In April, China’s Culture Ministry fined two young women 50,000 yuan (¥625,000) each for lip-syncing during performances in the city of Chengdu last year. The authorities characterize this edict against “fake singing” as a kind of truth-in-advertising rule, but most people think it was an overreaction to the negative publicity the government received when it admitted that a 9-year-old girl lip-synced a song during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. That girl had replaced another who was a much better singer but was considered unphotogenic.

The Olympic organizers were being criticized for something that professional entertainers do frequently. Though international stars such as Britney Spears and Janet Jackson have been slammed for lip-syncing on stage, it’s understood to be a widespread phenomenon, and understandable given the huge production costs for major pop-music shows, which are expected to be perfect.

Lip-syncing is less of a problem in Japan, which isn’t to say J-pop stars don’t do it, but rather that most fans are less interested in the quality of the singing. A concert offers them the chance to get closer to their pop idol; whether the idol can hit the notes is more or less secondary. That’s why there’s almost as much talking as there is singing at J-pop shows.

The popular girls collective AKB48 has taken this idea to its natural end. The prospect of getting close to the group is at least as meaningful to AKB48’s predominantly male fans as the performance is.

The group started out in 2005 as a theatrical experience. Young men who thronged to the Tokyo electronics mecca of Akihabara to sample its otaku (obsessive fans) delights were drawn to a special venue where they could watch young, pure female idols dance and sing in colorful costumes; and then, afterward, meet them in person.

Demand for tickets is now so intense that they have to be sold via lottery, and the group’s singles are automatic chart-toppers. More significantly, AKB48’s popularity has grown beyond its otaku base, at least in terms of recognition. Some girls appear on TV as isolated tarento (personalities), and the group’s management has produced offshoots to exploit certain members and satisfy regional demand.

Nevertheless, the group’s aesthetic remains focused on otaku sensibilities. Except for novelty numbers that allow the girls to play dress-up — as vegetables, say, or yanki (juvenile delinquents) — the upbeat songs speak directly to the target audience. In “Shiata no Megami” (“Theater Goddess”), the girls rejoice, “Here you are close to us, where we can shine brighter than on TV or in photo spreads.” Sometimes the songs even take a male perspective, which makes it easier for boys to sing along. Audience participation is central to the AKB48 experience.

Another important experience is the vicarious sexual one. Like most Japanese female idols, the members of AKB48 are passive. The costumes have become more revealing, but the choreography is childlike and the public personas artless. There is one side project called SDN48 — SDN stands for “Saturday night” — with older members dressed in lingerie singing about “getting on the bed,” but it seems more like a bid to cover all conceptual bases than an effort to build a new brand.

The AKB48 empire provides the manga- and anime-fueled fantasy of the sexually innocent but willing girl, a strategy that may have backfired last week when it was reported that a man at a Fukuoka AKB48 concert “molested” some female fans in the audience.

The person responsible for the group’s image is veteran producer/lyricist Yasushi Akimoto. Though he didn’t invent the idea of the female aidoru (manufactured singer), which emerged in the late 1970s, Akimoto was instrumental in its development, having written for Onyanko Club, a late-’80s precursor to AKB48. Akimoto clarified the sexual suggestion that floated below the surface of idol performance. “Don’t take off my sailor suit,” was one Onyanko lyric, reprised in the AKB48 song “Poniteru to Shushu” (“Ponytail and Scrunchie”): “Don’t undo my ponytail/I want to stay a girl.”

Female idols aren’t as sustainable as male idols, who can remain boys even into their late 30s. Girls usually retire, so the real precursor to AKB48 isn’t Onyanko Club, which ended once its members became old enough to drink, but Morning Musume, a collective of idols who are replaced once they turn a certain age.

There are plans to export this business model overseas by creating AKB48-like theaters in Hong Kong or New York, but the model would have to be localized. Cute and passive may not be enough.

Right now, the biggest threat to Japanese pop is Korea. Female K-pop groups such as Kara and Girls Generation are much more accomplished in terms of singing and dancing. However, their Japanese fans appear to be mainly female, probably because they act sexually assertive, a trait many Japanese boys find intimidating.

That doesn’t mean these groups own their sexuality. Korean authorities are concerned that too many teenage female singers are being coerced into showing skin and dancing provocatively. Regardless of which image they sell, Korean idols and their Japanese counterparts do what they’re told because they want to be idols at any cost. In May, Shukan Bunshun reported that some parents of AKB48 members have complained about pay, which is low even by idol standards. According to the magazine, except for the stars, most girls only take home ¥100,000 or so per month.

That may be part of AKB48’s appeal, since low salaries imply that the girls work hard because they want to. But there’s no guarantee that all this hard work will lead to something. Very few girl-group idols go on to solo stardom, much less successful singing careers. One was Shizuka Kudo, who not only “graduated” from Onyanko Club to become a top J-pop artist, but ended up marrying SMAP heartthrob Takuya Kimura, who said he had always nursed a crush on her. Sometimes the otaku aren’t who you expect them to be.

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