Global Vibes Japan: AKB48, girl group turned international sensation

Girl band. Social phenomenon. Guinness World Record holder. The Japanese pop group AKB48, made up of over 60 girls ranging between early teens and mid-20s, proudly holds these titles and many more. Beginning as a small theater troupe in Tokyo, this group has blossomed into one of the highest-selling musical acts in the world. With performances stretching across several countries, there is a seemingly endless supply of performers. In a nutshell, those who go to YouTube and search for AKB48 should prepare themselves for a veritable explosion of energetic attitude, commanding stage presence and a visual interpretation of every definition of the word “pep.”

Brought together by Japanese record producer Yasushi Akimoto, the original AKB48 group consisted of 21 members, dubbed “Team A,” performing in a theater in the Akihabara section of Tokyo. Their first single, “Sakura no Hanabiratachi,” was released in early 2006 on an independent label, followed soon by “Skirt, Hirari” later that year. Both singles spent weeks in the Top 200 in Japan and led to the group’s first record deal with DefStar Records in August 2006. In the years following, AKB48 grew into the massive entertainment spectacle it is today, recruiting enough members to form an additional “Team K,” “Team B” and “Team 4.” The separation into teams allows the group to give a performance every day in their original Akihabara theater, while at the same time appearing in venues around world, ranging from Russia to the United States. As of now, AKB48 has released five albums and almost thirty singles, thirteen of which have topped the charts in their native Japan.

Despite the enormous success and recognition that AKB48 has achieved over the past few years, the life of an individual member is short-lived. Whenever members become too old, usually around the 25-year mark, they “graduate” from the group, allowing newer and younger performers to audition for their spots. Using this method, the group constantly changes its face, allowing it to constantly showcase new talent and potentially outlast any other musical act in the world in terms of popularity and fame.

As if being the highest-selling female group in Japanese music history was not enough, AKB48 has also appeared in several other media outlets. Films, television shows and even an anime series starring the likenesses of several group members have been produced, making this Japanese pop act one of the most integrated and influential in the modern entertainment industry. In addition to a wide variety of performances, AKB48 has left its mark on the world through philanthropic actions, most notably in the case of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011. In response to this disaster, the group donated around one billion yen to the Japanese relief fund, the equivalent of over 100 million US dollars.

From an outsider’s perspective, perhaps the most astonishing aspect of AKB48 is the sheer number of personnel connected to the group. Not only is it one of the largest pop acts ever seen, but the number of back-up singers, spin-off groups and former members reaches into the hundreds. It is hard to imagine such an extensive network existing here in the United States, where solo acts like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga have become the norm. Only time will tell if the bubbly, cheerleader-ish style of AKB48 will find a place in the western entertainment market. If it does, America had better be ready to get extremely hyped up and slightly uncomfortable, because this group holds nothing back.