sober-suited and wearing thick-rimmed glasses. But even before launching AKB48 in 2005, he had a long track record in showbiz. He gained fame in the 1980s as the man behind Onyanko Club (“Kitten Club”), another all-girl pop phenomenon, and he married one of its singers. He has published novels and directed films. He is vice president of the Kyoto University of Art and Design, and he has appeared at government conferences promoting what is called “Cool Japan.”
Mr. Akimoto’s success with AKB48 has spawned numerous studies for would-be pop moguls, ranging from books on “The Economics of AKB48″ and “The Art of Grabbing the Heart,” to articles in business magazines on the group’s “360-degree marketing.”
At the AKB48 show, members perform a revue of simply choreographed routines in front of a roughly 95% male audience. The music is typical Japanese pop: fast-paced numbers with high-pitched, singalong choruses.
Audiences wave glow sticks, sing along to hits and yell the names of their favorite girls. After the two-hour show, security staff keep a close watch as the audience files out, each fan very briefly high-fiving and exchanging a greeting with performers.
Mr. Akimoto recruits new members through auditions, with girls as young as 13 joining as “research students.”
“The best thing is that there are lots of girls around the same age, so we can all work together,” says Rie Kitahara, 20, after a performance. Ms. Kitahara is currently ranked No. 13 in the popularity elections. “The hardest thing is that we can’t be like normal girls—having boyfriends is not allowed,” she says, as she stands under a sign in the theater lobby that reads “Japan’s Most Sophisticated Show.”
But helped by the country’s largest advertising agency, Dentsu Inc., the group has also been aggressively marketed to a more mainstream audience. Among women, individual stars have become popular for their personal off-duty styles, some way removed from the AKB48 schoolgirl uniform look.
This past summer, Atsuko Maeda, ranked No. 1 in the latest election, made her movie debut in a feel-good blockbuster about a high-school girl who finds herself coaching a baseball team. Another leading member, Mariko Shinoda, was featured in her own fashion magazine, “Mariko.” Vogue Girl Japan featured four members last year.
“AKB as a whole is something that is born out of a male way of thinking,” says the magazine’s creative director, Sayumi Gunji. But while women may not be convinced by the group as a collective, she says, “this or that member is popular” with girls looking for stars’ fashion tips.