When you step onto the streets of Akihabara, you know that you’re in Tokyo. The crowds, the lights, the giant pop culture-focused billboards, the streets filled with electronic stores, cat cafes next door to maid cafes: in the space of a few busy blocks, the stereotypical vision of the Japanese capital materialises before your very eyes. On one stretch of road, you can grab a meal at an eatery dedicated to popular robot-focused anime series Gundam. On another, you can visit an 800-year old shrine. Nestled amongst the hustle and bustle is the AKB48 theatre, as well as the combined AKB48 cafe and shop, with the former offering daily concerts by the eponymous girl group, and the latter giving aficionados the chance to snack on themed treats and buy souvenirs.
Who are AKB48? They’re the singing, dancing heart of the pop culture-filled and -fueled area, and they’re among the groups that have brought pop idols back to prominence in Japan. In the idol world, the path to success isn’t as straightforward as having talent, crooning catchy tunes, attracting attention and cultivating adoring followers. Some groups have more members than a sizeable sporting club (as their name suggests, AKB48 has 48) and boast their own dedicated spaces that act as permanent concert venues and havens for fans alike. It’s a sign of just what pop stardom now means in Japan, and how big the idol industry has become.
AKB48 aren’t just big; holding the Guinness World Record for the largest pop group in the world, and ranking as the biggest-selling female group in the country, they’re huge. Their popularity is also infectious, spawning five sister groups in Japan, one in Indonesia and one in China. Plans for three others have also been announced, based in Thailand, the Philippines and Taiwan. While AKB48 aren’t necessarily emblematic of their song-belting peers in general, they certainly typify the feverish obsession with all things pop that’s not only embedded in Japanese culture, but continuing to blossom.
It was in 1999 that five-piece boy band Arashi helped reignite the pop idol trend, bringing manufactured groups filled with photogenic stars and held up as role models back into view. Put together by a talent agency, there was no doubting the level of fame that they were courting; however, the response that followed wasn’t as easy to anticipate. Accordingly, when Arashi garnered a growing fanbase, a tsunami of fandom, competitors and imitators followed suit.
Nearly twenty years later, with the group’s members nearing their mid-thirties, they’ve been hosting variety and game show VS Arashi for almost a decade, beaming the group into homes every week, and continuing a career-long television presence that includes eleven other, similar shows. Their on-screen resume also includes TV specials, a lengthy list of commercials, two television dramas and a series of movies. Within the J-pop industry, they’re almost an industry themselves. Like other popular groups in Japan, Arashi aren’t simply music sensations — they’re impossible to escape.
Beyond their shores, the term “idol” remains intrinsically linked with popular music, of course, and even more so thanks to rise of reality TV singing competitions such as Pop Idol, American Idol and Australian Idol. As millions watched and voted during the programs’ runs, contestants clamoured for televised attention and a recording contract for whoever emerged victorious, with anything beyond that a bonus.
Indeed, the scope of AKB48 and Arashi’s success is the kind of thing that most musicians can only dream of, even those that have topped the charts around the globe. It's a level of success that Justin Timberlake could never even dream of.
Versus Arashi debuts on SBS VICELAND Sunday 26 March at 6pm.