Today we have news of a fan of girl pop group AKB48 who just had to keep the fantasy going, no matter the cost:
Police on Friday re-arrested an overzealous fan of idol group AKB48, adding to previous charges of theft for which he is already on trial. Masayuki Fujioka, 35, is suspected of committing 151 robberies in four prefectures. He was quoted by police as saying, “I needed money for train fare and concerts so I could chase AKB48.”
According to police, Fujioka illegally trespassed in a construction site in Tochigi City on the night of Oct 6, breaking into a vending machine and stealing 4,700 yen. Authorities say that, since around December 2002, Fujioka committed 151 robberies in Tochigi, Saitama, Ibaraki and Gunma prefectures, stealing a total of 4.1 million yen.
While we have no way of knowing whether this guy really was spending it all on AKB48, it certainly rings true. AKB48 has been a phenomenal success story in what is otherwise a shrinking and lackluster music scene in Japan. The concept is “idols you can actually meet.” While the music and dancing are nothing special, they are very able at appealing to an audience of young “otaku” men. In 2009, AKB48 became more popular than ever, moving from the “fringe” status as an otaku group to more mainstream exposure on TV and magazines.
The group consists of 3 “teams” of around 16 members each (age range: 16-24) who perform semi-independently. With so many to choose from, in addition to dozens of “trainees” aged 15-20, the fans tend to choose one favorite and follow her closely.
The producer, Yasushi Akimoto, exercises total control over the process and has been called a genius for his business model. It combines the J-pop practice of building a long-term, loyal fan base (many old bands long past their prime can still crank out hit singles and fill arenas for this reason), the penchant for fawning over young, innocent girls in the otaku subculture, and the revenue maximization strategy of a hostess bar.
It’s that last part that has led to some illegality and controversy. Here’s a list of some of the group’s money-making practices, some of which I cribbed from a lengthy piece in the Sankei Shimbun:
- Perhaps the group’s biggest source of revenue is “handshaking events” where fans who bought a limited edition single on the official website receive a ticket that lets them meet and greet a member of their choice. The rarity of these tickets makes them popular items on Yahoo Auctions, Japan’s answer to eBay. The biggest fans find a girl they like and try to attend as many of the events as possible. Of course, the group also releases CDs and holds concert tours just like any other band, though they operate their own proprietary ticketing system.
- One CD came with a “ballot” that the buyer could use to vote for who will sing on the next AKB48 single. Some of the more avid fans bought hundreds of CDs to vote for their favorites. A journalist in the Sankei explains this is very similar to when a customer at a hostess bar will buy drink after drink for his favorite to help her succeed.
- Another CD release came with a poster of a random member included. Fans started trading on online auctions to try and collect them all.
- The group’s home turf is the 8th floor of the Don Quijote discount shop in Akihabara. Members perform just about every day (having a giant roster of 100 members and sub-members helps keep this going).
- Members also regularly appear in weekly magazine photo spreads in what is very close to softcore porn, not something an earlier, similar group Morning Musume would have done.
- On their website, there is a link to an address where you are invited to send “fan letters and gifts.”
- Akimoto is trying to franchise the “48” idea to other countries, envisioning a Paris 48 or Jakarta 48. There was a documentary a couple months ago about his trip to a marketing convention to try and sell the idea, but so far I have not heard whether he succeeded or not.
In addition to the thief mentioned earlier, other criminals have sold counterfeit event tickets, and one fan started stealing a member’s mail. Clearly some kind of fan worship goes on with any popular group, but AKB48 has clearly done a better job than most of exploiting the relationship between performer and fan.