2012 is a big year for elections.
Not only have televisions and newspapers from around the world been swooped up in the American presidential election campaign, we’ve also seen history made in Egypt, with the country in the midst of its first democratic election in centuries.
On the other side of the world, Josefina Vazquez Mota is in the running to become Mexico’s first female President; while Francois Hollande made it clear to the French people that he was standing “alone as a candidate before the French people. Alone. It is not a couple standing but a personality who must convince with his ideas, his method…”
But there is one event that has flown under the radar of most international press and – alas – may not make it into the political history books: the annual AKB48 ‘election’.
If, like myself, you’re a new to the realm of J-Pop democracy, the idea of a band-election may seem a little strange. But when there are 64 members in a single band, deciding who will be the next year’s “leader” is a tough task.
Instead, the band has handed the reins to their masses of fans, in a move that the Japan Times has dubbed “one of the smartest marketing moves the people behind the group have ever made.”
The election requires voters to fill out a ballot which is included with copies of AKB’s latest single, Manatsu no Sounds Good! And with CDs selling for 1200 yen (US$15.23), it’s easy to see the Japan Times’ point of view.
But it gets better. AKB48 is most popular in their hometown, Akihabara (hence AKB), a part of Tokyo infamous for its Otaku subculture. Fans are known to buy extra copies of these election singles to make sure their favourite singer receives as many votes as possible.
So much for ‘democracy’.
According to the Japan Times, Manatsu no Sounds Good! sold 1.61 million copies in its first week on the shelves, breaking Oricon music-chart records.
Like all good political stunts, AKB’s election results will be revealed live in a three-hour, internationally broadcast show on Fuji TV next Wednesday.
According to the official press release, “Japanese media [coverage] and level of general awareness of this event are almost on par with a real political election” which is frightening to say the least.
Overlooking the fact that people must buy their votes, the whole idea of an AKB ‘election’ stirs up more ‘objectification of women’ arguments, too.
Several months ago, many commentators were quick to point out how the group’s new music video for Heavy Rotation seemed to over sexualize the group members who age from their early teens to mid twenties.
The video opens with a point of view shot, as though the camera is peering through a keyhole, watching one of the singers undress, revealing lacy lingerie. The rest of the video swaps between pillow fights (of the girls in their underwear), eating food like cats (while in their underwear) and some snappy dancing (no underwear, here – just sexy/cute military jackets).
While this election, which is essentially an international popularity contest, doesn’t sexualize the girls, it does smell a little chauvinistic.
With so many members, AKB48 can’t project the individual personalities (either fake, or purely for marketing purposes a’la the Spice Girls) of the members. So when the public votes for their “favourite”, it’s a decision based almost entirely on looks.
I’m not usually one for jumping on the feminist bandwagon. I disagree with, although see the practicality in gender stereotyping, especially when it comes to marketing. But these ‘elections’ are taking things too far. Especially when the groups’ youngest member only just celebrated her 14th birthday earlier this month.
Earlier this year, the Japanese Health Ministry revealed that almost 30 per cent of Japanese women are under weight. Shiho Aoki told ABC News that she’s ben struggling to lose weight ever since she had a baby.
“I had a child 8 months ago, but I’ve been struggling to lose weight ever since,” she said.
“I’m very jealous of my friends who are skinny.”
In many ways, it’s difficult to criticize AKB48 and the fanaticism that they encourage. The band has done a lot for Japanese tourism, following the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, and a press release for this year’s election shows that part of the Manatsu no Sounds Good! sales will go towards the earthquake recovery.
However you look at it, AKB48’s Fourth Election is big news. Whether it’s for the right reasons, though, it’s heard to say.