The election debate that raged across Japan for weeks is over, campaigners are packing their things and TV pundits are moving on to different topics — all-girl pop group AKB48 has a new president.
Pictures of teary-eyed 23-year-old Yuko Oshima dominated yesterday’s newspapers after her victory in a popular ballot for the top spot in one of the world’s highest-grossing acts.
Hundreds of hours of television coverage culminated in a live special with millions tuning in nationwide to see Oshima crowned.
“You, my dear fans, have given water and light,” a teary-eyed Oshima told fans, comparing herself with a flower bud.
Everyone was allowed to vote — as long as they bought a copy of AKB48’s most recent single.
The single and accompanying ballot paper, which had a list price of ￥1,600 (US$20), shifted a record-breaking 1.17 million units the day it went on sale, with some fans reportedly buying multiple copies to boost the chances of their favorite candidate.
With a 90-strong pool of girls in their teens and early 20s who are rotated in and out of the public eye based on their popularity, AKB48 is part pop act, part talent show.
Wednesday’s election was sparked by the forthcoming “graduation” from AKB48 of 20-year-old Atsuko Maeda, who led the collective twice — her reign was interrupted by Oshima for a year.
Maeda’s tearful abdication earlier this year clears the way for her to pursue solo projects, possibly still under the careful guidance of Yasushi Akimoto, the mastermind behind the group and decider of who performs on stage.
Music critic and commentator on Japan’s entertainment industry Satoshi Hamano said the election — while seemingly little more than a slick marketing trick — was borne of demands from fans.
“Some fans complained and demanded they should be allowed to select who should be their idols,” he said. “It was a democratic movement against dictator Akimoto. It may sound wild, but the movement is comparable to the Arab Spring.”
Hyperbole notwithstanding, the group’s popularity is staggering, as is the merchandising industry it supports.
They are also advertising gold and have been involved in promotions for products as diverse as sweets and government bonds, while fronting a campaign aimed at reducing teenage suicide.
The pitfalls of fame have largely been avoided for the group; an incident in which the mother of one leading member was alleged to have had sexual relations with a teenage boy failed to dent the girl’s popularity and received scant coverage in Japan’s tame mainstream media.
Complaints about the over sexualization of the young women — many of whom are still teenagers — are simply brushed aside.
Critic Hamano said Wednesday’s election served as a proxy for democratic empowerment in a country largely run by older men.
“Japanese youth do not believe they can change real politics, where old politicians hold a tight grip on power, but they believe they can change AKB48,” he said.
“Fans of AKB48 believe they can take part in the process of making a real star, rather than simply accepting what the industry says is good. This is the Japanese version of the American dream,” Hamano added.