The popular group loses one of its stars but there are plenty others to take her place in the music juggernaut.
When Atsuko Maeda, a 21-year-old singer in the mega-popular girl group AKB48 gave her farewell concert on Aug 27 in Akihabara, 250,000 fans applied for the 250 seats available at the group’s Akihabara Theater. For those who couldn’t attend, the concert was streamed live on the Internet. Even mainstream media such as NHK covered the event.
AKB48 are everywhere in Japan, appearing at countless events, on merchandise and even posters to promote the sale of government bonds and raise awareness of suicide. A whole industry has built up around the girls whose squeaky clean image is strictly maintained by their management. They are not allowed to have boyfriends, for example. When they get too old to toe the line, the girls “graduate,” as the media refer to it.
Maeda, who auditioned for AKB48 when she was 14 years old, is the latest member to graduate. One of the more popular members of the group, she stunned fans in March by announcing she was leaving the group.
As part of her send-off, AKB48 performed three concerts at Tokyo Dome on Aug 24, 25, 26, the first time they have played at that venue. In the run-up to Maeda’s graduation, 150 posters of Maeda were displayed in and around Akihabara station in an exhibition titled “Shuku! AKB48 Sotsugyo Kinen: Maeda Atsuko Poster-ten.” The photos include those used in magazines and other publications during her time with the group.
A teary Maeda, popularly known as “Acchan,” told fans, “I am very anxious about the future but I have to move on and make way for younger members. I auditioned for AKB48 when I was 14 years old. That was my first and biggest decision in my life.”
Co-member Minami Takahashi, 21, asked fans to “please accept her decision. AKB48 is not the ultimate goal in life.”
Maeda has said that she wants to go and study in New York and then perhaps embark on a solo singing career, as well as act in TV dramas.
To broaden his girls’ horizons, Yasushi Akimoto, who created AKB48, earlier this year announced a “study abroad” program. Akimoto has not given many details yet, but it is thought that the project will be a TV show in which the younger AKB48 members spend between six months and a year with their counterparts in Indonesia (JKT48), Shanghai (SNH48) and Taiwan (TPE48).
With Maeda’s departure, a lot of pressure will fall on the shoulders of Yuko Oshima, 23, who must surely be approaching the “graduation” age herself. In June, Oshima won the popular ballot for the top spot in the group. Anyone was allowed to vote in the election — as long as they bought a copy of AKB48’s most recent single “Manatsu no Sounds Good!” — and apparently millions did (it sold 1.17 copies on its first day). The event was broadcast live on TV and on the Internet.