Music | 2010S: DECADE IN REVIEW

Through scandal and stellar sales, AKB48 dominated the past decade in Japan

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

I never thought I’d say this: AKB48 was the most influential music act of the decade.

Wait, hear me out.

The world of J-pop saw the 2010s begin a little early, on Oct. 21, 2009, to be precise. That’s when AKB48 released its first chart-topping single, “River.” I’d like to argue that the J-pop decade ended early, too. This year, in fact. Not just with the death of music mogul Johnny Kitagawa in July, but on March 14 when AKB48 announced that, for the first time in 10 years, it wouldn’t be holding its annual Senbatsu General Election, which decides which members of the group get the most time in the spotlight.

The project’s concept was a 48-member outfit based in the electronic wonderland of Tokyo’s Akihabara district, and now counts 109 young women in AKB proper and hundreds more members in sister groups spread out across Asia. And between Oct. 21, 2009, and March 14, 2019, the pop group largely dominated the discourse surrounding Japanese music and pop culture, both positively and negatively.

First, the positive. In terms of sales, the pop powerhouse became Japan’s best-selling female act of all time and its second-highest seller ever, thanks in large part to an Oricon-topping streak that started with “River” and carries on with this August’s “Sustainable.” In terms of visibility, members of the AKB family appear in countless commercials and magazines, as well as on TV and radio programs. You name the medium, AKB has conquered it.

The group is also one of the better examples of J-pop flexing its soft power muscle in the growing Asian market. Sister projects were not only launched across Japan (SKE48, NMB48, etc.) but also in Jakarta (JKT48) and Bangkok (BNK48) among other locales. Representatives from AKB48 also visited Washington, D.C., in spring 2012 to mark the 100th year of cherry blossoms in the capital, one of the odder moments of pop diplomacy in recent memory (unfortunately, we weren’t graced with a WDC48).

A more negative argument for AKB48’s pervasive relevance could outline how the group sparked some of the biggest scandals of the past decade, including Minami Minegishi shaving her head for a teary YouTube apology video after being caught on a date in 2013, and the mishandling of Maho Yamaguchi’s assault case earlier in 2019. In addition to highlighting the morally dubious side of Japan’s entertainment industry, AKB48 has also encapsulated the way the experiences of Japanese women are appropriated and exploited by Japanese society — for instance, the group’s songs are meant to reflect the lives of teenage girls but were written by its 60-year-old male creator, Yasushi Akimoto.

The real reason that AKB48 deserves to be remembered as the defining musical act of the 2010s, however, is because the rest of the pop world has largely bent toward its model for music stardom. A project that was once seen as a global oddity and outdated instead proved to be ahead of everyone, predicting a shift to a fan experience built on a perception of closeness that is now commonplace.

AKB48’s members are sold as the “idols you can meet.” Pop has always been built on the idea of the listener connecting with a star, their music acting as a bridge. In the era after 1990 in which the term “J-pop” became common, however, idols (aidoru) have made their music less of a main focus and more part of a larger formula that involves a variety of platforms. Akimoto’s AKB48 project took this to the next extreme step — the young women in the group would perform daily in their own theater, and fans would get the chance to make some kind of physical connection with their favorites in a way that was impossible with established artists. That included the chance to watch the members grow from barely functioning performers to something more polished. It was a response to the previous decade of pop, where the closer-to-perfect stylings of Hikaru Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki dominated the cultural landscape. Those artists were on pedestals, AKB was down the street.

“The fans and the group members take an emotional journey together, and even though it’s a journey along a set of rails determined by marketing, management and industrial factors, at least they can believe that the girls themselves are sincere,” wrote music journalist Ian Martin for The Japan Times in 2013.

The group’s impressive sales statistics came courtesy of an approach prioritizing hard-core fans ahead of mainstream consumers. Many CD releases were bundled with added goodies like tickets to handshake events or ballots for the Senbatsu election. Supporters looking to back their favorite member bought multiple copies of the same single or album — sometimes abandoning them afterward, as did one fan in Fukuoka who left 585 CDs on a mountain.

The whole AKB project has been less about music and more about sustaining a fantasy through a seemingly unfair approach to the market in which the few wield more power than the many, and nowhere in line with general attitudes. This caused a lot of people inside and outside of Japan to view AKB48 as a musical oddity. Popular Western acts such as Taylor Swift and rapper Travis Scott would never do such things — except they absolutely did in the years that followed. Swift sold four deluxe editions of her latest album, “Lover,” each containing different “journal entries” that superfans would want, while Scott bundled his albums with merchandise. Both artists boosted sales in a way that would make Akimoto proud.

As the 2010s dragged on, these practices became common with acts coupling their music with physical goodies or exclusive access, and urging fans to buy multiple copies of the same album to get them. The increase in album sales affected the charts — already struggling with how to incorporate streaming services, with their metrics that can be easily juiced or faked — and led to a lot of conversation on how to tell if a music act is actually popular or not.

Akimoto used AKB48 as a way to experiment with how the music industry functioned and, while not everything stuck — the “make a baby with AKB” promotional campaign is thankfully lost to time — he landed squarely on the path that music would end up going in the 2010s before anyone else — impressive, as the rest of Japan’s music industry by and large became adverse to taking risks. Supporters, which eventually became referred to as “fan armies,” were able to push entertainers to the top of the charts (and, eventually, to the Oval Office) gaining a sense of ownership in the success. Now, performers need to maintain a close connection with fans, and apps such as Twitter, Instagram and Cameo are just digital versions of AKB’s physical theaters.

Akimoto’s focus on the artist’s journey, meanwhile, also proved prophetic. AKB may have been part of a reaction to second-generation K-pop acts, which took years to develop into perfection before debuting, but the Korean group to successfully make it onto the global stage was BTS, who did so with an underdog story that made fans feel like they were part of that rise to the top.

Other domestic acts such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Babymetal achieved far more attention and praise outside of Japan than AKB48, but their success was always limited by the viral nature of their spread. J-pop heavyweights like Hikaru Utada made critically celebrated music, but approached the industry in a way closer to 2009 than 2019. Even acts like Nogizaka46 and Keyakizaka46, who wrote more socially conscious lyrics, couldn’t exist without AKB48 coming first (partially because they are the group’s officially sanctioned rivals).

AKB48 isn’t officially over, but its decade of dominance has left music fans questioning their confidence in the once-dominant Oricon charts. Fan armies are the norm now, the more devoted they are the better. These things may have happened naturally with the advent of social media and reality TV, but, at least in Japan, we can credit Akimoto and AKB48 for being at the forefront of the changes.

Four times AKB48 was legitimately great

Let’s face it, the Grammys won’t be calling up AKB48 anytime soon. However, the group has produced plenty of genuinely entertaining songs and talented personalities over the past 10 years. Here are a few standouts:
■ Rino Sashihara: Despite AKB48’s regressive aspects, the group produced one of the most outspoken women in Japanese entertainment. Her mere existence continues to be a joy.
■ “Uza” (2012): Pushed forward by pounding percussion and horror-movie synth melodies. This is AKB48 at its most musically unsettling, ripe for sampling by niche witch house artists and trance DJs alike.
■ “Gingham Check” (2012): A music video directed by Joseph Khan (Britney Spears, Taylor Swift) that pokes fun at various film genres, from kaijū monster flicks to over-the-top cop dramas. It’s the one time AKB48 members have had romantic interests on screen, but because of the “Inception”-worthy idea they’re pretending to be in movies, the whole thing gets a pass.
■ “Koisuru Fortune Cookie” (2013): The one time AKB48 courted a mainstream audience over the fandom, complete with a video inviting us all to dance in the streets. It’s light afternoon disco with a touch of fear about the future, and has also aged well.