Yesterday, a nutjob with a saw attacked members of Japan’s biggest pop group. The J-Pop all girl group, who are called AKB48, were at a fan event in Takizawa City when a 24-year-old man attacked two of the girls with a 20-inch saw. The girls, 18-year-old Anna Iriyama and 19-year-old Rina Kawaei, were taken to hospital and scheduled performances were cancelled. It’s pretty fucked up because A) who attacks someone with a saw?! and B) the group are, by some measures, the biggest pop group in the world.
AKB48 holds the Guinness World Record for being the world’s largest pop group: the current lineup consists of 140 members. Each year fans vote on who gets to join the 16-person main roster; it’s sort of like the first-team for asoccer club, but voted for X-Factor-style and covered by the national media. Last year 70,000 fans turned up to watch the “general election” result live and over 2.65 million votes were cast. In 2011 they had all five of the top five songs in Japan. Same in 2012. They had four out of five last year. The group perform every day in their own theater (situated in the technology district of Tokyo), they have their own TV shows, and their videos regularly clock up tens of millions views (their most popular has over 100 million). So yeah, they're a pretty big deal.
The members of the group are held in some weird kind of adolescent purgatory where, despite appearing in videos where they kiss each other in their underwear, they are not allowed to have boyfriends or be seen to go on dates. They're also in constant competition with each other for prominence in videos and on TV, creating a weird permanent state of insecurity.
We asked Japan-based journalist and J-Pop know-all Patrick St. Michel to explain what led to this happening
Noisey: How big are AKB48?
Patrick: At the moment the best-selling groups in Japan are idol groups like AKB48 that are made up of young women. Their core fanbase tends to be men who could be described as nerdy, but who get REALLY into the group itself, and often become huge "supporters" of individual members. AKB48, in particular, is set up so that individual performers can possibly move up from the bottom to the top if they garner enough fan support and there are special one-off deals, like the annual AKB48 election which is being held next week.
But if they're such a national phenomenon then how was the nutjob with a saw allowed to get close to them.
AKB brand themselves as "idols you can meet" and they hold these handshake events among other things to foster a closer connection to fans. But to get a ticket to these events you usually have to buy whatever their newest single is. So diehard fans buy multiple copies of the CD to get multiple tickets, inflating overall sales substantially. The label and management, seeing that this works and that the rest of the J-pop landscape is suffering a lot, have really catered to these diehard (mostly male) fans.
So the system basically creates fans who, by supporting members so heavily (and with money), sometimes feel like they played a heavy role in getting them to where they are, and feel they are owed something, which is a super gross mindset. No one knows what the motives are of the guy who attacked the two members on Sunday, some reports say he just wanted to kill anyone, but there have been plenty of other disturbing moments at these events, primarily just general uncomfortableness from the performers themselves. Other groups indulge in these practices too, and in many cases they can turn misogynistic pretty quick.
Are the girls in the group properly looked after?
AKB48 actually has a bunch of really eyebrow raising rules: the last major scandal the group faced was when they forced one of their members to shave their head because she was caught dating.
What other issues have there been with AKB48? I guess the one that Westerners are aware of is their video for "Heavy Rotation," which seems to tread a fairly close line to soft porn. Considering that girls in the group are in their early teens…
There have been a handful of controversies associated with AKB48 over the last few years. One centers on the cover of then-member Tomomi Kasai's photo book which featured a white child cupping her breasts. Another incident involved an AKB application, wherein fans could generate an image of what their hypothetical kid with a member of the group would look like (tagline: "Will you make a baby with me?"). Their was another ad controversy where a candy commercial found members of the group swapping pieces of sweets mouth-to-mouth, making it look like they were kissing. In that case, though, people complained about the brief spot potentially encouraging homosexuality, so AKB48 weren't the goofiest people involved.
"Heavy Rotation" was a bit controversial at the time, and remains a go-to criticism of the group even today for many reasons (besides the risqué clothes and mouth-to-mouth sweet sharing, the video stars with someone peeping through a keyhole, playing into a voyeuristic vibe the group at times promotes). Still, it's worth mentioning that "Heavy Rotation" is far and away AKB48's most popular song in Japan, and one of the few singles they've released that's been a hit outside of their core fan base. This song still pops up in top five most sung karaoke lists every year.
Their Wikipedia page reads like a munitions list, with all the sub groups and changing rotas? How have they used these systems to dominate J-Pop?
By creating new sub-groups/sister groups and shuffling members around them, they get diehard fans to buy even more AKB48 associated CDs and merchandise, and usually there are enough fans gobbling up whatever is offered to allow it to top the Japanese music charts. Which, in turns, makes the group appear even bigger then they are, leading to more advertisement deals and such.
This all sounds a bit bleak for the girls involved. Do they have any rights as such?
The more popular members can get away with a lot more, at least that's what has been reported by tabloids. They get paid way more than those on the lower rungs of the group. More popular members of the group can often negotiate to appear on TV programmes separate from AKB48, where they are allowed to be more free. One positive over the last year is that prominent members in the group have started being more vocal about all the gross elements of the culture, and finally have a louder voice to talk out against management and creepy fans.
Patrick is on Twitter. Follow him and say hi - @mbmelodies