The 48 Japanese Schoolgirls Aiming to Take Over the World

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With its playful image, code of conduct, and many spinoff acts, the girl-pop collective AKB48 may be Japan's next great cultural export

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About a month ago, 48 adult women dressed as school girls took to the stage at the historic Budokan arena in Tokyo, the same place where The Beatles made their Japanese debut. Fans streamed into the venue, and the proceedings were broadcast live in movie theaters across Asia—in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand.

But this wasn't a traditional concert. It was a rock-paper-scissors tournament, pitting the members of Japan's perhaps most successful contemporary musical act against one another. Two by two, each of the 48 members of AKB48—the six-years-in-the-running girl group that the Guinness Book of World Records has called the largest pop act in the world—approached the podium, stretched out their right arms, and touched knuckes. A striped-shirted ref then shouted "jankenpon," the Japanese name for rock-paper-scissors, and the pairs played the schoolyard game. At the end of the night, 25-year-old Shinoda Mariko won the March-Madness-like bracket, earning the right to be the center of attention for AKB48's 24th video, a release sure to further cement the group's massive popularity in Japan.

AKB has instituted rules ranging from "no smoking" to "no boyfriends" in an effort to keep fans' dream worlds safe

This is how AKB48 has risen to the top of the J-pop universe: as much through its catchy tunes as through its plentiful, accessible, non-musical antics. Founded in 2005 by Japanese music producer Yasushi Akimoto, who wanted to create a collection of "idols you can meet," AKB48 has achieved domestic ubiquity with a string of chart-topping hits, spin-off bands, TV shows, ads, unceasing autograph signings, and a few permanent theaters in major Japanese cities where its subgroups perform regularly. But Akimoto isn't content with domestic triumph. Earlier this month, it was announced that AKB48 would open two overseas branches in Jakarta and Taiwan, respectively dubbed "JKT48" and "TPE4." "The era of imitating the West is over," Akimoto said in 2010, when international locations were just rumors. "Now we export Japanese culture."

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Akimoto's timing is right. Last month, the Japanese government unveiled a new logo—think the rising sun with racing stripes—for its "Cool Japan" campaign. The initiative, which takes its name from a 2002 Foreign Affairs article, aims to expand Japan's soft power globally even as its economic power wanes—a goal that's become all the more urgent following the March 11 earthquake.

But isn't Japan cool already? Anime, manga, Nintendo, and Hello Kitty rose to worldwide ubiquity decades ago and have stayed there. Yet "Cool Japan" hasn't succeeded in spreading Japanese pop music very far. The Japanese government made '90s-throwback-boy-band Arashi the official musical representatives of tourism in 2010, and this year the group starred in a video that aired in places like New York's Times Square, promoting tourism to Japan. Problem is, Arashi aren't likely to be recognized by the average person wandering around Manhattan, especially when the infomercial they star in is mostly in Japanese. Other groups, like theatric rockers X Japan, boast a cult-like following capable of selling out decent-sized venues, but nothing more.

AKB48 seems poised to change that. Already, the group has used multinational business tactics—economies of scale, franchising, incessant brand marketing—to polish an old Japanese trope: the singing school girl. In his book Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, Brian Ashcraft writes that, following World War II, the Japanese turned to schoolgirl-aged performers for escapism and for hope in the future of the devastated country, and this trend persevered through the years. Akimoto himself has been involved with similar groups: He wrote lyrics for insanely popular '80's J-Pop group Onyanko Club, consisting of school-uniform-clad young women who seemed more approachable than the typical idol. AKB48 also borrowed dance steps from '90s megastars Morning Musume, an idol collective peaking at 16 girls strong that used its own morning show to promote itself. Morning Musume also split members into smaller bands—a technique AKB48 uses via mini-groups like Not Yet and French Kiss.

But AKB48's ambitions have been grander than any of their predecessors'. The act's base is a theater in Tokyo's Akihabara district, the center of Japan's obsessive, anime-loving otaku masses ("Akihabara" is where the "AKB" comes from). The group—split into three teams—performs every night of the week, endearing its members to a fan base willing to purchase multiple copies of new CDs (and in one case, 5,500 of them). In recent years, escaping AKB48 has seemed impossible even if one flees Tokyo. Akimoto has expanded his empire with locations and sister groups in the cities of Nagoya (SKE48) and Osaka (NMB48), and introduced a more "mature" unit dubbed SDN48 ("Saturday Night 48"), though the members of that particular iteration are scheduled to soon "graduate" from the group. He's also started annual events grabbing major media coverage: The band's official "election" gained news coverage sometimes rivaling legitimate political races. On top of all that, the group recently began a sketch-comedy show, and have announced plans to start a radio drama and an anime series.

But AKB48 aren't content with just saturating the Japanese music market. The jumbo-sized group frequently plays shows around Asia and also have performed in Paris, Russia, and New York. One can find official AKB48 stores in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, and the latter location will soon open a special theater where members will perform regularly. Plenty of other J-Pop artists have hosted special concerts around Asia, but none have set up an actual presence like AKB is planning to do in Jakarta and Taiwan, using local girls but adhering to the group's original principals.

Why AKB48, though? Musically, they sound unremarkable and reminiscent of the similarly marketed groups before them, the worst tendencies of Europop fused with dinner-theater cheesiness. There isn't much separating the Dance Dance Revolution throb of 2010 track "Ponytail And Scrunchie" from 2011's "Everyday, Kachūsha." What's more, if the world were looking for good and varied J-Pop, there isn't a shortage, from the infectious dance pop of Perfume to the genre-slithering of Kaela Kimura to the grandiose-done-right sounds of Ayumi Hamasaki.

Yet, like a lot of J-Pop and pop music around the world, the music plays only a small role in group's popularity. Ashcraft writes that one of AKB's strongest selling point aren't the tunes but the illusion of a personal connection. With four-dozen girls in the group blessed with different interests and personalities, Ashcraft says the group is "an idol smorgasbord where fans can find at least one idol to his or her taste." This manufactured connection is what drives listeners to become obsessive about the group.

Ultimately, AKB48 says a lot about Cool Japan and efforts like it. Although the people behind this cultural push have tried to emphasize more traditional aspects of the country—think textiles—the stuff that sticks has been pretty much the same for the past 20 years: anime, video games, cute characters—all things heavily associated with Akihabara. AKB48 isn't blazing a new path forward for Japanese culture; it's an extension of what has been selling but applied to music, and Akimoto's clever business strategy may be the only truly trailblazing aspect of the group. It's working, though. After Jakarta and Taipei have their theaters, China and Thailand may be next, Akimoto has said.

Even though AKB seems poised to march through Asia, it's hard to imagine their model having success in the West. Though Akimoto dreams of plopping a theater down in Italy, the culture of AKB48 is in direct opposition to the Western world's culture of celebrity. The West wants to know all the details about our celebrities—we want to hear about Beyoncé and Jay-Z's relationship, and Lindsay Lohan's struggles. Not so much with AKB48: Listeners want the fantasy aspect of it to remain intact, to the point that AKB has instituted rules ranging from "no smoking" to "no boyfriends" in an effort to keep fans' dream worlds safe. This just wouldn't work on a large scale in the West. Don't expect NYC48 anytime soon.

For AKB48, though, it's one step at a time. The branches in Jakarta and Taiwan will be the group's first true international test, and Akimoto plans for the group to continue expanding within Japan as well. Yet if everything works out well, who knows where AKB's brand of plaid skirts and rock-paper-scissors tournaments will end up next?

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Patrick St. Michel is a journalist living in Tokyo. He writes for The Japan Times and founded the Japanese music blog Make Believe Melodies. He has also contributed to Esquire.com, the Los Angeles Daily News, and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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