The AKB48 General Election happened this past Saturday in Okinawa and, well, after consuming it we feel a lot like Mayu Watanabe in the above photo. Let’s get into it.
First, the predictable: Sashihara Rino won this spectacle of Akihabara-flavored democracy for the third year in a row, pulling in 246,376 votes. Second place went to someone very familiar with that position, Mayu Watanabe, mustering 149,132 votes making this one a blow out. These two have been duking it out for the top spot, with only a few other names occasionally threatening either of their rankings for the last five years. Calling them “rivals” seems a little over the top, seeing as Rino has four victories compared to Watanabe’s one, but they also feel like the AKB universe’s only true contenders. Ogino Yuka, a member of fledgling sister act NGT48, surprised many by leading initial polling, but ultimately finished fifth.
Maybe her time is on the horizon, as Watanabe announced she will be graduating from AKB48 as part of her runner-up speech (for the uninformed, yeah this is indeed like a real political election). Rino, meanwhile, said prior to all this she wouldn’t be partaking in any future elections; she’ll still be in the group.
The 2017 AKB election, then marks a significant crossroads for the pop group. Despite the general hoopla, TV coverage (this was all broadcast live on one of Japan’s major channels) and internet buzz, AKB48 and the various insertcityhere48 shoot-offs have not been the center of the J-pop world in quite sometime. They are still big, but they don’t command the same attention as they once did. For many casual folks, Rino and Watanabe might be the only members they even recognise. And now one is exiting the group while the other basically moves to her own corner of the AKB-verse. This year’s results don’t point towards anyone filling their space, if anything, it makes the future of the group’s pop-culture presence seem quite shaky.
OK, enough analysis. On to the requisite scandal!
NMB48’s Sutou Ririka landed at 20th, and during her speech announced she was getting married. Watch the moment above, and note several things, such as the general puzzled looks on everyone’s faces (including Mayu Watanabe) plus the general baffled reaction, save for her group mates, who shout “congratulations!” and generally freak out for her. As you might be able to pick up, this isn’t normal at AKB elections! The engagement bomb dropped out of nowhere, and seemingly caught (almost) everyone off guard.
You might be familiar with AKB48’s “no dating” policy, which requires members not to be in relationships because the world of idol music is built on a fantasy of fan-performer closeness, and who wants reality and choice getting in the way of pop? A marriage announcement, then, at the group’s biggest yearly event is pretty shocking to those absorbed in this scene. It’s the topic that has dominated discussion online, inspiring anger and memes in equal measures.
A few quick highlight; no shortage of angry idol fans lambasting her for the announcement because it “betrays” the people who voted for her, along with subtle disses that popped up in speeches of other group members primarily because of where and how she did it; a viral tweet by a guy who bought 5000 copies of the last single to vote for Ririka wishing her luck, before posting a follow-up after the announcement disowning her; former election winner Yuko Oshima, on a livestream post-election, said she would show how she felt about the announcement via a word featured on a hat. It was a profane one.
So yeah, a lot to soak in. J-pop’s biggest night never fails to deliver.
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