I first heard about AKB48 from this Sushicam article written by a guest-author by the name of Josh. Since Josh is a fantastic writer, I’m still trying to catch up on my posts, and there’s no use in re-inventing the wheel, I’ll let him describe this bizarro-world of Japanese otaku that I happened upon one quiet April morning in Tokyo…
Hyper Fetishists, Part I by Josh
In my quest to dig deeper into Japan and find something a regular foreigner like me usually won’t, or isn’t supposed to gain access to, I present this story:
Standing on the other side of the street, I read all the signs plastered against the façade of the building. Game, DVD, Costume, Café. None of them had their name. Was I at the right building? I had to be. The idol group was rumored to perform here, but there were no advertisements, no signs, and no pictures. Apprehensive, I walked across the busy Tokyo thoroughfare and in through the automatic glass doors. Next to the escalator there was a floor guide. All of the signs repeated the same information; 1F – Game, 2F – DVD, 3F – Costume, and so on. The top floor sign was blank; just a white plaque. Since I had already gotten to the building, I figured it would be a waste just to leave, so I ascended the escalators. At the top of each escalator was a floor guide, and at each floor guide, the top story was left blank, as if someone had pulled the sign off. Finally, at the top of the second-to-last floor read a small discrete sign in English. The name of the idol group.
Looking up, I was disappointed to see that the escalator was closed off. Not only was there a barricade preventing entry, the entire upper floor where the escalator led to was dark. It was as if the place was under construction. I was at the right place, the sign told me I was. Why was it closed? On their website they have performances almost every day. Confused and slightly frustrated, I returned home to do some more research.
Back at home, I was able to decipher the way to buy tickets to their shows. You can e-mail an address 2 days before the show you want to see, hoping that you win a “reservation” that guarantees you a ticket, or you can show up on the day of the performance to buy one. I e-mailed the address that Wednesday night, requesting a Friday show with the date and my name as the only contents of the e-mail.
Thursday night came, and I didn’t get a response, so I decided I would have to show up in the morning to buy one. When I had first heard about this idol group, the Japanese guy that was telling me about them told me the tickets sold out “every day, within the first 10 minutes of them going on sale.” Quite surprised, I didn’t really believe him, but he insisted it was true. Since Friday’s tickets went on sale at 10am, so I decided that getting there at 8am would be a good bet. Hating being anywhere late, I set my alarm for 6:30 with a plan to get to this eclectic Tokyo neighborhood at 7:15. After all, it wasn’t very far away.
Exiting the train station at about 7:30, I knew I had plenty of time. The usually bustling streets of this neighborhood were near empty, save for some janitors or early-rising salarymen. Retracing my steps to this building, I turned a corner here, turned a corner there, and then got slammed in the face by a line. Literally. It ran about down 2 blocks in front of the building I was going to enter, and I looked at my phone in disbelief: 7:45am. I was 2 hours and 15 minutes early, and there was already a monstrous line. I’ll be conservative and call it 250 people, but I don’t doubt there were far more. Most of the men were overweight, toting backpacks stuffed with anime, portable video games, and comics. I checked to see what the women were like, but there weren’t any. 100% of this line was composed of men. Silent, clicking away on their cell phones, digging into their fanny packs for cigarettes, sipping coffee from Mister Donut.
Until 10:00am, I had no idea what was going on. Workers from the idol group were announcing things I wasn’t able to understand, queuing people into lines, and handing out numbered cards to the fans. I had seen pictures and videos of where the girls performed, and I knew that it wasn’t a very large theater. As the minutes passed, the line behind me continued to grow, and there was no way all of us would be fitting into the extremely modest theater we were all eager to gain entrance to. However, the workers never had a “cut off” where they told everybody behind a certain line that they wouldn’t be able to buy a ticket. It was almost as if they made you suffer on the line for a few hours, then turn you away at the last second.
The group I was divided into was eventually let into the building to buy our tickets. Only at this point, at approximately 10:30am, was I sure I was going to be able to buy a ticket. My 3 hour wait was rewarded, however, by gaining entrance to the top floor of this mysterious building. Upon ascending the final escalator, I waited in a final line to buy my ticket. Gripping my ticket with triumph, I walked into the waiting room, where I was greeted with a wall that had people’s names written on it. Like an academic achievement wall that has individual plaques of people’s names on it, this plaque was very similar. It had about 350 names on it, but looking up at the title, goose bumps crawled across my body, for the sign read “They achieved the visit to the theater of 100 times.”
Little did I know it was going to get much, much more bizarre.
Hyper Fetishists, Part II by Josh
100 visits to the theater. What kind of person has time for that? Do they work? Who has the stamina to stand in line in the morning for a few hours…100 times? Directly across from the Wall of Fame (Shame?) were photographs of each of the idols. Underneath each idol’s photograph was a Sweet 16-esque caricature pencil drawing. Top fan submissions? I dared not even ask. At this point, I was starting to get a strange feeling about this place. I looked around and saw mute, depressed men. Their glassy eyes focusing on nothing in particular, slowly moving between the excessive souvenir stand, the wall of photographs, and the small café counter.
Behind the counter stood a girl, no older than Japan’s minimum working age, serving soda and ice cream. A line of about 10 had formed, each of whom were eagerly waiting their turn to talk to this girl. I couldn’t imagine that they were actually that eager to pay 400 yen for a soda. The other attraction of interest in the full waiting room were the three gumball machines. In each machine was a little black bubble, its contents hidden from view. After watching for a few minutes, I realized that it was a type of lottery. Most of the balls were empty, but some of them were filled with prizes; tickets, stickers, coupons, and the like. I stood there and watched another line form, each person cramming 100 yen coins into the machine as quickly as their pudgy little fingers could muster. Looking up, I saw the price of each ball: 300 yen. The guy in front was feeding an entire pocket-full of money into this machine, with each fan behind him eagerly waiting their turn to test their luck against the black prize balls. Interestingly enough, there were a few (full) garbage pails with rejected black shell casings, empty of prizes, tossed away by their buyers.
With 10 minutes before the show, the theater workers lined us all up into rows of 10. People who held ticket numbers 1-10 were in one line, 11-20 in the next, and so on. I was ticket number 103, so I figured I would have a pretty good seat. However, after they got everybody lined up, a giant lottery/bingo ball machine was wheeled in front of the entrance, and the ringleader (calling it a circus wouldn’t be that far from the truth), starting plucking numbers from it. He called 161-170, and the 10 people in that line eagerly shoved forward into the theater, claiming the front seats. The energy of the fans started to rise, with almost a humming sound rolling through the lines of men.
Shocked, I wondered why we weren’t let in sequentially. That’s how we bought our tickets to begin with, right? However, I figured that they do this to discourage people from camping out the night before for tickets, hoping to eliminate the “if you arrive first you get the best seat” ideology, and then make you show up just in time to buy a ticket before they sell out, not before the sun rises. Lucky for me, this process ended up working to my advantage, for my group was the 5th one called. Almost trampled from the back, I kept my place in our little herd as we stormed the theater, rushing forth to get the best seats available. I ended up in the 5th row, dead center. Once in the theater, I looked around and realized how small it was.
The ceiling was about 15 feet high, with benches for seats. Every 3 rows, the benches tiered up approximately six inches, going back for about 5 stages. As far as I could tell, the walls, ceiling, and most other surfaces were painted black except for a few mirrors hung around the place. Banks of lights hung precariously low from the ceiling, almost within reach, with the DJ booth elevated just a few feet above the crowd. After all the groups were in the theater, I noticed a significantly full standing area behind the rows of seats. Much to my surprise, this ended up being the most crowded, and certainly at this moment, lively portion of the theater. There were metal bars about waist high that people were leaning against, which I thought was for support at the time. Everybody’s backpacks were tucked neatly underneath the benches, and taking another survey of the theater, I didn’t see one woman. All men. And they were starting to come to life.
While most of them sat in anticipated silence, their hearts pumping, a few of the more wild ones were starting highly coordinated cheers. Others were just screaming some of the idol’s names, and others were furiously waving fans. This was the first time I had really heard any of them open their mouths, and there seemed to be something wild, almost hysterical, about their voices. Looking back forward, the curtains were still down, and I could feel my bench shake with excited kicks and nervous stamping feet.
Without notice, a recorded voice in English welcomed everybody to the theater, and along with the chant the voice started, the audience immediately erupted in unison. With the English chant thoroughly memorized, blinding strobes flashed continually throughout the room, blinding the mania that was about to erupt. The energy in the room was remarkable. Just at that moment, the chant immediately stopped, the curtain shot up, and a swarm of schoolgirls flooded the small stage.
Hyper Fetishists, Part III by Josh
As soon as they rushed on stage, the first song started and the theater came alive. And alive it stayed until the end of the 14th or so song. While it isn’t necessary to delve into the details of each song, there are some very curious points worth noting.
To say that everybody knows the words to all the Dave Matthew’s Band lyrics at a concert would be a giant overstatement.
To say that everybody knows the words to all of the idol group’s songs would be a giant understatement.
Lyrics? Check. Memorizing the lyrics was probably the first thing each of these otaku, or hyper fetishists, did.
Dance moves? Check. I finally was able to understand why the back of the theater was so popular. Looking behind me, I saw the scores of men dancing along in the standing portion of the theater. Looking back up to the stage, then back to the men, they were doing the same thing. They might not have been as accurate and sexy as the girls on stage, but they were certainly trying just as hard.
Special hand gestures? Check. During some of the slower songs, there were special hand gestures used, where literally everybody in the audience would be participating. The gestures were a cross between a beckoning motion, a two-handed wave, and an open-palmed offering gesticulation.
Coordinated cheers for each member of the group, recited during different songs? Check. Of the crowd participation, this was the part that fascinated me the most. For example, if Song X features a portion of Girl Y and Girl Z singing, the audience will break into a highly orchestrated cheer, during the song, that calls out to Girl Y and Girl Z. It is almost as if the lyrics are written with deliberate pauses, giving time for the otaku to sing out to their idols. While all of the songs were peppered with a few cheers lasting only a few chants or calls, some featured surprisingly well-pitched, in-tune cheers going on for what I thought was an uncomfortably long time. With each cheer that passed, the more excited the crowd got. With each song, the more electric the air felt.
And there I was, sitting in the middle of this circus. I looked around me and thought how strange everybody looks, how funny this was, and how comically absurd this entire event was. Grown men in suits, all around me, were beckoning forth to five girls dressed in costumes on stage, twirling around, with the heavyset otaku in the back, twirling around as well. As I was sitting in complete shock, jaw agape, goose bumps covering my body, I never thought I would see something so strange. And then it hit me: I myself must look so strange. I must have looked completely silly to everyone around me. I was the only not dancing. I was the only one not doing the hand motions and cheers. I was the outsider. Big time. But I couldn’t help myself, so I diverted my attention back towards the stage to listen to the girls sing about…wait a minute…what were they singing about? These otaku were stark raving mad right now. Only then did I realized I reached the apex of their obsession, and it dawned upon me the reality of what I was witnessing. My assumptions crash landed into the mountains. The timing belt spun off the cog. My entire understanding up to this point was destroyed.
A skeleton system. These girls were dressed up as skeletons, thanking God for the 206 bones in their body. I have bones, you have bones, and look!, how fortunate we are for the uniqueness that our God graciously constructed our bodies the way he did. Delicately waltzing around on stage like mini Frankenstein puppets, these tutu-clad teenagers were driving the crowd wild with their act.
At first, I thought the attraction to this idol group was the chance to catch a glimpse up the girl’s skirts on stage as they all giggle and prance around singing about how badly they want you. An escape for the otaku, they can drool over young girls, fulfilling their dirtiest mental fantasies. But no, this song isn’t sexy. The girls are singing about skeletons, wearing Halloween costumes, and the fans are just as hysterical. Why?
This is a question that I’m still struggling with. They sing about bones, they sing about animals in the forest, they sing about Western holidays, and they sing about graduation. This is not to say they don’t have any suggestive songs. One of their most recent hits is a song that literally translates into “This school uniform gets in the way [is troublesome/is inconvenient]” (Editor’s note: Wow!). Regardless, the energy level is just as high for that song as it is for the songs that belong in children’s books.
Are these otaku really perverse? Are they searching for something else? Perhaps they are looking for something to hold onto; youth, perhaps. They want to go back to a time when they interacted with girls, instead of just reading about them in manga. They want to escape from the pressures of life, escape from their salaryman life, to a place where they can sing and chant and dance like the little boys they used to be. Where they can all band together and soak in their collective obsession of the teenagers on stage. The longer the concert went on for, the less I thought of these otaku as wanting to defile these teenagers; but rather wanting to talk in cafes with them, walk along sakura-lined rivers, collect notes they wrote, and buy them their favorite ice cream.
The men surrounding me were certainly strange, but there seemed to be a certain innocence, a certain purity, mixing with this depression, anxiety, and overflowing fetish. All of that tension was being released right now, in front of my eyes, coming out in the dancing, cheering, and waving. And then it was over.
After the last encore ended, the lights came on, and another transformation occurred. It was as if someone pulled the plug on everybody’s energy. Just like that, they returned to the way they were before the concert started. Shuffled out in eerie silence, the group of men returned to their “hyomen,” or “outer face/appearance.” They tucked themselves neatly back into their rigid society. Filtering down the escalators, I watched the otaku and salarymen don their passive, glazed expressions. I could see the energy drain from their faces. The sparkles in their eyes faded back to black beads. It was as if they just left a meeting, not a concert. You never would have guessed they were dancing and screaming their lungs out 5 minutes ago. Ask them about it on the street; I’m sure they would deny their involvement.
Blending into the bustling Tokyo crowd that filled Akihabara’s thoroughfare, I lost sight of them, returning to their offices, Internet cafes, and manga shops. I stood there in awe, watching the last one fade away…but only for a moment…for he would return tomorrow to be plugged back into his drug.
His drug named AKB48.