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Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011
AKB48 all-girl pop group craze spurs clone spinoffs, wannabes Asia-wide
By YUKIKO TOYODA
SINGAPORE — The first overseas AKB48 Official Cafe, where fans of the huge Japanese all-girl pop group can meet its members while having a meal or tea, opened in Singapore in July and has since gathered enthusiasts from across Asia.
The growing international popularity of the group, created in 2005 with the concept "Idols you can meet every day," has also caught the eye of the Japanese government and corporate officials trying to boost the country's content business and exports on the strength of Japanese pop culture.
The cafe opened in a building that also houses a 500-seat theater where members of AKB48 and its sister units fly to from Japan for regular twice-a-month concerts, with tickets priced at 50 Singaporean dollars. Events are held more frequently at the cafe, for which fans can buy SG$35 tickets to meet the members there and have Japanese-style meals and drinks.
One such fan event was held in early September at the cafe, when some members of SKE48, a sister group based in Nagoya, visited.
A 28-year-old man said he came all the way from Hong Kong, paying about ¥50,000 in travel expenses. There were also fans who had traveled from Taiwan and Malaysia.
The company employee from Hong Kong said he has been a big fan of SKE48 since he saw a video of one of their concerts on the Internet.
"I like this place, because it can make us feel close to them. We can hardly buy the tickets for their concerts in Japan (due to strong demand), but here we can even shake hands with them!" he said excitedly while awaiting the appearance of the girls.
Dozens of fans, mostly men who looked to be in their 20s to 30s, cheered when some SKE48 members, including Riho Abiru, 18, finally appeared.
The operator of the cafe said tickets for fan events are often sold out in 20 minutes, especially when popular members participate.
The SKE48 girls also gave a concert at the theater.
Just like in Japan, the audience shouted in unison with precise timing and danced vibrantly during each song.
"I was surprised to find that fans here act exactly the same way as in Japan, including mix," Abiru said after the concert. "Mix" refers to fan chants during or before songs, often seen in the concerts of Japanese idol groups.
The creation of the base in Singapore has been helping the popularity of AKB48, SKE48 and other associated groups to rise rapidly in Asia.
Created by TV and music producer Yasushi Akimoto and composed of roughly 48 core members, AKB48 has been performing at its own theater in Tokyo's Akihabara district almost every day and has become one of the most popular Japanese idol groups of all time.
The troupe, consisting of AKB48 and its sister groups created later, such as SKE48 in Nagoya, NMB48 in Osaka and HKT48 in Fukuoka, has a total of over 150 members.
"It is vital (for entertainers) to stay on site in order to establish their names abroad. The troupe of AKB48 have realized it," said Haruhiko Miyano, who works at Dentsu Singapore Pte., a local subsidiary of Japanese advertising giant Dentsu Inc., and is involved with the AKB48 project in Singapore.
The pop idols are also attracting Japanese government agencies and private companies pursuing a growth strategy linked to modern Japanese culture such as animation, fashion and food under the "Cool Japan" slogan.
Prior to their popularity, Japan had lagged behind South Korea in expanding such business into overseas markets. South Korea has made particular use of its popular TV dramas.
"AKB48 provides new content with the potential to substantially improve the image of Japan," said a senior official of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry. For example, the official said Japanese companies may feature AKB48 in their TV commercials to be aired in key Asian markets.
AKB48 as a business model looks to continue evolving further.
Projects are under way to form sister groups in several Asian countries, starting with JKT48, which is expected to be launched in Jakarta by the end of this year.
Future plans include holding "general elections" in such Asian countries, or annual votes by fans to choose their favorite members, drawing wide public attention in Japan, and to give a joint concert by several Japanese and other Asian units.
At the cafe in Singapore, local girls in school uniforms also take to the stage mimicking AKB48.
Read more about the spread of AKB48 spin-offs on Japan Pulse.