An idol group such as AKB48 is designed for members to be easily replaced. The performers existing in these environments constantly get shuffled around and eventually “graduate” — a term used for when they leave. Fans might become attached to a specific member and follow them on their musical journey.
All adventures have ends, though, and the institution goes on. No idol ends up bigger than the group itself.
That’s what makes Rino Sashihara’s graduation from the AKB48 family earlier this spring all the more remarkable. Her departure from HKT48 in Fukuoka Prefecture was accompanied by mainstream media attention and general interest from those who don’t follow idol pop closely. The 26-year-old has been the face of the group for years, even during stretches where she engaged in other entertainment activities while AKB tried to promote new faces. Yet few newcomers connected the same way.
Sashihara wasn’t just the biggest name associated with the decade’s largest J-pop outfit. She also spoke up about issues plaguing idols, throwing jabs back at an industry urging compliance from performers. She rose well above AKB48, and her departure came at a moment when that project found itself at a crossroads. It will be moving forward without the one woman who could connect it to the masses, as she sets off to bigger things in the entertainment landscape.
Statistics alone make the case for Sashihara’s legacy. She won the annual AKB48 general election four times, the most ever by one member. She probably would have claimed a fifth victory in 2018, except she sat it out — the equivalent of Michael Jordan taking a break from basketball at his peak. She also fronted AKB’s most popular single ever, the easy-breezy “Koi Suru Fortune Cookie,” and was the center for many of the group’s best-selling tracks.
You need to go beyond units moved to find the real reason she thrived, though. Sashihara debuted with AKB48 in 2008, and climbed up the ranks each year. In 2012, however, weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun published an interview with a man claiming to have been an ex-boyfriend, revealing all sorts of intimate details in the process. This went against AKB48’s dating ban — a rule embraced by many idol groups, male and female — and resulted in her being demoted to the fledgling HKT48. This could have stopped all her progress and left her career in purgatory, but it made her bigger.
Rather than run from it, Sashihara eventually embraced her situation, Thanks to her charisma (and the classic “controversy equals sales” formula) she turned former backwater HKT48 into a pop force and quickly became the entire franchise’s most popular face.
End of story? Not quite. Sashihara took aim at the ridiculous dating rules dictated by AKB48 and pulled the curtain back on the idol industry in television appearances, which she continues to do. This past winter, she became particularly vocal about the assault of NGT48 member Maho Yamaguchi. She frequently criticized management and pushed back against comedian and TV personality Hitoshi Matsumoto’s sexist comments about the situation.
Critics here and abroad have gone after the “48” groups for plenty of justifiable reasons, but their critiques tend to overlook the young women that make up the outfits and paint fans in the worst possible light. Sashihara’s outspokenness therefore provided the conversation with a necessary first-person account of the flaws and strengths of the idol system.
Sashihara’s graduation comes at a strange time for AKB48. After a decade at the top, 2019 has seen serious cracks develop. The NGT48 scandal has tarnished the group’s reputation far more than anything that came before, while AKB48 announced it wouldn’t hold a general election this year. Sashihara’s departure only makes the situation tougher, as the group loses the one person who truly served as an ambassador for the fan-focused project to mainstream audiences.
Where AKB48 goes in the future is anyone’s guess, but Sashihara will most likely stick around. The day after graduating from the regulated world of idol pop, she hit up a pachinko parlor (much to the internet’s delight). Music may go in and out of style, but charm is forever.