Japanese idols are the best there are and the most popular in Asia… in your dreams!

There, it has been said. Pardon us while we raise shields to avoid the inevitable onslaught.

The global otaku Mecca: Akihabara in Tokyo (Japan)

Over the last 10 years, we have been bombarded by a narrative of the “high and mighty” Japanese idols. Fact is they would be virtually unknown if it wasn’t for their close relationship to the giant that is otakuWhat is an otaku?Otaku (おたく/オタク) is a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests, commonly the anime and manga fandom. Its contemporary usage originated with Akio Nakamori in a 1983 essay in Manga Burikko. Otaku may be used as a pejorative; its negativity stems from the stereotypical view of otaku and the media reports on Tsutomu Miyazaki, "The Otaku Murderer", in 1989. According to studies published in 2013, the term has become less negative, and an increasing number of people now self-identify as otaku. Source: Wikipedia culture. You might say they are dependent on it.

Find a foreign fan of Japanese idol groups and you are almost certain to find a person who started out with anime, mangas, cosplay, or some other part of the otaku ecosystem. The seedy aspects of that culture within Japan itself have been debated extensively so, we will not get into that here.

You will not see any of those acts outside Japan except for the occasional anime expo or some “Japan Day” event where they are specifically invited. The reason is that they simply have no reason to leave the country. Their entertainment industry is totally insulated.

So, why are we talking about this? Isn’t this supposed to be about SNH48?

The Chinese lure

SNH48 fans recall the break up that happened in June 2016 between STAR48 and AKS. Barely a month later, AKS was announcing they were getting ready to re-enter the Chinese market on their own.

Fast-forward a year to September 2017 and AKS finally delivered on that promise by announcing the formation of a new sister group in Shanghai that they would co-manage. This new group will run auditions for a planned June 2018 debut.

Analysts in Japan agree that AKB48 Group has entered a decline while the Sony run “official rival” 46 Group is on the rise. The response from AKS has been to create yet more sister groups in Japan (NGT48 and STU48) as well as at the international level (TPE48, BNK48, MNL48) using “Cool Japan” funding.

In other words, make up for the drop in sales by adding more members for handshake events. That is only a short term solution.

AKS needs new sources of revenue and the Chinese market with its very small but solid otaku niche in cities like ShangHai, BeiJing, ChengDu, and GuangZhou is very attractive.

Obviously, like all the other international sister groups, this one will be a cover group dedicated to singing translated songs from Japan (similar to what SNH48 used to be.)

It is likely that the Chinese market will get saturated at a faster rate than Japan and, in that case, STAR48 will potentially face the same fate as AKS.

Are we headed for a conflict?

Demonstrators outside the AKB48-China press conference (2016)

It depends on your interpretation. Some antis on both side certainly would love the drama.

When both businesses went their separate ways, the fans ended up in one of three camps: the AKB48 purists who considered SNH48 to be “traitors to the mothership” and didn’t want to have anything to do with them, the SNH48 purists who consider the AKB fans to be “prostitutes”, and a much larger group that essentially decided to stan both in parallel regardless of the split.

It is the latter group that both will try to sway in their direction. The purists are already locked in on either side but, if they can cannibalize enough of the larger group, then they can gain some measure of security.

This explains the STAR48 push to diversify and go mainstream. People might say: “why bother going mainstream? AKS didn’t.” Remember that SNH48 started out from nothing. AKS didn’t try to go mainstream because they simply didn’t need to in order to make money.

Ju JingYi accepting the “Outstanding Youth” award for SNH48 Group on May 4th 2017

It is why STAR48 has actively cultivated close ties to the Communist Party to the point of being recognized as “Outstanding Youth” and gaining an official strategic partnership with CCTV Mobile. This gives them the kind of exposure required to break out of the niche and attract a wider fan base.

If your interpretation of “conflict” is where one is actively trying to “steal” fans from the other, then you probably will be satisfied as that is bound to happen. If your definition is AKS challenging STAR48 to be the dominant girl idol group in China, then prepare to be dissapointed.

STAR48 is firmly entrenched with many of their new fans coming from outside the otaku base and most never having heard of AKB48. As a demonstration, our team was in ShangHai recently and someone was watching an AKB documentary. When the AKB overture started, a stranger came over and asked: “Is that a new SNH48 sister group?”

The politics of China will also no longer allow a foreign controlled group to become dominant. In China, entertainment is to the service of the state. The role of entertainers is to push the agenda of the party.

An uphill battle

No matter who does what, AKS is getting back into China in a world that is very different than it was when it helped to create SNH48 in 2013.

There wasn’t an idol culture in China then. Now, there is a quickly growing world where SNH48 is the entity every other group is compared to.

The image that Chinese fans have of AKB (circa 2008)

The first challenge that will be faced is that AKB48 members are more popular than the group itself and those members are all graduating. To make things worse, no new members are seriously stepping up to replace them in the hearts of fans.

 

The second challenge will be politics. If AKS wants a sister group that just remains niche and quiet, then they don’t have anything to worry about. If, on the other hand, they want to grow, that means becoming political. Add to that the virtual mine field AKS will have to walk with TPE48 in Taiwan and you have an explosion waiting to happen.

Will AKS have their Chinese sister group sing patriotic songs?

The third challenge is the vision AKS has for sister groups. We said earlier that they were cover groups and that wasn’t meant as an insult. AKS has a huge music catalog and their entire reason for creating groups is to help grow the AKB48 brand. As a result, what they want an international group to do is release translated versions of their singles in lockstep and sing their “golden oldies” to appeal to the otaku base who longs for the AKB of 2010. Don’t believe us? Look at SNH48 pre-2015 and JKT48.

The last is probably the most important: market saturation. In China, 48 never meant AKB. It means SNH (except for the otaku and weeaboosWhat is a weeaboo?A non-Japanese person who is obsessed with Japanese culture and behaves in a stereotypically Japanese manner. Source: Wikipedia.) STAR48 has 5 groups in ShangHai, BeiJing, ShenYang, ChongQing, and GuanZhou with one more expected in ChengDu in 2018. It also has 2 active subunits plus 2 coming early next year. That’s over 300 active members with more on the way.

No matter where AKS goes, STAR48 will have been there first.

What’s next then?

Can AKB48 survive in China? Yes.

Can they fill theaters even in multiple cities despite (or in some case because of) the presence of SNH48? Totally.

Can they grow beyond the Chinese anime expo circuit and the few occasional TV/awards/shows AKS can buy their way into? That remains to be proven.

Will their arrival have a real negative impact on STAR48? Doubtful.