AKB48 is, according to Wikipedia, “a Japanese female idol group produced by Yasushi Akimoto. The pop group has achieved enormous popularity in Japan. It is also one of the highest-earning musical acts in the world, with 2011 record sales of over $200 million in Japan alone.”

Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. Source: Wikipedia/kalleboo

Before my trip to Japan I wasn’t aware of the group, but the system is friggin’ brilliant, in a very Gibson-esque, or maybe more Sterling-esque, way. Allow me to quite Wikipedia some more to give you a better idea:

AKB48 holds the Guinness World Record for being the world’s “largest pop group”. Currently, it consists of four subgroups: Team A, Team K, Team B, and Team 4 with 16 members each, summing up to a total of 64 girls. There is also a number of aspiring members, who are called “kenky?sei” (“trainees”). The member lineup often changes; when girls get older, they “graduate” from the group, while new members are cast through regularly held auditions. Having several teams not only allows the group to reduce the load on its members, since a daily concert at the theater is given by only one team, but also gives AKB48 opportunity to perform in several places and even countries simultaneously.

Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic. Source: Wikipedia/kndynt2099.

In other words, it’s a huge operation, with enough members to target any niche audience, be it ever so small. The graduation mechanism allows for (theoretically) unlimited spin-offs, so new members are lined up at any given time. The internal competition modes and merchandise sales should be a money machine like no other, and the high number of members also allows them to leave the traditional paths of “touring” with all its physical and regional limitations. Getting the audience involved both in terms of meeting band members (which is easy for the band, as there are so many members, and slightly harder for the audience as tickets for AKB48’s small trademark live gig at Akahibara are given out by lottery), and in terms of voting mechanisms: Fans determine in “general elections” which of the members are involved in recording new songs etc. I can only assume that the voting mechanism are charged for in some way or another. The potential for upsell is ludicrous, but there’s more to it.

It’s post-something, that much is for sure, and very much hits a certain flavor of the zeitgeist. But post-what, and pre-what? Pre completely computer animated, personalized artist-avatars, maybe, and maybe just post-human in the more traditional sense, or at least post-individual. But that doesn’t quite capture it all. There’s something going on here on many layers that I can’t quite put my finger on just yet.


So, I’m about to jump in way over my paygrade. I’ve never been to Japan, haven’t surveyed the literature fully, and I’m no anthropologist. All I can say is I’ve spoken about this phenomenon with my friends, some of whom are Japanese, and it seems like it’s not crazy.

AKB48 is weird, but I think it’s not as weird as we (“Westerners”?) want it to be. They seem like a pop act. I know I’ve got a penchant for it, but isn’t Jedward just as bizarre? They could be the Pussycat Dolls, the Blue Man Group, or the Rockettes.

I’ve heard various theories, some more crackpot than others, about why we (I’m going to shift this we to “Americans”, however problematic that is) pull out all the weird stories and perspectives from Japan and represent the country that way, none of which I feel qualified to comment on.

Anyway, just 2¢ on this concept. Sounds like you’re having a great time in Japan!

Yup, full ack. Didn’t mean it as weird in any particularly Japanese way, but as a pop culture phenomenon that takes the mass production there to a new level; it’s the scale of the thing that I find fascinating more than anything. Feels very optimized in odd, almost cynical ways. As you said – it’s a pop act. But yeah, I agree, there’s a lot of over-interpretation going on, and I’m certainly at least partially guilty of that myself :)