In early 2006, members of Japanese idol group AKB48 were standing on Akihabara street corners passing out fliers. Now they're the biggest female group in Japan. What a difference a few years make.
AKB48 is an idol group with three teams: the A Team, the K Team and the B Team. Depending on how many members have left or joined, there are, for all intents and purposes, roughly 48 girls in the group. Initially, the target audience was nerds — otaku. In the last couple of years the group has moved beyond geekdom and gone mainstream. They pop up on television, selling things like vegetable juice and appearing on variety shows. Golf heart throb Ryo Ishikawa counts himself as a fan.
How did the group seemingly come out of nowhere and take over the Japanese music business? One reason is the brains behind AKB48 is a Japanese pop music genius. Another is by having such a large pool to draw from. With so many members and so many spin-off groups, AKB48's management has not been hesitant to have its members do all sorts of PR. When I spoke with AKB48's manager about setting up an interview for my book on Japanese schoolgirls, his response was simply, "How many members do you want to interview?" AKB48 has been all about strength in numbers.
Pictured is Takara Tomy game "Princess Rhythm: Mini Skirt". It's an "arcade game" in the sense that you might be able to find it in the kiddy section of a Japanese arcade. You could also find it at toy stores or in shopping malls. These three AKB48 "research students" (think "idols in training") are part of a sub-unit called "Mini-Skirt" and have a song that appears in this game.
The group expands its appeal by appearing in a game aimed at little girls. Past AKB48 sub-units have sung songs for children's television shows. At the other end of the spectrum, older AKB48 members appear in bikini pin-ups in magazines to appeal to their male fans. There is a tremendous range that isn't quite found in Western pop music. Morning Musume, a group that rose to fame in the late 1990s, also did kid's songs and had a bunch of sub-units. There just wasn't so many of them.