Japan’s AKB48 girl group model fails to make a big splash in China

By Liu Zhongyin Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/19 17:43:40

AKB48 Team SH perform on stage in Shanghai on December 3, 2018. Photo: VCG

Rarely has a pop idol group had such overwhelming influence over the past decade than Japan's AKB48. Established in 2005, the female idol group was and still remains a major phenomenon in Japan and throughout the rest of Asia.

The group's popularity proved so great that it expanded overseas by setting up sister groups in other countries, including China, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines. For example, the Shanghai group SNH48 was established in 2012. In 2018, AKB48 idols took part in South Korean music channel Mnet Media's reality show Produce 48. 

Over the years, however, the constant turnover of members and a series of scandals have had their impact on the group's popularity. On March 13, AKB48 officially announced its decision to cancel this year's Senbatsu Election, an annual fan vote that determines the rankings of members within the group that has been held since 2009.     

Problems have also enveloped the overseas groups. In 2016, SNH48 was expelled from AKB48's charter due to a breach of contract.

However, the group is not willing to give up on the Chinese market yet. Later that year, the group announced its new plans for China, the current AKB48 Team SH.   

Promotional power

AKB48 Team SH kicked off their debut with the release of their first album Love Trip on December 3, 2018. Currently, the group has 280,000 fans on Sina Weibo, but that is far less than SNH48's 7.8 million fans. 

Liang Shiqi, a 24-year-old student pursuing her master's degree in journalism and communication, and Li Wei (pseudonym), a salesperson, both told the Global Times that they first took notice of AKB48 in 2013, a year after SNH48 was established.  

After its formation in 2012, SNH48 worked hard to promote itself. This in turn helped raise the profile of AKB48 in China. However, Li notes that while AKB48 is a well-known name in China, its fan base is still relatively small.

One of the reasons why AKB48 hasn't taken off in China has much to do with their promotional model. 

Unlike South Korean idol groups, which usually have strict standards when it comes to their members' ability to sing and dance, Japanese-style idol groups focus on showing how their idols improve over time, thus allowing fans to feel that they are taking part in a journey to stardom along with their favorites. This establishment of a connection with fans is an important aspect of these groups. AKB48 idols are often referred to as "face-to-face" idols, which means these groups have their own theaters where they often hold smaller-scale intimate performances and hold fan meets where fans have the opportunity to shake hands and talk with their idols. 

In China, however, this face-to-face model is less effective due to the sheer distance involved.

Liang explained AKB48's Chinese fans are mainly "screen fans," who stick to watching performances online, since they have few opportunities to see their idols face to face. 

AKB48's small fan base means it doesn't have the promotional power to push the new AKB48 Team SH to immediate success. On the official Sina Weibo account of the new idol group, videos posted by team members have less than 200 likes on average. Additionally, the group's official channel on TikTok, or Douyin as it is known in China, has only a little over 3,000 fans. 

Patience and support

"I don't think Chinese female idol groups have developed very well. There isn't a single overwhelmingly popular female idol group in China today," noted Liang. 

This is certainly not due to a lack of trying on the part of entertainment companies. 

After AKB48 became a hit in Japan, a number of Japanese-style idol groups copying AKB48's model constantly emerged in China, such as 1931 and Idol School. 

But one by one they failed. 

Chinese idol group 1931 is one example. Despite being backed by a reported investment of 500 million yuan ($75 million), the group dissolved just three years after its establishment in 2014. When the news broke that the group was breaking up, many Chinese netizens confessed that this was the first time that they had even heard of the group. 

Some entertainment companies in China have turned to South Korea in search of a breakthrough.

In 2018, the Chinese version of South Korean reality talent show Produce 101 formed the girl group Rocket Girls 101. 

However, both Li and Liang say that Rocket Girls 101 cannot yet be considered a success.

"There still isn't a representative Chinese female idol group yet. Maybe Rocket Girls 101 can give it a try but they don't hold a candle to domestic singing and dancing stars in terms of popularity," said Li. 

The leader of a fan group that promotes AKB48 and its sister groups told the Global Times that one of the major barriers to success is that entertainment companies have mainly just been copying Japanese and South Korean models instead of putting effort into developing a model for China. 

"When things don't work out immediately investors tend to give up these projects. What they need to do is be patient and provide the groups the support they need to grow," she noted.
Newspaper headline: Declining influence

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