Meet AKB48: Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success

The group is one of the world’s most successful acts  – but they are steeped in controversy

Tokyo

It’s a weekday evening in Tokyo and high-octane J-pop bounces off the walls of a crowded club.

On stage, 18 teenage girls wearing pink pyjamas and fixed smiles rattle through a series of synchronised dance steps belting out songs like a well-drilled, if risqué school choir.

“S-U-G-A-R,” they chorus, pumping the air with their fists. “Jump into your racing car; SUGAR RUSH SUGAR RUSH, HEY! The audience, students, office workers and middle-aged men, sing along, cheer and wave light sticks – 95 per cent  are male.  

The music stops and each girl performs a monologue and then it’s back to the jackhammer soundtrack and a series of eye-melding costume changes: tartan skirts and schoolgirl uniforms. Welcome to the world of AKB48.

AKB48 is one of the world’s most-successful pop acts, with over a dozen chart-toppers and annual CD and DVD sales of over $220m (£128.5m).

Among the Guinness world records they hold is one for most number of appearances in different television commercials in a single day (90). AKB48 have their own manga series, monthly newspaper and a string of best-selling video games. The Japanese government has even put them on a postage stamp and enlisted them to sell state bonds.  

The band are known for holding “handshake events” where fans can meet their idols, but they were halted after an attack at an event in May where two members were assaulted by a man with a saw. They began again just over a week ago in Tokyo –with each member shadowed by security guards.  

The AKB48 monster (the “48” is supposed to stand for the number of regular members) was born nearly a decade ago in Akihabara, Tokyo’s capital of geeky cool.

Record producer Yasushi Akimoto hit upon the idea of an all-girl group that would perform daily in its own exclusive theatre, above a department store, drawing in customers off the street. Thousands of girls were auditioned and eventually a team of 24 was formed. 

Today, ABK48 are an institution, commanding the nation’s attention for weeks during the lead up to an annual live “election” at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan concert hall to elect the most popular members. The public can only vote by buying a copy of the group’s latest single – priced ¥1,200 yen (£6.90) – and some have been reported buying dozens of copies. The election is broadcast live on national television, complete with polling updates and expert analysis. 

But all that success is steeped in controversy. There is the group’s flirtation with underage sexual imagery and themes. In “My School Uniform Is Getting in the Way,” the girls sing: “I want to take off my school uniform, I want to misbehave, you can do whatever you like, I want to experience adult pleasure.”

In an interview with CNN in 2012, the producer defended charges of sexual exploitation, saying he was depicting the realities of teenage life in his lyrics  and images.

“I’m not forcing them. I’m picturing their private lives, partly based on my imagination or newspaper articles or television news. I watch what their generation is doing.”

Mr Akimoto is now trying to export his empire abroad.  AKB48 has sister groups in China, Taiwan and Indonesia. He believes the “idol you can meet” formula might even work in the US or Europe.

But not everyone is convinced. Steve McClure, a former Asia bureau chief for Billboard magazine and the executive editor of online music-industry newsletter McClureMusic.com says the group cannot escape its Japanese moorings. “The AKB48 phenomenon says a lot about Japanese society. Their music, with its emphasis on group vocals and lack of harmony, ironically reflects the premium placed on group harmony and non-threatening mediocrity by Japanese society and the  mass media.”

“Labrador Retriever”, AKB48’s last single, sold around 1.8 million copies. Tickets for those concerts at the Akihabara theatre, where AKB48 perform every day, are oversubscribed by 100 to one.  Hundreds of disappointed fans watch on a video screen outside the theatre.

Yuta Kato, a 26-year-old office worker travelled from the other side of the country to see the group.  

“The appeal for me is that they are all individuals and you see each one grow,” he says. “The more you follow them the more interested you become in their lives.” 

Like most male fans he denies any sexual attraction. 

“They’re more like little sisters than potential girlfriends,” he insists.

Back in the theatre, the girls are nearing the end of their routine. A business man, jacket on his arm, tie undone, stares up, eyes wide, a serene smile on his face. 

“Because I LOVE you,” the girls sing in unison. Then, after final squeaks and thumps from the speakers, they’re gone.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most