AKB48: The next big import from Japan?

In the last decade, Japanese pop culture has slowly gained in prominence in the west.  Whether it is the importation of popular anime, like the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Dragonball, or the surge in interest in Japanese style comic books (Manga) such as Deathnote and Naruto, Japanese cultural influences can be seen everywhere, will they soon be heard everywhere too?

Japanese media culture can be seen all over the western entertainment sphere.  Turn on a children’s TV channel and you are just as likely to see a show animated in Japan, as you are seeing one animated at home.  Dragonball has remained a popular kid’s show in English speaking countries for the better part of the last decade. Power Rangers is actually an old Japanese kids show with English dialogue scenes added in-between the fight scenes (hence the rather jarring visual quality.)

Over the festive period here in England, if you turned on Film 4 (the only free view movie channel) at 4.30 every evening, you would have come across almost the entire works of Studio Ghibli, the world renowned Japanese animation studio.  Such reverence is given to these animation films, that only one of these animations were shown dubbed into English (the rest were subtitled) despite all of the films having English dubs available.

There are a relatively few number of Japanese speakers in England, and given the choice a lot of people would choose a dubbed film to a subbed one by default.  So the choice to show them all in Japanese seems an odd, but respectful of the works themselves. In fact typing the word “Studio” into the English Google, brings up Studio Ghibli as the first answer.

While America has long had a sub-culture based upon comic books, with readers who follow the exploits of the Marvel and DC universes, recently Japanese comic books, more commonly referred to as Manga (the Japanese name) have seen a large rise in popularity.  Lots of larger book stores now have their own Manga sections.  There is a large online following of fan translated works.  As only the most popular books (such as Deathnote or Bleach) are translated, there is a vast quantity of titles that remain unofficially translated.  Therefore the only way the fans can get a hold of these works is via grassroots fan based translation.

The key thing with these examples is that they are in story or written form, easily translated or dubbed over the top of.  Music does not feature this same luxury; as dubbing over the top of music would drastically change both the meaning and the tone of the piece.  So thus far, music has remained somewhat niche in comparison to its Anime and Manga cousin’s in as far as western acceptance.  One thing however threatens to smash that, either from a direct assault itself, or changing the way producers approach the marketing of their groups.

AKB48 are an all female group from the nerd capital of the world, Akihabara, Japan. They were created back in 2005 by Yasushi Akimoto. His concept was for an idol group that the fans could meet.

Rather than pick seasoned professionals, he tried to pick “normal” girls who were only setting out on their careers.   They perform daily at their theatre for a lucky crowd of only 300 fans.  Tickets to see the performances are drawn by lottery every day.   AKB48 is made up of 4 teams, team A, team K, team B and the newly formed team 4, plus all of their trainees. The current total sits at 94 girls.  These teams rotate stage duty each day, and each have their own set list that they perform.

They were not an immediate success, contrary to popular belief. The combination of their hard work, catchy songs, and approachability built up a strong and dedicated following.  The method of gaining and keeping fans is to convince them to follow and support individual girls they like as if they would do a sport team. It is practice within the fandom to choose your favourite girl, your “Oshimen” (Japanese meaning pushed member) and do everything you can to support that girl (as well as the group) as that girl attempts to reach the top.

AKB48 are not only a business phenomenon, but from a PR perspective, one of the most modern and boundary pushing groups. Once a year they run a 4 day concert, where fans can choose the songs to be played. From an extensive list of 400+ songs, the fans votes allow for a countdown of the top 100 to be performed. Also once a year, AKB48 run a competition where the fans choose the girls they want to lead the next single.  The catch for these types of events being, you can only vote in them if you bought the previous single. Therefore the practice of buying multiple copies so you can vote as many times as you can for your favourite member /song is quite common.  This may seem extremely odd, but each single also comes packed with goodies, so it is not as much of a rip off as it seems.

Unlike singles released in the west that only include a CD with the songs, the AKB singles also include; a “handshake event” ticket, a collectable photograph (very popular with traders, much like baseball cards,) and the chance to vote/become involved in one of many events that are run.  The handshake events are the real draw for the dedicated fans, each single bought allows you to attend a handshake event tour, where you can trade in your ticket and choose which of the girls you wish to meet. The meeting is only fleeting, maybe 10-20 seconds, but it allows a closeness with the star that is virtually unheard outside of the group. Can you imagine Beyonce or Lady Gaga running a tour like that?

AKB single sales by year.

Their first 10 singles barely registered on the charts, but Akimoto was determined to see his concept succeed. By following their motto of approachability and value for money, they soon began to see sales figures grow exponentially.  Their last 5 singles, all released in 2011 broke 1 million sales each. 3 of those, sold 1 million on a single day. To put that into perspective, Japanese singles cost about the same (exchange rate adjusted) as albums do in the west.   Using clever sales tactics, interesting and original media stunts, they have built a brand that almost prints money. You cannot walk passed a magazine stand without seeing one of the girls on the cover.

AKB48 are so popular, they have spawned several sister groups, SKE48 (Sakae, Nagoya) and NMB48 (Namba, Osaka) are now both successful in their own right; with TV shows, and numbers 1 singles to their names. There are also SDN48 (Saturday Night), a more adult themed group, and the newly formed HKT48 (Hakata, Fukuoka) set for debut this year.   Where this begins to get interesting from a western perspective is that there are now 2 official sister groups, not based in Japan. JKT48 (Jakarta, Indonesia) TPE48 (Taipei Taiwan) are the first groups outside of Japan. Seeing the immense success in the Japanese market, they have decided to branch into further Asian markets.

How long before they decide to try taking on the English speaking market?  Would their business model work as well outside of Japan?  AKB48 recently signed a deal with Google, to advertise their Google+ service.

Now users can follow the girl’s personal pages/blogs, that the girls update daily, post photos and interact with each other and fans. This will help not only increase their contact with their fans, but also allows fans outside of Japan an avenue to interact with them too.

I decided to Interview some of the Admins of one of the largest English speaking AKB48 forums on the internet; Everyday48 to ask a few questions about the fandom, and any troubles they have following a group, despite the language barrier that currently exists.

(Side-note, as the research for this article was being assembled, AKB48 appeared in the Wall Street Journal, so maybe we will see an assault on the American market soon, or at least a borrowing of the sales concept.)

Could you just give a quick introduction of yourself?

Aikyi: I’m Aikyi, my first language is English though my parents are from Hong Kong and I live in Canada. I have a good grasp of the Japanese language due to having been exposed to it for many years. I started out within the Anime and Manga fandom before moving onto the J-dramas and J-music fandom.

Naomi: Well, I am Naomi! I’m 21 and live in the United States.

When did you first become a fan of AKB48?

Aikyi: I first became a fan back during December of 2009. I didn’t officially start following the girls until a quarter through 2010. I am amongst some of the newer fans though I got in just before the girls started really hitting it big.

Naomi:  October 2007.

What was the English speaking community like back then?

Aikyi: Since the AKB wave was just starting to hit, the fandom was a lot quieter compared to now. There was a good fan base and most of the English fandom (at least the part I’ve been exposed to) were all pretty closely knit. During this time, it was a lot more difficult to get your hands on the girls’ videos, but this gradually changed over the year.

 Naomi: A lot smaller. It felt a lot friendlier and seemed more like one big family because AKB wasn’t that popular, but when they started gaining in popularity, a lot of people left the fandom, so it just seems more like a (constantly arguing) fandom than a family.

What common misconceptions are there about the fans of idol groups in general?

Aikyi: The most common misconception that people seem to have about idol fans are that they are males, whether young or old. Of course, upon actually entering the fandom, you will realize just how large the female fan population is. I’d also like to point out the massive amount of homosexuals the fandom (male and female). I thought it was neat since it wasn’t something I expected.

Naomi: That most of them are creepy 40-year-old men. From what I’ve seen, at least in the foreign community, a good amount of fans are around the same age as the girls and about half of them are female.

In the last 2 years AKB48 (and their sister groups) have seen an explosion in popularity.  Has the same thing been mirrored within the English speaking community? (ie, lots more fans)

Aikyi: Yes. Since I joined the fandom just before the boom happened, I noticed how many more active fans began to show up. People who were interested in other idols, casual fans that just liked their music, everyone started to show up and the fandom expanded.

 Naomi: Yep.

What is the most difficult part of following the fandom?

Aikyi: For me, the most difficult part comes from all the emotions that can stem from their activities. Some things that happen are absolutely heartbreaking while other events can cause you to pass out from pure excitement.

Another difficult part is simply finding your place and also the changes that you experience over time. For new fans, the most challenging part I’ve heard is simply learning and remembering all the girls. It’s even worse when the girls increase by the dozens every few months. With so many idols, it becomes extremely tough to find your own place. Some people end up with preferences towards SKE or the other sister groups, some people end up simply following one girl and ignoring the rest. But over time, the longer you stay in the fandom, I find that you tend to make a lot of changes within your preferences. A girl that you could hate one day, the next day you may start to love her. A girl that you thought would be your eternal “Oshimen,” the next day you find someone else that you love more. Sometimes it’s just hard to cope with all the changes.

Naomi: Probably all of their activities. With SKE, SDN, NMB, and now HKT as well, it’s really difficult to follow whatever they’re doing, be it releases, TV appearances, or magazine appearances. They’re doing so much that it’s really difficult to keep track of. I don’t even know what most of the groups are doing these days because of it.

Do you think the lack of officially translated materials makes it difficult to follow groups such as AKB48? (ie make’s it intimidating for those who do not speak Japanese) or  do you think that helps knit the community closer together, as they have to work together to locate materials and understand them?

Aikyi: I personally haven’t had any trouble following the groups myself. When I entered the fandom, my knowledge of Japanese was below average. Without the existence of much subs, I had to cope with simply watching videos raw (which improved my Japanese). After which, it was a simple task to ask another person who was more fluent to explain the details. I think it does help to knit the community closer since it promotes interaction but I don’t think it would be much different if there were more translated materials.

In the end, I believe having videos subbed or blog posts translated increases the amount of fans. Whether it will increase by a large margin or not, I doubt it. People who are interested will find ways to follow their girls even if they don’t know the language.

Naomi: Not really. I’m able to enjoy their music and tv appearances just fine, even though I can’t understand it. For their TV shows, they’re pretty easy to get an idea of what’s going on even if you can’t understand Japanese because it’s just a bunch of random activities that don’t need dialogue to understand.

What is it you think that intrigues people about the Japanese culture that draws them to things such as idol groups, Anime, dramas?

Aikyi: Perhaps the intriguing part is the difference in culture. A lot of the things that the girls do, a lot of the things that Japanese society does is seen as awkward in other areas of the world. They seem to treasure their entertainment industry a lot more and TV personalities all seem to be a lot closer with each other over there. On the surface, the entire industry just seems to be a lot more friendly than the one over here in America.

Naomi: I guess because it’s so different from any other culture, so people are fascinated by it. Most countries don’t usually have younger girls singing or working as TV personalities.

What changes would you like to see within AKB48 and other groups to help cater to their international fan base more?

Aikyi: I don’t have any personal changes that I would like to make, but I think the recent AKB collaboration with Google+ is moving in the right direction. Live streaming events and allowing even international fans to interact with the girls is the best way to cater to us. I think streaming is something other groups in the industry should consider using more. Other than that, having more international tours is always a plus.

Naomi: They’re doing a pretty good job already with the Google+ stuff and visiting other countries and performing there. I guess the only thing I can think of is maybe make their goods and releases more easily accessible to overseas fans, because sometimes you need to be in Japan to buy them.

Is there anything you’d like to change about the English speaking fan base?

Aikyi:  This is probably the same for every fandom out there, but people just need to understand the differences in opinion and stop getting butt-hurt every time someone else disagrees with them. And to go hand in hand with this, people need to start considering the opinions and feelings of other fans and learn to stop completely trashing members or songs that they don’t like.

So yeah, fans should be more considerate.

Naomi:  Even though this has been said a lot, I’d say don’t only pay attention to the popular members because there’s a lot of other great girls out there. Yeah, AKB has a lot of members, but paying attention to the rest of them isn’t as difficult as some people make it sound. AKB has a ton of TV shows and stages, so it’s pretty easy to see the girls that aren’t featured in the singles.

It seems that the language barrier is not an issue for many of the fans, and maybe more an issue of understanding and misconception that stops this particular fandom being accepted so widely. However what cannot be ignored, are the sales numbers.  In an era where music companies are trying to combat piracy constantly, this group seems to have found a niche, that not only defies piracy with its record breaking sales figures, but has a loyal and dedicated fan base that are willing to support their favourites with every fibre of their being.

If the growing Anime market has shown anything is that people are willing to try something new, even with cultural and language barriers in place.  From a financial point of view, it’s certainly worth a risk seeing the potential reward available.  Western marketing executives can learn a lot of lessons from this business model, how to involve the fan base and keep them loyal and how to keep a simple idea fresh and interesting. Judging from the wall to wall celebrity coverage in both the British and American media, a group that actively tries to engage publically with their fans, seems to suggest it would be a sure fire hit.  I believe it’s just a matter of time, before someone attempts to replicate this success.

Images taken from : kenchanayoh.comzimbio.com, stylesuzi.com thecorner.co.nz and akb-sg.net

Thanks to Everyday48.net for their co-operation.

Edit:   Why I love the Internet.  Less than an hour after I posted this, it was translated into French.  French Translation by @lemelodychan.

4 thoughts on “AKB48: The next big import from Japan?”

  1. Hiya, I am so glad I came here and read this article, I am a student in the journalism school of Cardiff University. And I am Writting AKB48 for my dissertation, is there any chance that I can contact you? Thanks.

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