TOKYO -- In a country awash with young female idols singing and dancing to songs that sound pretty much the same, it really says something if one can rise above the herd. Which is what Japan's new phenom Higashi Ikebukuro 52 has done, storming the internet fan-sphere with little more effort than it takes to break a glossed fingernail.
They have the quintessential looks, dance and lyrics of most other cute idols. In other words, all it takes for a shot in the country's crowded idol industry. But they have also got the all-important X factor that sent them soaring: They are all office workers at the same group company.
Riding the wave
The 24 members of Higashi Ikebukuro 52 work at Credit Saison, a Japanese financial services company, or one of its affiliates. The name is a pun on the rash of idol groups that have been appending numbers to their names, such as the wildly popular AKB48 or Nogizaka46. Higashi Ikebukuro is the district in Tokyo where Credit Saison's 52nd-floor headquarters is located.
The group is the brainchild of Toshihisa Aikawa, general manager of the company's business planning department, who wanted a fresh approach to marketing the company. "We were realizing that the conventional advertising method of merely 'telling' the customers about our company and product wouldn't cut it," Aikawa explained, adding that the company also wanted to target a younger demographic.
Aikawa's Eureka moment came after hearing "Futari Saison," a new song from the idol group Keyakizaka46. To Aikawa, the track seemed like the perfect theme song for Credit Saison, so he tried to enlist the group in promoting the company.
Fortunately for 24 up-till-then anonymous office workers, Keyakizaka46 was already under contract with another company running a credit card business. "That's when we decided we had to go original, to come up with our answer to 'Futari Saison'," he recalled.
Aikawa went large, enlisting the aid of industry insiders to get his project off the ground. Higashi Ikebukuro 52's only song to date was composed by Shinya Tada, who has written for a number of idols. The dance routine was choreographed by entertainment group, Kabukimon. Aikawa also called on a production company with deep ties to the industry to shoot the group's music video.
Akiawa's decisions have paid off. Despite being comprised of amateurs who have had only a month-and-a-half of practice sandwiched between daily work, the group has struck a chord with fans. In just a month, its music video has had over 284,000 plays on YouTube. The group's one CD is not for sale and can only be obtained using Credit Saison's loyalty points, but already 3,300 CDs have been shipped.
"We wouldn't have taken it public if we weren't confident we could compete with other idol groups," Aikawa said.
A Japanese pop culture expert shed some light on Higashi Ikebukuro 52's meteoric ascent. Kazumi Nagaike, professor at Oita University, explained that the situation "can be interpreted as an evolution" of the pseudo-intimacy model that has become the de facto standard of the Japanese idol scene over the last decade.
For most of its existence over 40 years or so, the industry had marketed idols as superstars to be observed only from afar, either in concerts or on television. This changed in 2005 with the emergence of AKB48. Cleverly marketed by industry leader Yasushi Akimoto, AKB48 proved a disruptor by branding itself as "idols you can meet."
AKB48's concerts are held at a small theater dedicated exclusively to the group in Tokyo's Akihabara district, offering fans a more intimate experience than conventional venues. The group holds regular "handshake events" for people who purchase their CDs. There are also general elections whereby fans who bought CDs can vote on which member will take center stage in the next music video. Enthusiastic fans will sometimes buy hundreds in the one-CD, one-vote elections.
After AKB48, idols started looking more like the girl next door than superstars, essentially creating a fake intimacy with fans.
"[Higashi Ikebukuro 52] fans would think they can meet the members whenever they go to a Credit Saison service counter," Nagaike noted. This is less a bother than buying CDs or going to concerts.
"That is taking [pseudo-intimacy] to the next level," she added.
Akimoto's strategy of creating accessible idols has taken the industry by storm, resulting in an explosion of amateurish, girl-next-door type idols. There were reportedly more than 8,000 female idols and idol groups in Japan as of the end of 2016.
Due to the over abundance of pseudo-intimate idols, Nagaike thinks Higashi Ikebukuro 52's approach might signal the end of the road for this type of group. "In order for idols to be revered, there needs to be a dose of 'mystical empty space'," the professor said. "Too much intimacy fills the space, and robs the fans of imagination. There needs to be the right balance."
Academics aside, the professor noted that fans have plainly become bored with the genre and that there is a growing backlash, as evidenced by the popularity of some boy bands.
"When you look at [the Korean boy band] BTS, their global popularity comes down to the 'professional' performances," Nagaike said. "My understanding is that the popularity of [Japanese groups] EXILE and Sandaime J Soul Brothers are a backlash to the amateurish idols."
Whether this is true won't matter much to Higashi Ikebukuro 52. Credit Saison's Aikawa said people in the company want the group to release a couple more songs. But he thinks this isn't something for the long haul, so it is likely back to the desks for the lucky 24.
As for the vast majority of other Japanese stars riding the accessible idol wave, they might be best advised to plan a controlled descent back to the real world before the probable crash and burn.