Dentsu Ho: Yasushi Akimoto Interview on JKT48
The “Cool Japan” seen within JKT48’s rise to fame
JKT48, founded in 2011 as first overseas sister group of AKB48, “idols you can meet”, has shot up to stardom with incredible speed. Exclusive theater, elections, handshake events, etc.; the AKB48 format was born in Indonesia too. We will take a look at the successful history of JKT48, who have practically reached “national idol” status, and look for hints for the success of Cool Japan in it.
Yasushi Akimoto Special Interview
JKT48 has written a new page in Indonesia’s pop culture history. We have conversed with its founder, the exceptional media creator Yasushi Akimoto, about the steps of JKT48’s success and the overseas expansion of Japanese content.
Born in Tokyo in 1958, he has been active as a broadcast writer since high school. As lyricist he has composed many hits, such as Hibari Misora’s “Kawa no Nagare no you ni”, AKB48 songs, and more. He has exercised his talent in various fields: ideas for TV shows, ideas and scripts for movies, newspaper columns, commercials and video game projects, scripts for manga, etc. He has also written several books, such as the novel Zou no Senaka (The Elephant’s Back). The film Chakushin Ari (One Missed Call), for which Akimoto wrote the original concept and work, was remade by Hollywood. He also received the Award for Music in an Animated Feature in the 40th edition of the Annie Awards (2013).
“If people gather and thrive, something will be born.”
—How did the first AKB overseas sister group come to be in Indonesia?
It was not decided since the beginning; we received proposals from several countries, and the present management partners invited us with particular enthusiasm. Something that struck my interest was Indonesia’s power, the 70 percent of a population of 250 million being under 40 years old. I felt that this country would eventually become the center of Asia.
But I had no preference to any country. I was confident that if a theater was built, and in it a show with 16 dancing and singing girls was held, people would gather, even overseas. I am a media creator, not a marketer, so I do not conduct preemptive research on a country’s local culture or people. I just think about how people could gather, how to create excitement. If people gather and thrive, something will be born. That’s what I focus on.
“Something that interests—something never seen before—is something with power.”
—Even considered that, it is an impressive success. Some say that idol culture has been brought to Indonesia.
I think a great factor was the existence of AKB48 fans, who knew them through the Internet. Like sunlight focused in one point through a lens and lighting a fire, those fans have triggered the expansion. If, for example, a restaurant was built deep in the mountains, it’d take time until it became known to the general public. In this day and age, interesting information spreads in the blink of an eye throughout social media, etc. The most important factor, though, is that something that interests—something never seen before—is something with power. Creating idols, bringing idol culture where it doesn’t exist yet… I didn’t think of anything like that. What I wanted to try overseas was my idea that assembling 16 singing and dancing girls would attract people’s interest. And it really happened; people gathered. Furthermore, the local staff worked truly hard. They sold CDs, had the girls be featured in commercials, etc.; their repeated efforts sped up the expansion of the group.
“What is happening through JKT48 is truly ‘Cool Japan’.”
—Haruka Nakagawa, who transferred from AKB48, made a big break locally too.
In the AKB48 group, fans are the producers. It is like riding on the Mikoshi [portable shrine used in festivals] carried by fans; no one knows what the destination is. And that is what makes it interesting. Haruka Nakagawa, with her almost child-like purity and naivete, blended well into Indonesia. Her open personality and the culture gap of her initially poor Indonesian granted her immense popularity. That is an evolution that the existence called Haruka Nakagawa brought by coincidence in JKT48, definitely something that was not planned.
—In Indonesia, Nakagawa is making people like Japan more. There are also members like Ghaida Farisya, who loves Japanese culture and studies Japanese with great passion.
Nakagawa has an ambassador-like role, connecting Japan and Jakarta. AKB48 has also performed together with JKT48 in Indonesia, doing their best to make the concert a successful one. What is happening through JKT48 is truly “Cool Japan”.
We have admired Western music, movies, and fashion, and desired cars, records, and more from there. The cause of the Korean boom in Southeast Asia was that it showed its soft power first. Popularity of K-pop and K-drama led to the sale of cosmetics, computers, TVs, etc. If people enjoy JKT48 and begin to admire Japanese culture through them, it becomes a facet of the “Cool Japan” and “Visit Japan” campaigns. I think that holds great significance.
—What is JKT48’s value to clients?
Until now, culture was either exported or imported. JKT48 is part of the AKB48 group, but at the same time it is an Indonesian group, a bizarre fusion of two cultures, incomplete and as such always evolving. How this can be enjoyed, how its content value can be enriched, that depends on the party using them. Personally, any usage by corporations or government parties is more than welcome.
“Do not become too localized. Believe in yourself.”
—Are there any chances for JKT48 to take an original route, far from the AKB48 format?
Nothing is decided about that. I think there are all sorts of possibilities. One mistake of our generation was excessive localization, adaptation to one country. The marketing was too focused on the “if it isn’t like this, it won’t be successful in this country” concept and failed. We admired the West and tried going overseas, but no one would think to make something that already exists in the West with Japan or appreciate Japan for that.
Instead, making something we think is interesting without worrying about the rest (for example, anime) allowed us to create something good, and the world recognized it as such. After realizing it, believing in this talent of ours is what I think “Cool Japan” really is.
In JKT48’s case, of course we keep in mind religion and local customs, carefully avoiding lyrics and costumes which violate their regulations, but we are all the same proceeding without changing AKB48’s nature.
From now on, things will be much more complex than ever before. Making a “manual” when thousands of possibilities exist is meaningless. Trying not to predict, but localizing case by case, such “reflexes”, is becoming more and more necessary.
“Cool Japan must not be a ‘limited-time offer’.”
—How should we bring Japan’s entertainment abroad from here on?
We live in an age without borders; ideas easily travel from country to country. How many ideas without form can cross borders is the deciding factor of Cool Japan’s future. Language and religion. There are many differences between countries, but I think that fun and interesting things and sad and difficult things are common throughout the world.
Cool Japan must not be a “limited-time offer”. From the point when a foreigner says, “This is really nice,” it is important to turn “this” into business and keep it constantly exciting. One single boom is not much use at all.
Entertainment is a tool to gather people and does not originally become a business in itself. For example, a picture-story show for children. The point is not how to gain money through it, but to think about what you could sell to the audience. From the “entrance” of entertainment, what constant business could be created? It is important to think in a two-axis basis. I am not a businessman myself, so the monetization of AKB48 and JKT48 is left to the partner Dentsu.
—Please tell us your plans for future expansion overseas.
Seeing Jakarta’s success and economic effects, several countries have moved with proposals to us—the Philippines, Thailand, China, Malaysia… What follows is yet to be seen. North and South American countries have shown interest as well; I think that next year and the one after will see further expansions.
Path to Success: JKT48 Documentation
November: JKT48 first generation final audition results. In the following December, their first performance and handshake event is held.
September: Opening of exclusive theater. Shows are held almost every day in an exclusive theater holding up to 330 spectators.
February: The first album Heavy Rotation is released. In May of the same year, the first single “River” follows.
November: In the HAI Magazine Awards, sponsored by the youth-oriented HAI Magazine, JKT48 topped the “Best Single” and three other categories for the second consecutive year.
In the Yahoo! OMG! Awards, the JKT48 receive the “Best Group” award for the second consecutive year.
March: First senbatsu election. The election results event is aired live on ANTV. The total number of votes exceeded 200,000.
April: Received two awards (“Best Song”, etc.) in the Global Seru Awards, sponsored by Global TV.
June: Received “Best Performance” and “Best Producer” awards in the AMI Awards, the highest music industry award in Indonesia.
October: Appointed Jakarta Tourism Ambassador from the Jakarta Tourism Board.
December: JKT48 3rd Anniversary Concert is held in Jakarta. Start of Yokoso JKT48, a TV program showcasing Japan, realized in collaboration between various Japanese local TV channels and ANTV.
January: Received “Best Girl Group” award in the Dahsyatnya Awards, sponsored by the TV channel RCTI, for the third consecutive year.
February: Joint concert with AKB48, “Holding hands together with the first sister”.
March: Cumulative theater spectators exceed 200,000. Presently the person-to-ticket ratio is 1 to 3–8. The official Facebook page has 3.5 million followers. The group has 66 members.
A real “sample” is the greatest weapon.
AKB48’s first theater show in December 2005 saw only seven spectators. At present, the total audience of all groups is nearing 2 million. This popularity shot its sparks to the world; JKT48 changed the tendencies of local pop culture. Dentsu’s Hiroyuki Fujita, who was struck by the AKB48 format created by Akimoto and spent the utmost effort for it in recent years, says, “This model, which sees members and fans growing together, will surely succeed abroad too, or so I felt. I thought, though, that rather than presenting a proposal on paper, creating an example of success overseas would have been the shortcut to obtaining a latent variety that would lead to global acceptance. A real ‘sample’ is the greatest weapon, a ‘driver’ in synergy with the advertising business that would then explore new commercial opportunities. We can find a hint toward Cool Japan here, perhaps.”
Dentsu’s Akihiro Nishiyama, who has supported JKT48 since its beginning until now, says, “AKB48 is an example of excellence, looking at its structures; the songs’ quality is high too. I believed its success could be repeated overseas.” He also recalls that “the introduction of content not present in Indonesia’s range of values was not understood at first; it was not easy. But we kept pouring our best efforts without adapting too much to the local tendencies and began to gain a following. I think that, deep down, there was a common set of values.” The effort of fully believing in this set of values is the substance of AKB48’s format, in Japan and abroad. Will they manage to keep changing the world scene?
Collaborations with businesses in Indonesia
Currently, JKT48 has signed contracts with 13 Japanese, multinational, and Indonesian businesses.
This article is translated from the original at Dentsu Ho.