A glimpse into the mind of Akimoto Yasushi, a man who continues to be an innovative producer
“I want to see something I’ve never seen before” is his continual response.
While persisting in his role as the center of innovations in the idol industry, Akimoto Yasushi is currently the comprehensive producer and lyricist for the AKB48 Group.
Born in 1958, he hails from Tokyo. He has been creating broadcast material since his high school days. He has worked on various programs, including “The Best Ten”. In 1983, he became known as the lyricist of Misora Hibari’s song “Kawa no nagare no you ni”, and since then has created hit after hit. Currently, he is the comprehensive producer of the AKB48 national idol group, as well as Nogizaka46 and Keyakizaka46.
—-In this special edition, we are discussing the definition of “idol”. Akimoto-san, what would your definition of “idol” be?
Akimoto: It would have to be “A flower that is plucked from the highest peak” or “The unattainable girl next door”. These are actually the words of the lyricist Aku Yuu. To call an idol “an illusion” is being a bit too blunt, but I think an idol is like a hologram that embodies some of your own ideals.
—-How do you think that image of an idol has changed throughout the years?
Akimoto: I don’t really think the idol image has changed over the years. Frankly speaking, the idol and entertainment industries don’t change. Rather, I think the ones who change are the fans who consume the entertainment. On my side of things, nothing has changed.
The way I do things is, I make things that I am satisfied with. Whether they become hits or not depends on what the consumers want at that particular time. When what I think is good and what the fans think is good coincides, that’s when an idol group gets its big break. Only when the result leaves something to be desired and people make comparisons do they start to think, “Ah, I guess idols have changed”.
Aku Yuu once told me that when Walkmans came onto the scene, there was an enormous change in the industry. It used to be that music would be played in the downtown areas, and you’d discover new songs when you heard them there and thought “Ah, I like this”. However, when Walkmans became popular, it became the norm to walk around listening to your own music selections with headphones on. At that point, you’d only be listening to songs you already like. That’s when it became hard for new songs to become hits.
Marketing isn’t everything
—-Despite hits being hard to create, we hear that you believe that conducting market research and investigating consumer needs isn’t everything. Why is that?
Akimoto: When I was writing for broadcasting in my 30s, I was creating programs based on “what the viewers who are tuning in at this time want to see”. I thought that was rather patronizing. But then one day, I realized that I am also a member of the general public. Rather than writing for people I didn’t know and wondering “Will they like this?”, I wanted to create something that I, as a member of the general public, found interesting. From that point on, I completely stopped worrying about the trends of the time and the marketing research and began creating things as I pleased.
“Nantetatte Idol” was an antithesis to an era
—-In 1985, Koizumi Kyouko’s “Nantetatte Idol” first went on sale. The song’s lyrics were easily understood as a representation of the idol image of those days, wouldn’t you say?
Akimoto: When I wrote those lyrics, there was actually a rock boom going on at the time. Honda Minako had formed the Wild Cats, and other idols were following suit by advancing into the rock world as well. The impression society gave in that era was that idols in pretty dresses doing sparkling dances were thought of as really uncool. So when I wrote “Nantetatte Idol”, to me it was meant to be a kind of antithesis that was saying “Aren’t idols awesome?” I’m sure that if I had written a song that followed the trends of the era, that particular song would never have come into existence.
The public’s sympathy toward the amateurs made them popular
—-Around the same time, Onyanko Club debuted (in 1985). They were completely different from any other idol seen before, so why do you suppose they became popular with the general public?
Akimoto: The moment I started thinking “Ah, this will sell” was when an MC during a show said “Nitta Eri-chan will be absent today due to midterm exams”. Because this completely turned the idol value system on its head.
Basically, it used to be that when you thought of an idol, the impression you’d get is someone who was taking performance classes at Horikoshi Academy, that the fact they were missing regular school was even something cool about them. In other words, an idol was a person who was chosen to be special. In the 80s, that was a high point of living in the entertainment world that people longed to experience.
But then, when Yamaguchi Momoe-san retired and the Candies broke up, I guess people started thinking for the first time, “Were those high points they got to experience for so long really that great?” Until then, the entertainment business was thought of as a wonderful dream world, but now normal girls were choosing to take their midterm tests over being on TV. I thought this was a ground-breaking development. But in those days this was astonishing to the middle and high schoolers, and cries of “I’m taking tests too!” could be heard in response. It was like peeking through a chain-link fence at what schoolgirls after classes were doing.
Whether to debut something when people are “hungry” for it
Akimoto: Ever since I was a kid in school, I liked theater troupes. When I watched them move from their small theaters to even bigger ones, I thought “Ah, it’s amazing that you can actually see their growth”. At first, I thought about making the same kind of theater troupe, so I started looking around Harajuku and Aoyama, but I wasn’t able to find a good place to base it. As it happened, there was a good place in Akihabara. And if we’re talking about Akihabara, rather than a theater troupe, idols would be more interesting there. So in 2005, I began producing AKB48.
I wasn’t thinking about marketing to consumer needs this time either, so I met a lot of opposition from various people. But I was thinking of this simple concept: “Idols who perform at the theater every day so you can watch the process of their growth would be quite fun”. It was about this time that illegal downloading and copying was taking off, so I found myself thinking that for something to survive, live shows were definitely the way to go.
In the end, the group opened in December of 2005, and by February of the following year, the theater shows were selling out. The word of mouth happening on the internet was huge. People were saying “We found something really amazing”, and with a feeling like they’d found some sort of secret hideaway, word spread over many avenues almost immediately.
It wasn’t a ploy to make idols popular in this era, rather it was the idols who were changing the public. It’s important to introduce something when the public really wants it. I suppose it could be likened to serving up cutlet curry to a hungry baseball team just coming off of evening practice. This is what truly decides whether a group gets a big break or not. I think what filled the stomachs of the public back in the Onyanko days was the group’s amateurishness, and what satisfied the public with AKB was the feeling of sympathy toward idols who were still growing.
“Kojima Haruna’s 2/22 graduation concert. Popular members who have already graduated showed up to watch over Kojima’s graduation.”
—-What is the image of an idol that the public currently wants?
Akimoto: Honestly, I have absolutely no idea.
It’s just that, I think the public mentality of “I want to see something I’ve never seen before” is the same no matter what the era. For example, when we created Nogizaka46 to be official rivals to AKB, that was something never before seen in the idol world. And when Keyakizaka46 successfully debuted with the song “Silent Majority”, which is a song with very grave subject matter, I think it was because the public was seeing a world they’d never seen before.
Silent Majority was commissioned to be a song for a commercial. We were originally asked to produce a bright and cheerful song, but it ended up being the complete opposite. But I kept thinking that no matter what, this song is excellent. It’s like the public wanting something a little salty after eating something incredibly sweet, don’t you think?
—-What do you think is most important when producing idols? When you think something is “interesting”, what criteria are you looking for?
Akimoto: I’m always telling the staff to break the established harmony. People aren’t content to settle for something they’ve already seen and heard and understand. When people are wondering “What the heck is that?”, that’s when they take an interest.
Though when I say that, people start to think “Akimoto is deliberately trying to make weird stuff”, but I can assure you that isn’t the case. It’s just that I’m trying to cross the artificial barrier that says “Idols can’t do this” and “Idols shouldn’t do this” by breaking the pre-established traditions.
There are a lot of examples of this. When AKB first started, I received a report from the management that a certain member sprained her foot and was told to take the day off. “That’s unfortunate. Does it hurt a lot?” When we asked her that, she said it didn’t hurt and that she could walk on it fine, but dancing hurt too much and so it was out of the question.
So I said “In that case, set a chair on the stage and you can sing while sitting”. Because that was a sight that wouldn’t be seen on any day but that one. Seeing that member sing while sitting in a chair was something that would become a precious memory for the fans. That’s because we decided to knock down the wall that says “injured members cannot perform onstage”.
A surprising method of judging auditions
Akimoto: Another good example is Shimazaki Haruka, who became known for her cold reception to fans. I started hearing from the staff that her personality was actually very nice, but her attitude toward the fans was poor and some of the members were getting into misunderstandings with her. The staff were telling me I needed to rebuke her for her behavior. But I thought an idol who didn’t try to curry favor with fans was quite amusing. So I thought, why not? It might be good to have a member like that.
The audition process for the AKB Group is a bit different as well. Ordinarily, judges will ask to see a few applicants at once and rate them on a points system for looks, expressiveness, things like that. But we use a completely different system. If even one of the judges says “I like this girl”, even if everyone else’s reaction is “Eeeh?!”, she will pass. The reason for that is there will absolutely be fans who will share those feelings and have the same sympathetic response. If we only accepted applicants who ranked high based on a points system, we’d end up in a situation where everyone was roughly equal. A good point for one person will be a good point for someone else, too.
The “Undiluted Calpis” theory
—-How did you think up the way you built the AKB business model?
Akimoto: I don’t know a lot about business, but I thought that we’d lose out if we were doing the same thing as everyone else, so I thought we’d better not do that. Without something new that we could patent, it would be too easy for everything to turn around on us. Since the beginning I’ve been telling the staff to “Make an undiluted solution of Calpis”. Because, I tell them, if it’s undiluted, it can be used in many things, from ice cream to candy.
I wanted to make idols a more open platform. I was thinking of “undiluted Calpis” as something that anyone can use. Once that platform is in place, as long as there are people who want to buy “Calpis”, the business will thrive. If there’s an idea I haven’t come up with, someone else can bring that idea in.
—-That business model feels very contrary to the one that Johnnys operates under. They’re very inflexible about their copyrights and very strict about digitial distribution of their materials and usage of their images.
Akimoto: That’s because they produce professional groups. The AKB48 group consists of amateurs. The strength of an amateur group is that it can be an open platform.
When SNS started becoming the norm, there were a lot of opinions that we shouldn’t let idols freely use SNS apps. However, I thought I wanted to break down that wall as well, so we let members use SNS. The members might be flooded with comments, but that always happens on the unrestricted stage of the internet as well as in interviews. I think it’s a very good tool for learning things about yourself and understanding your growth in the real world.
Having confidence in “Galapagos-ness”
—-I’d like to talk a bit about AKB’s overseas expansion. You’ve expanded to Shanghai and Indonesia, and next you plan to expand to Thailand, Taipei and the Phillipines. What do you think is the strength of Japanese idol culture that makes it viable in other countries?
Akimoto: It’s the “Galapagos-ness”.
Around 1980, I wanted to make movies, and I went to America with a plan to make a movie there. However, I was turned down very curtly. In the end, it proved impossible for me to make a movie overseas. I returned to Japan with the idea that the world is a very high hurdle to jump.
After that, I made a horror movie in Japan called “Chakushin Ari” [One Missed Call]. And then I got an offer from America asking if they could do a remake of the movie. It turned out that what they really wanted was “Japanese Horror”.
In other words, in the same way that anime and Disney are different, the rest of the world has a different concept of idols. But in this Galapagos market, we’ve simply created something that we ourselves enjoy. I think there’s a great strength in that. That’s why, when people from all over the world see things from Japan’s “Galapagos culture” thanks to how it spreads over the Internet, they’re surprised and delighted and say “What is this?!”
So when Japan’s Galapagos culture goes overseas, while there are some things that need to be localized, I don’t think we should change the basic foundation. For instance, if we remove natto’s odor and sticky stringiness in order to sell it overseas, then it’s not natto anymore. Natto is enjoyable because it’s natto. This is the point that is most important to consider when globalizing something: the content has grown as part of “Galapagos culture”, and we must have absolute confidence in that.
We need to stress the importance of software
—-Looking at Asia as a whole, K-pop from Korea has a much larger fandom than J-pop.
Akimoto: K-pop is a kind of national policy, isn’t it? It’s a success as a cultural strategy. For example, K-pop is very trendy in Vietnam, so Korean cosmetics and LG computers are sold there as well.
We are trying to disseminate Japanese culture through “Cool Japan”, but compared to Korea, the power of our national policy is quite weak, and I think in our enterprise there just aren’t enough people who appreciate Korea’s cultural strategy.
My fear is that many Japanese enterprises are less concerned with the contents of the software and more concerned with the specs of the hardware. For example, we have televisions that can amazingly display in 4k and 8k, and that’s the first thing they advertise. But what’s really important is, what can you watch in 4k or 8k? The software part is essential.
When Nintendo first started selling the Super Famicom, people wanted to play Mario, so they bought the system. When the software comes first, depending on how you create that software, the hardware will naturally change to follow suit.
—-A former idol once said that the better the idol industry is doing and the more in love with idols the country is, the healther our society is. From your point of view, what impact do idols have on Japan’s society and economics?
Akimoto: That question is so complex, I couldn’t possibly answer it. Or rather, truthfully I don’t think about it as much as everyone thinks I do. What I’m doing seems like fishing by relying on a sixth sense. Scholars and reporters do me the favor of trying to explain and analyze it academically, but personally, there’s no specific way I aim to act.
Just yesterday, someone asked me what I thought would happen to their package business in the future. But frankly, I have no idea. People come ask me these things like I’m some kind of expert, but the truth is that I don’t know.
The one thing I can say regarding economics is that, like I was saying before, we need to naturally transition to new hardware by first starting with the software.
I hear a lot of people saying that they would like to make VR and smartphone apps, and every time I hear those things, I somehow feel like they should say those things before a platform has already been created for what they want to make. When someone cooks something, the expectation is not on the cooking itself, but rather all of the expectations rest on what is served up at the end. What we need to be making right now, though, isn’t food that matches the plates. We need to cook delicious food, but I feel like staring at the plate too much blinds us. From now on, when Japanese culture is disseminated to the rest of the world through Cool Japan, I think Japanese enterprises need to change what they’re focused on.