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Voting for idols is bigger than politics

by Minoru Matsutani

Staff Writer

Elsewhere in the world, the kind of sōsenkyo (総選挙, general election) that fires up public interest and garners media attention is one where political parties compete for national office. In Japan, however, the sōsenkyo of aidoru gurūpu (アイドルグループ, idol group) AKB48 tends to grab far more attention than it deserves, which is ironic considering the indifference to real politics among young Japanese.

Tōhyōsū (投票数, the total number of votes cast) for the AKB48 sōsenkyo on June 8 was 2.65 million, more than double the 1.26 million for last year’s event. This year marked the fifth annual election, and the number of votes has been surging constantly every year.

The number of votes doubled due to the increased availability of tōhyōken (投票権, voting rights). Until last year, voting rights were only attached to a CD single purchase, but this year, voting rights were given to not only CD buyers but also those belonging to an AKB48 fan club who accumulated a certain number of points. But the Japanese media is used to the AKB48 frenzy and did not highlight the massive number of votes.

Instead, the attention was on who the new No. 1 girl would be. This year Rino Sashihara — known for her hetare (ヘタレ, good for nothing, lazy) character — was crowned queen, and as such earns the central position in music videos and other public appearances by AKB48.

But Sashihara was widely considered to be a baraetī tantō (バラエティー担当, person in charge of a variety show, or a person playing a goofy role). Also, she created the impression that she thought she was not as beautiful as other team members, calling herself kawaikunai (可愛くない, not cute), which earned her the hetare reputation.

Despite her landslide victory, beating last year’s queen Yuko Oshima by a wide margin, the Japanese online media reported many people were surprised and disappointed at the outcome.

Manga author Yoshinori Kobayashi was quoted as saying in Sponichi Annex, an online edition of a tabloid paper, “Ichiban osoreteita kotoga genjitsu ni (一番恐れていたことが現実に, What I feared the most became real.)”

Kobayashi, calling Sashihara a “joker,” went as far as saying the government interest rate surged and stock prices tanked after the election outcome was announced.

Sponichi also reported that its online poll between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. on June 9 found 509 people out of 1,218 respondents, or 42 percent, said they did shiji shinai (支持しない, not support) Sashihara being AKB48′s No. 1 girl.

So, who voted for Sashihara? Well, an unproven uwasa (噂, rumor) before the election outcome led to the following headline in J-Cast online news: “China money is making Sashihara the center?”

J-Cast carried an article showing a photo of voting tickets being distributed on Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, and other Chinese websites.

J-Cast quoted a number of tweets saying a Chinese person gave 9,108 votes to Sashihara, without elaborating how it came up with the number. The same article said two other members were each rumored to have received more than 5,000 votes from Chinese fans.

The website quoted some postings on the 2-channel online bulletin board, which complained how the AKB48 sōsenkyo is no longer a ninki tōhyō (人気投票, popularity contest) but has become a kanemochi jiman sōsenkyo (金持ち自慢総選挙, general election in which voters show off their wealth).

Another sign that the AKB48 sōsenkyo grabs far too much attention is that the Nikkei Shimbun newspaper, which specializes in business news, carried an article June 6 that a university professor of information technology predicted the outcome of the election using a computer.

Another noticeable point is that Sashihara had a remarkable comeback from her transfer, widely considered a sasen (左遷, demotional transfer), from AKB48 to HKT48 (the Hakata, Fukuoka Prefecture-version of AKB48) last June after Shukan Bunshun weekly magazine ran an article interviewing her former boyfriend with whom she’d had sex.

The article had detailed descriptions of how the couple met and dated. The boyfriend was quoted in the article as saying Sashihara was very nikushokukei (肉食系, lit: carnivorous, but actually means aggressive in dating).

AKB48 producer Yasushi Akimoto gave Sashihara a chance to make her excuses during a radio show, in which she said, “Gokai sarerukoto wo shitanoha jijitsu” (「誤解されることをしたのは事実」”It’s true that I did something that causes misunderstanding”). On the same radio show, Akimoto announced the transfer, which was effective immediately.

The media reported after the election that her sincere efforts after being transferred to HKT48 earned her more fans.

The mainstream Sankei Shimbun newspaper compared Sashihara’s election campaign to that of Kakuei Tanaka, a former prime minister and legendary Liberal Democratic Party bigwig, whose catch phrases include: “Nagashita ase to furishibotta chie no bundake kekkaga deru. (流した汗と振り絞った知恵の分だけ結果が出る, You only get an achievement from the sweat you shed and ideas you squeeze out.” and “Senkyo ni gyōkō wa nai (選挙に僥倖は無い, There are no lucky wins in an election).

  • Max Erimo

    Now there is definitely no need to ponder anymore why Japan is no longer a leader in the world. Or why it continues to slip behind developed nations. It has very low spending on Education, a Deputy PM who says that the Japanese people’s lack of English language ability saved the country from great economic woes recently and now you have it AKB’s general election.
    Oh what a sad state of play……

    • Masa Chekov

      AKB general election is different from American Idol or any of these other call-in-you-vote shows…. how?

      Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like this nonsense either but I don’t think it’s much different than entertainment tripe around the world….

      • paul

        At least the American Idol people “seem” to have some talent. I wouldn’t say much for the AKB48 members.
        But it is true that there is a lot of sad entertainment tripe around the world.
        The sad thing is that it gets so much attention.
        What channel was it on?

      • Masa Chekov

        Don’t know the channel – this is usually on one of the mainstream channels, though.

        Not sure I agree with the “American Idol” folks having that much talent – some of them sound as good as what I hear at karaoke!

    • Christopher-trier

      Japan is still better off than the country that elected a man who thinks that Canada has a president.

  • Ron NJ

    I can’t decide which is more ridiculous – fears among Japanese that Chinese people influenced some irrelevant vote (shock!), the explicit mention that a twenty year old might be sexually active (horror!), the way Sashihara is put down because she doesn’t completely fit the stereotype of a burikko idol, or the fact that this kind of crap passes for news on a Monday in Japan.

    • charlygordon

      this type of crap passes for news all over the world, not just Japan. It probably does because people like you and I click on it and then post comments.

    • Hanten

      And yet you read the article and spent the time to comment on it.

  • pasthru

    must of been hard to find people who were disappointed with the result and did not contribute to the vote count the No.1 position earned which was less then 10% of the over 2 million votes counted.

    As far as I know, any democratic leader would love a 58% approval rating.

    Who voted for Sashihara Rino? I could of told you that. It was her fans.

    Why does it get attention from people who make a living making up headlines like “bigger than politics”? hmmm I dont know…