Girl Groups: A Social Phenomenon in Japan

We'd like to welcome Alex McNulty as our newest International Correspondent. Alex is currently living and studying in Tokyo, Japan as a student at Sophia University. In this post she turns her attention to the crazy girl group AKB48.  

Advertisements line every crowded street and organized subway station with posters of AKB48’s 86 members fetishized in schoolgirl uniforms. This group of girls spanning their teens and twenties is widely known throughout Japan for their daily performances and franchises dedicated to them in the electric district of Akihabara, where there were founded. What began as a small theater group in Tokyo has now spread throughout the country, earning them a spot as one of the highest-selling musical acts in the world with growing international acclaim. Their first single was released in 2006 and an instant chart topper, and their influence and group size continues to increase year after year. Currently the female group has released five albums and shows no signs of slowing down.

Interestingly, a member of AKB48 is considered old by 25, thus signaling an end in their career with the group and creating new openings for younger talent to make their mark as an idol. This cycle creates hype and excitement around the group contributing to their mass success and long-lasting popularity while also indicative of one’s worth in Japanese society, focused on value of the youth. AKB48 proudly holds the title of the highest-selling female group in Japanese music history and markets themselves in highly integrated ways. AKB48 has positioned themselves in a way that has attracted international attention from top brands seeking partnerships such as Google, Shiseido, and Asahi for example. You can spot the girls in films, television shows, and even anime series furthering their domination of the entertainment industry. The culture of AKB48 is one that creates a collectivistic network of individuals dedicated to their fans.

The dynamic of this significant group and the girl group phenomenon in Japan is a point of contrast compared to the Western music world in which group members typically break apart from one another to embark on their own solo career. A big contributor to the sensation of girl groups popular in Japan is that the girls’ bubbly personas create an escape from reality for fans.

Also unique to Japan’s culture, and noteworthy of the society’s values, is the terrible injustice that the group members are not permitted to be romantically involved and thus must sacrifice a love life. AKB48’s contract clause all members must abide by states, “unrequited love is permissible, but you cannot return the affection”. This is because according to management, a girl’s value as an idol is at stake if it becomes public knowledge that she has a boyfriend, since a collective focal point of the group’s mission is to sell fantasies to male fans. The Japanese term to describe this clause is “Renai Kinshi”, meaning "love forbidden". This year, one of the founding members, Minami Minegishi, was accused of having a boyfriend and the story made headlines in all of Japan’s major media outlets. While she publicly apologized for her actions by shaving her head, AKB48’s management demoted her to the trainee level of the girl group as her punishement.

Despite these teenage girls being marketed as sex symbols, any form of a  relationship is extremely unacceptable and may result in one’s dismissal from the group. Can you imagine being prohibited from expressing your true feelings for the one you love, particularly by your boss? How unfair as well that boy band members are not held to a similar standard to preserve the fantasies of female fans?

AKB48’s success can be seen in the production of sister groups in additional areas of Japan such as Osaka and Nagoya and worldwide in countries such as China, Singapore, and Taiwan. AKB48, know for their schoolgirl rock attire is backed by Asia’s largest advertising agency, Dentsu Inc. Success rates coupled with fan loyalty indicate that with Dentsu behind them, they will continue to be a dominant force in Japan’s pop culture as idols of fashion and music. Dentsu controls about a third of all traditional advertising in Japan, resulting in enormous impact over the Japanese media.

An AKB48 song most shocking to me from two years ago is called, “Seifuku ga Jama wo Suru” (“My School Uniform’s Getting In The Way”),, in which the lyrics read, “My school uniform’s getting in the way, I want to be loved more freely, don’t look at me like that, I’m just a high school girl…”. This song alone is indicative of the hypersexualization occurring towards these group members. The members of AKB48 are continuously marketed as sex symbols for their niche market: the otaku; a word indicative of Japan's obsessive subculture of nerds typically interested in anime and manga.

Japan’s ultimate girl group represents brilliant marketing techniques that the U.S. should pay close attention to in terms of creating stars that are not only relatable, but ones easily accessible as well. For example, the group’s singles are oftentimes released with lottery tickets to meet members of the group. Fans also have the ability to interact on a more intimate level with the group members by voting in the annual AKB48 "election," which is a giant contest crowning the leader of the group. With such a specific target demographic, the question remains of whether or not AKB48 will transcend influence to the U.S. They have made headway with their song “Sugar Rush”,, which is featured on the animated movie “Wreck-It Ralph” soundtrack. This animated film entered Japanese theaters in March 2013 and is a prime example of how Japanese culture has been influencing the Western world. If a spin-off group were to enter the U.S. market, I believe that the women would not be treated in the same stifling way, but rather would experience more freedom from oppression to express their individuality within the group.  

More about Alex... she is a senior at Miami University, majoring in Mass Communication and minoring in Sociology. She has a passion for human relations, and her worldview has been significantly expanded during her four months abroad having been exposed to the unique culture and society of Japan. It has been intriguing to her to observe what life is like for women in Japan, particularly the ongoing inequality in the workforce. She is not sure what her future plans after graduation are, but hopes there is another opportunity to venture back to Japan and truly believes in the mantra, “when nothing is sure, everything is possible”!