There’s an interesting piece in the Japanese Wall Street Journal looking at the recent “election” to determine the most popular member of platoon-sized girl group AKB48. Kanai Keiko, a former Reuters reporter, translator, and editor who now teaches at Kinki University, titles her June 28 piece “Media coverage of the AKB48 ‘general election’ heats up, but almost no deeper analysis of the uproar.” Here’s a loose, abridged translation of it.
The media frenzy is finally dying down following the “election” to determine the top-ranking member of popular girl group AKB48. I’ve been struck by the fact that there has been plenty of media coverage of superficial aspects—who got how many votes, which members climbed to the top of the rankings—but almost no reporting has taken an analytical, objective look at what underlies this tumultuous affair.
The election wasn’t covered just by TV shows and sports dailies. Even the general-audience newspapers, which don’t usually give much column space to entertainment news, reported on it—a sign that Japan’s media companies judged this to be a major social matter with an impact on a broad population.
This reporting showed that the band has fans in many age groups and that the competition for the top spots in the election was fierce. The reports that stood out most, though, were those on fans who bought dozens, or even hundreds, of CDs—each of which counted as one “vote” in the election.
The more I watched, the more I came to see this as an election among bought candidates—the opposite of a contest where candidates press bribes into voters’ hands to secure their support. These fans are like female customers at host clubs, ordering bottles of Dom Perignon to try to boost their favorite host to the establishment’s top slot. These aren’t actions that people generally pursue in public view.
But this election was nothing more than a sideline entertainment industry story, right? No. The media took this up as a genuine social phenomenon; that makes it an issue to be addressed on a more universal level. Given that, you’d expect at least one media outlet to explore this event’s structural weirdness. It wouldn’t take more than a hundredth of the effort of uncovering the connections between politics and money.
It turns out there were a few entertainment industry figures speaking out about deeper aspects of this election. The June 30 Shūkan Shinchō reports that Okamura Takashi, of the popular comedy duo Ninety Nine, said during a regular radio appearance: “This is a reverse host-club situation. ‘Here, I want to make you number one in the club,’ is what the fans are saying.” Another comedian, Ijūin Hikaru, also noted on his radio show: “TV commentators have have sharp tongues when it comes to just about everything going on these days, but how are we supposed to take them seriously when they don’t have a single word to say about [AKB48 svengali] Akimoto Yasushi’s exploitation of the fans?” I find these comedians worth listening to.
Yes, it’s just entertainment. Just a meaningless pop star tale. Just sit back and watch without thinking too deeply. Don’t fret about how the media is reporting the AKB48 story. I’m sure plenty of people feel this way. But the moment the media begin to pass on the day’s events in an uncritical stream—no matter how insignificant they are—is the moment the media begin failing to fulfill their proper role. Once they start down that path, there’s a real danger that that they’ll become unable to do anything but pass a shallow information stream straight on to the audience when more serious events take place, impacting our daily activities, our work, and even our very lives.