January 16, 2019

Rock, paper scissors and the fierce world of Japanese pop

aksWhat if it all depended on a rock, paper, scissors contest? Everything you had ever worked for your entire life, decided by a split-second choice. Rock. Paper. Scissors. For 24-year-old Miku Tanabe, that is exactly what happened.
When gripping footage emerged last month of what appeared to be the most intense and melodramatic response to victory in any rock, paper, scissors contest in the history of mankind, the internet was beside itself with bewilderment.
The crowd roared, she doubled over, wept with joy, the frenzy rose – and finally, she just looked at her hand, her bare hand, the true hero of this historic win.
What most people did not know was this was a contest that decided which member of wildly popular Japanese girl group AKB48 would get to front the band.
“For the last decade, I didn’t get to do much TV work or didn’t stand in the front row of our performance at the AKB theatre,” Tanabe told the BBC.
Suddenly her hysteria made much more sense. What lies behind the almost comic melodrama is actually a story of personal ambition, disappointment and an insight into Japan’s unique music industry.
Since 2005, the AKB48 group has sold more than 40 million singles and it has become little short of a phenomenon in the time it has been active.
There are some 130 girls, not 48, in AKB48, and not all of them get to be part of their songs or TV appearances. They gained popularity as “idols you can go and meet” because members hold a daily performance at the AKB theatre in Akihabara.
They are usually selected by producer Yasushi Akimoto based on their popularity. And in what’s known as the “AKB48 general election”, the members of not only AKB48 but also its sister groups have been ranked by their fans annually since 2009.
The competition between them can be intense and despite making it to one of the most sought-after pop music outfits in the country, it is easy to feel like you have failed.
While Tanabe is a 10-year veteran of the band, it’s safe to say she hasn’t really enjoyed the spotlight. Her best performance was when she came 71st out of 296 girls in 2014 in the popularity contest.
At that time it seemed to be the best outcome she could hope for so for the last two years, she didn’t even stand in the AKB general election.
She appeared to have given up becoming identified as a successful member of the group.

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