In September, I went to an AKB48 concert. About the time I came to Japan, AKB48 skyrocketed in popularity, so seeing them in concert is one of the things that until now had been sitting unchecked on my Japan checklist.
AKB48 (read "A.K.B. Forty-eight") is a Japanese girl group which has achieved such popularity in Japan that they've been characterized as a social phenomenon. The group has 64 members, ranging in age from early teens to mid-20s. Produced by Yasushi Akimoto, it is one of the highest-earning musical acts in the world, with 2011 record sales of over $200 million in Japan alone.
The group's thirteen latest consecutive singles topped the Oricon Weekly Singles Chart. In 2010, "Beginner" and "Heavy Rotation" placed, respectively, first and second in the list of Japan's best selling singles for the year, while in 2011 AKB48 occupied the whole top 5 of the Oricon Yearly Singles Chart. With 15,130,000 CD single sales by Jun 29, 2012 according to Music Station, AKB48 holds the record for most singles sold in Japan by a female group.
AKB48 is named after Akihabara (Akiba for short), the area in Tokyo where the group's own theater is located. The idea of AKB48's producer Yasushi Akimoto was to create a girl group that, unlike a regular pop group, which gives occasional concerts and that is mostly seen on TV, would have its own theater and perform there on a daily basis; the fans would always be able to go and see the girls live. Presently, AKB48 still performs at the theater every day, although, due to great demand, tickets are now distributed only via a lottery.
— Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AKB48), 2012-10-21.
On September 13th, I won the ticket lottery for the show. So, after school I went home, grabbed the flashiest shirt I own, and headed down to the theater. AKB48 has many members, and on any given night, only perhaps 15 of them perform. There are three groups — teams, as they're called — Team A, Team K and Team B, and on the night I went, Team B was performing the "Theater Goddesses" show (in Japanese, シアターの女神). A few members of Team B are rather famous, and though I didn't know any of the names beforehand, many of my students later told me who the most popular girls are. Here are their names: 石田晴香・河西智美・北原里英・小林香菜・小森美果・佐藤亜美菜・佐藤夏希・鈴木紫帆里・鈴木まりや・近野莉菜・伊豆田莉奈・小林茉里奈・森川彩香・サイード横田絵玲奈・佐々木優佳里・平田梨奈.
I went to the show and was, predictably, the only obvious foreigner in the audience. The girls sang and danced, and I didn't know any of the songs. Much of the rest of the audience, though, clearly had the entire set list memorized. Because AKB48 performs many different sets, that's no small feat — some of the guys in the audience with me were clearly remarkably devoted fans. The show itself took about two hours, and there were some half a dozen costume changes, which was fitting given the theater's being located in the heart of Akihabara, perhaps the center of Japanese cosplay. The singing was fairly good, the music was upbeat, the (two) ballads were mediocre (unsurprising, seeing as how the girls mostly sing bubblegum pop), and the costumes and dancing were top notch.
After the show was done, we all waited a few minutes. Upon exiting the theater, the girls who danced that night were standing in a line so we could give them high fives. I'm not sure who thought up this ridiculousness, but when in Rome, as they say, and fan service is fan service. Akihabara is one of those strange and special places in Japan, and though my Japanese friends insist that Akiba culture is not Japanese culture, I strongly disagree. After all, culture is where you find it (like Las Vegas), even if it's a a little fun and weird. To quote the AKB48 song 夕陽をみてるか, 「楽しいことが勝ち越せばいい」.