What is AKB48? Why is it popular? Part of Japanese show business

Watching an AKB48 concert is like spending time at a French maid café – except better. This explains why while pretty French maidens are desperately handing out flyers on the main strip of Akihabara’s Electric Town while the tiny AKB 48 Theatre is packed with fans.

AKB48 is a group of 48 young female entertainers who sing and dance to pop music, mainly at their Akihabara concert space. Having debuted in 2005, the group has produced “graduates” who have gone onto solo careers as mainstream artists. AKB48 has enjoyed over 15 years of success. The secret to the longevity of AKB48 is in their slogan “Idols who you can meet.”

At the height of the French maid café boom 15 years ago, Akihabara was also filled with “independent idols,” – ordinary girls who would dress up in fancy costumes and have fans snap photos of them. Some crooned pop tunes standing on street corners. The prettiest girls though would have nearly a hundred fans lining up to buy their homemade CDs. This phenomenon had the same appeal as the maid cafés – pretty girls interact with their masters/fans in superfluous ways.

Legendary J-Pop producer Yasushi Akimoto basically took these girls and their fans off the streets and housed them in the AKB48 Theatre. Tucked inconspicuously on the 8th floor of a discount shop, there is nothing glamorous about the theatre itself. The lights are dim and the carpet worn out. Framed photos of the teenage girls are displayed on the walls of the narrow hall that leads to a waiting area where a Jumbo Tron screen displays the show inside. The stage is bare and the lighting overly bright. The 200 seats are functional. The entrance of the theatre has a sign with “AKB48 – The Most Sophisticated Show in Japan.”

The girls take turns singing saccharine sweet tunes in this very intimate setting. They introduce themselves and chat on stage every few acts. The pretty girls would interact with their fans like the way French maids do -- play little games, shake their hands and pose for photos. 

On weekends, typically the “Trainee Group” performs to allow the established members to appear in public events and to also reduce the number of concert applicants. While some fans get boisterous when their favorites are on, unlike maid café regulars who look like social outcasts, AKB48 fans are mostly ordinary young men. There are some families and even a few couples.

Onyanko club
Onyanko club

Since the 1980s, Akimoto has written countless pop songs, some huge hits and others entirely forgotten. But his greatest claim is having produced Onyanko Club, a girl’s group that took Japan by storm between 1985 and 1987. The premise of Onyanko Club was similar to AKB48 in that the girls were complete “amateurs” scouted off the street because they were unthreatening to socially awkward boys. Despite a short period of intense popularity, these girls were caught smoking and dating – activities deemed inappropriate for idols and the group disbanded.

His new group maintains his belief from the Onyanko days about how idols should be amateurish pretty young girls. Yasushi Akimoto understands the mentality of idol worshippers. Indeed, the saga of AKB48 unfolds like a role-playing game. The leaders of each sub-group are selected by fans or determined by playing games of rock-paper-scissors on stage. Getting a concert ticket plays out like a game as well. Fans are required to register on-line for the show they would like to see. There are discounted tickets allocated specifically for families, couples and women as well as for those travelling from far away, to create a fan base away from the typical Akihabara denizen. Seat allocation is also a game where people pick out their seat number from a bingo number machine. Every step of the process involves a sense of excitement. I felt like a smug lottery winner for getting a third row seat! Even a complete non-fan like me can definitely see why the little games at the AKB48 Theatre are keeping the concert hall packed.

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