Hello faithful readers/people who saw this post pop up on Twitter!
This is the first of what I’m hoping will be many articles that chronicle my descent into the strange strange world of Japanese popular culture. If all goes as planned, you should be able to track the gradual degradation of my sanity through the increasingly manic nature of each entry. But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself just yet. I’ve barely even begun!
I think I had been in Japan for about four hours before I first heard about AKB48, the mythic pop group that dominates the cultural consciousness here. “If your students ever ask you what music you like, just say either The Beatles, Michael Jackson, or AKB48. Everyone knows them. Everyone.”
Wiser words have never been spoken. Right away, the first person I met in my town asked me what famous current Japanese people I knew, and after saying the traditional “Ken Watanabe, Hayao Miyazaki, and Ichiro” response, I decided to go for broke: “and also AKB48.” He lost it. “YOU KNOW AKB48? すごいですね!* Everyone loves them here.” Even in this tiny inaka town (there are about 5000 people living here, we have no real public transport to speak of, and some families don’t have full-fledged internet), AKB48 had made its mark.
Really, AKB48 has achieved a type of pop culture saturation that is unrivalled by any western musician. Sure, Adele’s music is pretty inescapable (I like “Rolling in the Deep” just as much as the next person, but did I really need to hear it at least once every hour this past summer?) and Lady Gaga has one of the most recognizable faces on the planet (even if it was decked out in a beard of insects to make a statement about the treatment of transgendered people), but do either of them have their own store in the Japanese equivalent of Times Square? Can you name a pop performer who puts on a show every.single.day (I’m excluding Broadway talent simply because most of them aren’t household names. Sorry, theater nerds.)? Does any contemporary artist have three different TV shows that air every week? AKB48 has become ubiquitous in Japanese culture, a real J-Pop juggernaut (J-Poppernaut?) that dominates the airwaves, both radial and televisual. Even adults can’t get enough of those crazy dancing and singing girls.
So what exactly is AKB48, you ask? It is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the “Largest Pop Group on Earth.” And this title is well-earned.
I refuse to post the original music video of this song. Go look it up yourself!
There are currently 54 members of the main group with 23 extra trainees/understudies waiting in the wings, if the group’s website is to be believed (I worry something was lost in translation on it, as the numbers don’t quite add up with the Wikipedia numbers, but oh well). Originally, the “48” part of their name represented the forty-eight members of the group, but because of their insane popularity, membership was expanded while their name, which had already become a recognizable brand throughout the country, stayed the same, rendering the number meaningless. As a result, there’s no real sense of individuality or specialness within the group. Granted, the main group is split into three different mini-teams (Teams A, K, and B, of course! And the trainees make up the unfortunately bland “Team 4,” clearly getting the short end of the spirit stick.) and each of these mini-teams has its own captain, but as far as I can tell, there is no real distinction amongst the members. They are all part of this pop monstrosity together. In case you need any further evidence of the interchangeability of the team members, the group routinely holds contests to determine who will be the lead singers on AKB’s next single. What sort of contest, you ask? Rock, Paper, Scissors (I could seriously write another article detailing the prevalence of that game as a problem-solving method in this country. It’s everywhere. I imagine business negotiations using it.).
Here’s the winner of a recent Jan-Ken-Po tournament, reacting in a completely normal way.
I honestly can’t imagine a starker contrast to the western conception of the pop star. American culture in particular tends to celebrate the power of the exceptional individual. We attach ourselves to the narrative of these people, we become invested in their lives, we buy gossip magazines chronicling their upskirts, sexploitations, and prostitute-purchasing misadventures. We want to learn about how Taylor Swift, Adele, or Katy Perry took a bad break-up and turned it into a best-selling single or how Lady Gaga was once the quiet girl at the back of her NYU class before becoming the meat-wearing, in-egg-living monolith we know today. We want to hear about the strength and determination of these people because that is what we as a society tend to value. We believe that if we were to work as hard as these people, we too could attain financial success and cultural ubiquity. It’s the inevitable extrapolation of the American Dream, where a person can make millions by working hard at something they love to do.
Even during the 90s, the glory days of boy bands and pop girl groups, you still got a sense of the individuals in the group. Sure, they did all the same synchronized moves and no one really had solo songs in the group, but you still got a sense of their individual personalities. This sense, the idea that one of them was the “bad boy” or the “sporty” one or the “artistic one,” made each member basically irreplaceable. I’m not particularly well-versed in the history of boy bands (middle school was the height of my “only movie soundtracks and scores” phase. Sooooo awkward.), but I can’t think of a group that actually replaced a single member, much less multiples, and retained their popularity. And as my friend Karina, card-carrying feminist and noted Angela Carter reader, pointed out to me, “with the Backstreet Boys, per se, everyone knew each one of the members’ names and image… You could get a poster of Nick Carter or A.J. or Brian [by themselves],” simultaneously raising a very good point on the nature of the 90s boy band and demonstrating far more knowledge of the B.B. (did they ever call themselves that?) than I could ever hope to have. This is the reason why these members could eventually work towards solo careers. Not everyone turned out to be Justin Timberlake, who seems to have thrown pop stardom away in favor of starring in mostly tepid movies and occasionally revitalizing SNL, but at least they all had a shot at it.
AKB48, on the other hand, emphasizes the power of the collective and the replaceable nature of its team members. Can you not keep up with the group’s hectic schedule (and these girls do work their asses off. Daily performances, three TV shows, and studio recording is part of the everyday routine)? Are you injured? Are you just getting old and losing your popularity? The group has Team 4 to fall back on. At any point in time, they can pull you out and pop in a replacement like a fresh battery. No one is essential. When I ask students who their favorite member of AKB48 is, they either respond with a laundry list of names or simply say which team they prefer, unless I speak to a student who really knows their AKB48. Consequently, whenever students ask me who I like, I usually respond with, “They have names?”
Once you get past the INSANE introduction, the name of this song translates to “Ponytail and Scrunchie.” Seriously.
Now, there are, as always, exceptions to this idea of faceless anonymity. When the group was first conceived, there was an online petition to get a waitress named Mariko Shinoda who worked at Akihabara Theater (later renamed the AKB Theater) an audition for the group. She was successful and became one of the group’s most popular members. She has since gone on to become a singer, actress, model, and television host (seriously?! Japan works its celebrities so hard!). She proved that it is possible to differentiate yourself from the herd, it’s just incredibly difficult.
But there are also incidents of intense strangeness that reiterate just how replaceable the members are. Last year, the group’s manager announced that a new member named Aimi Eguchi would be joining them.
Here she is, boys! Here she is, world!
After stoking the fires of fandom with news about this incredible new member (including a featured article/portrait in the skeezy Japanese magazine, Weekly Playboy), it was finally revealed that she didn’t actually exist. In a real life example of that boring Al Pacino movie that I somehow ended up seeing twice (ugh), it turned out that Aimi Eguchi was actually a CGI composite of several different AKB48 members created to sell candy for the Ezaki Glico Company, the makers of Pocky (!!!). The company was able to pick and choose which parts of which members were most attractive and bring them together to form the “perfect” pop idol (Mariko Shinoda’s mouth was actually selected. Good for her.). No single member (or even real person) was deemed attractive or good enough to represent this candy company.
The truth comes out.
And on top of all this, Japan seems to be collectively jumping on the bandwagon. There are AKB48 branches/sister groups sprouting up in cities all over Japan. There’s SKE48 (centered in Nagoya), NMB48 (based in Osaka),HKT48 (from Fukuoka), and SDN48 (also from Tokyo, but this is the “Adults Only” group). My students told me which of these groups is the most attractive as well (a word of advice: SKE48 is great, but stay away from HKT48. They are かわくない!**). But much like the Indiana Jones movies, nothing compares to the original. There’s no sense of AKB48 slowing down. In fact, it was recently announced that the group is going to have its very own anime released sometime this year, ensuring that they will burrow even further into the Japanese consciousness, like that weird robot thing from The Matrix that climbed into Keanu Reeves’s belly button. And given the fact that they can continually replace the old members (via a delightfully euphemistic “graduation ceremony”), producer Yasushi Akimoto may have created a pop culture perpetual motion device, one that can adapt to the times and change its image without people fully realizing it, simply because it has no identity of its own.
Their first single. They were so young and innocent then. They still are, but they aren’t the same girls.
*－すごいですね！- A common Japanese usually translated as “Isn’t that amazing?!”
**－かわくない！- “They are not cute,” which is about as cruel as the Japanese get.
Post-script: If it sounds like I’m going to spend my time with these articles dumping on Japanese culture, I apologize. That’s not my intention at all. I love Japanese culture. Why else would I be here? I don’t even hate AKB48. I find elements of the group (notably their portrayal of sexuality) to be very troubling, but I also find them to be a fascinating reflection of the Japanese mentality. Also, “Heavy Rotation” (the first video I posted in this article) is a real catchy pop song. Seriously. Listen to it and try to not get it stuck in your head.