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Interview with Japanese Music Producer Yasushi Akimoto

Aired January 13, 2012 - 05:30   ET



ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST (voice-over): This is the sound of Japanese pop success. AKB48, the all-female group, singing their way to the top of Japan's main music charts.

You might think you've seen this story before, but AKB48 is not your standard pop group. Its 48 members rotate in teams to perform live almost every night.

Their latest song, in aid of the Japanese tsunami recovery hit number one, selling over a million copies on its first day of release. Their success inspired the creation of spin-off fruit in Nagoya, Osaka, and more recently in Taiwan and Indonesia. The entire AKB48 franchise includes some 150 girls, making them the largest pop group in the world. But when a group single is released, only a handful of girls are chosen - handpicked by the fans.

The man behind it all is Yasushi Akimoto. A respected music producer in Japan, he created the group in 2005 with the aim of making stars out of ordinary girls.

Despite their formidable fan base in Asia, the group has also gained significant attention around the world, from New York, to Moscow, to Paris. But not everyone is a fan. Critics say that some of Akimoto's lyrics and costumes are too suggestive for the young performers and that the concept sexualizes the innocence of the girls.

This week, on "Talk Asia", we're in Tokyo with music producer Yasushi Akimoto, who explains his secret to success, responds to the critics, and takes us backstage to meet the girls of AKB48.


COREN: Definitely welcome to "Talk Asia". You are a renowned music producer here in Japan, but you're also a lyricist, a television writer, and a university professor. What do you consider yourself, first and foremost?

YASUSHI AKIMOTO, MUSIC PRODUCER (through translator): I'm not particular about my titles. It goes the same with cooking. Regardless of Chinese, French, and Italian - they are all the same in cooking. I create songs, music, movies, and TV commercials. They happen to be linked with creating. They appear different, but they are all the same for me. Also, I want to inspire young people through what I've experienced in my life at university and through education.

COREN: Your claim to fame has been the formation of your girl-group, AKB48. They are a phenomenon here, in Japan. Three key groups comprising of 48 core members. In fact, the Guinness Book of Records says it's the largest pop group in the world. Why so many performers?

AKIMOTO (through translator): Take the example of cheerleading or lacrosse. I think it's really interesting to watch everyone together, working to achieve something, like winning a championship. None of the girls have strong personalities, but once they get together, they bring about chemical reactions. In other words, all the girls are quite ordinary, but when they get together and each one comes into the picture, you can see their charm. So I think that's interesting.

COREN: I think the other interesting thing about these girls is that they are quite ordinary. They aren't necessary talented at dancing or singing, but you've managed to transform them into stars. In your words, "Idols you can meet". Where did you come up with this idea?

AKIMOTO (through translator): Our conventional definition of stars is that they are unreachable. That's why people feel so strongly for them. But there are not many people in Japan who can sing and dance as well as being visually attractive. There's probably a few here. With this in mind, if you have even one of those talents, or if you make the effort to fulfill y our dreams, we can showcase that process, which is represented by AKB48.

Usually talented people compete at auditions and those people grow to become stars through a series of hard lessons. When they make their debut, it's time to show them to the world. But in the case of AKB48, we reveal them prior to that process.

COREN: You say that you chose the girls based on their personality, but they are all pretty, cute, young girls who obviously attract a lot of male attention. Who is your target audience?

AKIMOTO (through translator): There is no target in my mind. If we set a target, it begs an answer. So target markets should not be specified. We gauge the audience reaction, and then change the formation little by little. I think that should be the way. If we concentrate on the marketing and decide what direction to take next, the group will end up with a sort of made up sense of harmony. So first, we let these girls perform here. We watch to see if the audience reacts to the girls' performance. Contrary to how we expected. Then we move ahead, while learning, little by little, like that.

COREN: Well, the group was formed back in 2005 and, in the past six years, you've released four albums with 23 singles - many of them number one hits. I think your latest single sold more than a million copies in the first day. Are you surprised by this success?

AKIMOTO (through translator): Well, yes. I didn't foresee these figures. I'm not a businessman and so I can't formulate a business plan that will tell me these measures will lead to better sales, or that we will sell this much. But what I believe is, if young people get hooked on something, it will spread. When I made TV programs, I tried to make it so that everyone, from kids to the elderly, could enjoy TV as mass media.

That's not the case with AKB48. It began because I knew there are people who like this type of entertainment, regardless of target audiences. We made something that appeals to people. At first, there were maybe only seven people who came to watch, but then it was 14 people, 28, 56, 112, and that number was snowballing. This has made what AKB48 is now. Every person listening to their music and watching DVDs have different opinions of AKB48.

In other words, because the girls are really cute, the attraction for some people is that they imagine them as their girlfriends or their idols. Girls who are around the same age as the AKB girls try to become like them and work really hard towards that. With the older generations, it's not that they are striving to realize their dreams like AKB, but they want to cheer the girls on. This idea has spread quickly. It's led to a number of sales as a result.



COREN: It is not just the music and the girls that attract the fans. It's also the amount of power that you give to the people. You hold these general elections in which people can vote for who is in the group, who will sing a solo, who will get to be the voice in an anime series. Tell me about this process.

AKIMOTO (through translator): Originally, the group consisted of 20 or so members. All the members were able to appear on CD jackets or on TV programs. But now the number of members is rapidly expanding and pictures on CDs can't fit in everyone. Music programs also limit the number of members who can appear on their show. That being the case, I have to select members. I have to choose someone from the group. I submit this formation or this team with 16 girls, just like a manager of a baseball or football team.

However, some fans then started to say, "Why hasn't producer Akimoto included this girl? And why did he choose that girl?" We've received many comments like that, so I said, "I get it, I get it". OK, then, we will have to make a dream team - like an all-star team in baseball - based on votes from fans. That's why we came up with an idea of a general election. AKB is evolving and it's not based on a concept or plan deriving from marketing data. But, rather, we listen to voices from people in the era of the internet and decide to grow in this direction or that direction, based on those voices.


COREN (voice-over): Coming up, AKB48 goes to Indonesia. We find out which girls made the cut.





COREN: The whole AKB48 team actually consists of 150 members, and you've created five spin-off sister groups - not just here in Japan, but also in Jakarta, Indonesia. Why did you decide to spread the brand to Indonesia, which is a Muslim country?

AKIMOTO (through translator): The concept of AKB48, as I mentioned, is that anyone can join. When we built the theater in Akihabara, and launched AKB48, people living in distant prefectures weren't able to go and see them perform. Because news of AKB48 had spread by way of our website, people said they want to see their performances live.

That's why we created new teams with people who were born in Nagoya or Osaka. Kids in those areas can audition as well. People in Indonesia were interested in AKB48. That's why we decided to try it in Jakarta. Kids watch AKB on the internet and they want to do to the same, but they don't know whether they have the talent. Also, it's difficult to go to Japan, to go through the auditions.

COREN: Mr. Akimoto, you write all the lyrics to the songs, and some of them have been criticized for being overtly sexual. Critics say that they're filled with double meanings - sexual meanings. And that the girls who are performing are teenagers, some as young as 13 and 14 years of age. What is your response to this criticism?

AKIMOTO (through translator): There is no criticism. The lyrics are used as metaphors. The most important thing is not to hide, but rather how to convey. I was often asked how someone like me, who is over 50, can write songs for young kids. I remember what it was like when I was a teenager. When I look back, there were sexual things and other things around that interested me. I change them, not to be dirty, but more romantic in my lyrics.

There is no real direct sexual expression in my lyrics. There are more direct sexual expressions that 13 or 14-year-olds could be exposed to, just generally, in society. But I don't intend that. I think it's better for them to have images via music or get accustomed to it through their ears and let them be more open. I think you will understand if you read my lyrics. There are no such direct expressions in my songs for teenagers. I intentionally made several sexy songs for SDN48, an older sister group, but there are no such songs for the underage.

COREN: Well, if I can read the lyrics to one of your songs for AKB48. It's "The School Uniform is Getting in the Way". And the lyrics go something like this, "I want to take off my school uniform, I want to misbehave, you can do whatever you like, I want to experience adult pleasure". That is quite suggestive, isn't it?

AKIMOTO (through translator): They're not reading their diaries. It's about acting. For example, there's a song named "Despised Love". This song is asking why junior high school kids kill themselves. AKB48 is singing this song. The music video is quite shocking. There is an image in the video that a kid goes up to the top of the building and is about to jump. Unless I take up the issues these girls are facing, as a songwriter, the issues won't get addressed.

There are kids out there who want to take off their school uniforms and misbehave. And I'm depicting realities in their lives in which they wonder whether it's OK to think that way. I'm not forcing them, I'm picturing their private lives, partly based on my imagination or newspaper articles or TV news reports. I watch what their generation is doing. The issues of bullying, suicide, traps with sugar daddies, and I'm using those issues in my songs.

At the time we initiated AKB48, I asked myself what message should we send out? At that time, I thought we will first express their realities. I thought that music will resonate with people, so I adopted music as the medium. But the lyrics that they want to misbehave or take off their uniforms are not real words from the girls, themselves.

COREN: There is a real sexualization, some would say exploitation, of teenage girls in Japanese society. And, in your videos, you do have young girls - either they're dressed in their school uniforms, or in bikinis, sexy lingerie licking food off each other's faces, kissing, bathing - are you, in some way, contributing to the problem?

AKIMOTO (through translator): No. It's an expression of art. I think you're referring to "Heavy Rotation" and it's the world depicted by an excellent artist, Mika Ninagawa. This is the same as art versus obscenity. It's up to personal judgment on how we perceive it. Even so, stylists choose the swimsuits. This and that swimwear for a specific age range.

COREN: There are talent shows in the West, such as "X-Factor" and "American Idol" that operate quite differently to yours in that they actually identify real talent and then make those people stars. Did you ever consider using that concept?

AKIMOTO (through translator): Not so far. I don't think we can stack up against the strength of entertainment in the West. It's very difficult to find talents of that level - of singing, acting, and dancing in Japan. On "American Idol", many great singing talents get together, and the winners are chosen from them. Praising their singing talents and buying their CDs are a form of entertainment.

But AKB is not the case. And it's about people who want to apply for "American Idol", but are not very good at singing. They want to dance on Broadway, but they're not really that good at it. But we show the process of their growth - that they're trying and making the effort. Which is different from the West. I don't think we could win if we competed on their turf.

COREN: Are you the Simon Cowell of Japan?

AKIMOTO (through translator): Well, we can't get that tough in Japan.

COREN: Do you think that the AKB48 concept would work in the United States or in Europe? Is it something that the West would embrace?

AKIMOTO (through translator): I think so. It might turn out to be totally different. First of all, it's accessible, so that anyone can participate. After joining, to what extent can you polish your talent? That's the most fun part. And I think "American Idol" caught on because the stories of the contestants resonate with fans and audiences. For example, a kid keeps winning, and we cheer for him. I think the audience sympathizes with the contestants. Perhaps AKB48 is not that talented in singing compared to "American Idol" winners, but they are ready to make the same effort. And once they get together, it will be another story.


COREN (voice-over): Coming up, we go back stage to meet some of the stars of AKB48.


COREN: So, Mr. Akimoto, we're off to the theater where the girls perform almost every night?

AKIMOTO (through translator): Yes, they perform almost every night.

COREN: Tell me, how did you get into this business.

AKIMOTO (through translator): When I was a high school student, my high school was attached to the university. But I wanted to go to another university and was studying for the entrance exam. I was listening to the radio while I was studying and I thought I'd be able to write the script by myself. And so I sent my script to the radio station. They said it was interesting and they told me to visit them. That was the start of my career.

COREN: Thank you very much.

Where it all happens.

Hello. Oh wow. Hi. The girls are all ready for a big performance tonight?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. Right now we're getting ready for the performance, so everyone gets ready and they get their clothes on. And then they're going to perform in front of 200 and something people. Everyone does hair. And they have their own costumes. And they dance and sing.

COREN: Yes. And you obviously all love what you do?




COREN: AKB48 is really, now, a business. It's not just the music. You have the nightly shows at the Akihabara Theater. And I know the group's name is short for that. You have merchandise stores, you have this cafe that you've opened in Singapore. Asia is really embracing this, isn't it?

AKIMOTO (through translator): I wonder about this. I don't get involved in the business development, so I don't know. Whether it's an AKB cafe or a shop in Singapore, my role is to create fun content that people will be drawn towards. It's like, if there are interesting products, stalls, and shops will pop up around them. Whether we can have success in Asia or in the West depends on this drawing power of the products. And that is to say, what attracts people will probably be the core of the business from now on. Creators make this core.

COREN: You grew up here, in Tokyo. And your musical talent was discovered at an early age. Tell us about that.

AKIMOTO (through translator): I really have no musical talent. While I was studying, I happened to listen to a radio program and thought I might like to be able to write a script for that program. I sent it to the station and started to work in the field. Originally, I didn't intend to do creative work. So it's not like my musical talent blossomed at a young age.

COREN: Before you conceived AKB48, you came up with another girls' group, Onyanko Club - how did it differ to what you have today?

AKIMOTO (through translator): The Onyanko Club was created from TV. And AKB48 was created from the theater and spread via the internet. The Onyanko Club originated from TV, so it was a one-way street. But AKB48 was born from the theater, so there's a big difference in that they can talk directly with the fans and then connect on the internet and express their views.

COREN: This is a major business for you, but for Japan, it means so much more. Your girls have become ambassadors for the country. And when the earthquake/tsunami hit, they went on to become representatives for the relief organization, whether it be for the Red Cross or raising money with MTV. What is your vision for AKB48 moving forward?

AKIMOTO (through translator): Japan is in pain, and AKB48 wants to spread energy to everyone, first and foremost. And, of course, we would like to continue our support activities. Among other things, I would like to send a message with AKB, that you can make your dreams come true. I would like to deliver this message, and not only to Japan, but also to people all over the world. Dreams do come true. But how it is realized might be more or less than what you had expected.

COREN: They're certainly inspirational words. Mr. Akimoto, great to meet you.

AKIMOTO: Thank you.

COREN: Thank you very much.

AKIMOTO: Thank you very much.