By Sarah Berlow
On March 27, the Japanese cherry blossoms in Washington D.C. will be in full bloom, and the National Cherry Blossom Festival will swing into full gear. This year, festival goers can follow their contemplation of the blooms with a gander at the latest Japanese pop-cultural phenomenon: the girl-group AKB48 – or 16 of the 92 members, to be precise – who will also be in the U.S. capital to commemorate the event.
AKB48 in Jakarta in February.
AKB48 is a curious group. Founded in 2005 by Japanese showbiz legend Yasushi Akimoto, it started off at its own theater in Akihabara (hence the name AKB), a neighborhood known as a Tokyo hangout for “otaku,” or geeks. AKB48 still performs at that theater daily. The group’s fans tend to be young Japanese girls and adult men, some of whom purchase hundreds of copies of one single.
Mr. Akimoto has said he doesn’t want the group to be overly polished, so that fans can watch as members develop as performers. The formula has led AKB48 to be one of the top-selling groups in Japan, and a growing phenomenon in Asia, where Mr. Akimoto is now creating spinoff groups, such as JKT48 in Jakarta, Indonesia.
AKB48 members have endorsed products from Google to Shiseido. They’ve also been visible supporters of relief efforts after the March 11 disasters, performing for schools in Tohoku, hosting aid events, and donating funds and supplies to the region.
The work in Tohoku has led to the engagement at D.C.’s National Cherry Blossom Festival, where the group is expressing Japan’s gratitude for the U.S.’s support during the March 11 disasters last year, according to the Japanese daily Mainichi Daily News. AKB48’s visit is being sponsored by the Japan Pop Culture 2012 Executive Committee, which is supported by the Agency of Cultural Affairs of Japan.
AKB48 will have plenty of company. The festival is five weeks long, filled with musical performances, matsuri festivals, a parade, and a movie viewing. Other performers include Japanese singer Misia and America-based Japanese drum group Taikoproject. This year will also mark the 100th anniversary of Tokyo’s gift of the trees to the U.S., as a token of friendship between the two nations.
AKB will perform two concerts on March 27 at The Lincoln Theatre, for which there will be free tickets available. AKB48 will also be visiting a D.C. elementary school as part of the festival’s endeavor to strengthen bonds between the two nations through cultural exposure.
Maybe by the time the cherry blossoms pop open next year, DOC48—District of Columbia 48—will be making its debut.