June 14, 2013, 8:53am
AKB48 performing at Seibu Dome, Saitama prefecture, Japan. Kazuhiro Yokozeki for The New York Times
TOKYO — On Saturday night, 70,000 people gathered at the Nissan Stadium in Yokohama to hear the results of an election for one of Japan’s most famous institutions. Fuji Television, the country’s biggest commercial television network, broadcast the event live for four-and-a-half hours. At the moment the winner was announced, one-third of television sets in Kanto, the region around Tokyo and the home to one-third of all Japanese, were tuned in.
What was all the fuss? It was a contest with 248 candidates, and when the votes of 2.6 million voters were counted and announced, the scandal-plagued outsider Rino Sashihara toppled the seemingly secure incumbent Yuko Oshima to become the new “president” of AKB48, Japan’s most popular female musical act ever.
AKB48 is a massive and massively successful conglomerate, with many local franchises. Group members start off as awkward amateurs and end up skilled professional entertainers. Split off into small groups or large brigades, they tour the country and perform songs in mass patterns somewhat resembling cheerleading formations, but with disconcerting expressions of longing.
The girls of AKB48 are sexual chimeras. Although often they are in fact young adults, they are made to look much younger thanks to outfits derived from school-girl uniforms and rehearsed childish mannerisms. The resultant child-woman is then resexualized: In video clips, the camera bores in on thighs and pouting lips. (See AKB48’s most popular spot, “Heavy Rotation.”)
Born out of the fringe otaku culture of Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics bazaar, AKB48 is now both mainstream in Japan and an international phenomenon, with affiliates in Shanghai, Taipei and Jakarta. The group has been hired to sell almost every kind of product, from canned coffee to laptop computers. Municipal authorities throughout Japan have recruited AKB48 members as poster girls for their PR campaigns; the national government has sent some on official tours overseas, sometimes to the bafflement of their hosts. The mastermind behind the group, the lyricist and music producer Hiroshi Akimoto, is a government adviser on ways to promote contemporary Japanese culture abroad; he counsels Tomomi Inada, the minister for “Cool Japan” strategy (yes, there is such a position).
And to feed these fans’ fantasies some more, the group prohibits, by contract, its members from having sex or dating. The hypocrisy is staggering. As the Japan Times editorial puts it: “In the pop idol world of AKB48, the female members have plenty of relations with men. It’s just that they are all mediated by technology and the marketplace. Millions of male fans ‘relate’ to the women onstage or online and through countless videos, photos, products and goods.”
Most legal experts agree that AKB48’s contractual ban on sex has no force. But that didn’t keep Minami Minegishi, once among the group’s inner core of 20, from shaving off her hair in contrition and apologizing to fans after she was seen leaving a young male pop star’s apartment one morning.
Voters in Saturday’s election seemingly rallied to upset these rules. The contest was a model of organization, energy and citizen’s involvement. Voters’ guides describing the hundreds of candidates were available months in advance in bookstores and railway kiosks. The campaigning was so intense that on May 23 the automated programs of Google News mistakenly displayed the contest as the day’s top political story.
The race was tight, but in the end, voters rejected rules preventing young women from enjoying their freedoms. They elevated the disgraced Minegishi, her hair still boyishly short, to 18th place. And they crowned Sashihara, who had been banished from the core Akihabara group to an affiliate in Fukuoka after her own dating scandal. Now she is sosai, the same title held by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Liberal Democratic Party.
AKB48 may be sexist and prey on prurient tastes. But compared with the elections for the upper house of the Diet next month — with its preordained landslide for the ruling party and its freak candidates – the girl band’s national contest is not this season’s most embarrassing election.