The girls of AKB48 arrived in Washington this week, a buoyant, giggling mass of knees, dimples, hair bows, teeth.
Do the girls of AKB48 own any pets? the American students asked the Japanese pop stars on the occasion of their first visit to the U.S. capital.
Aki Takajo owns two Chihuahuas, she informed the students through an interpreter, beaming with the sheer delight of it all.
Her two companions were elated by the news of these dogs; Sae Miyazawa began clapping her hands, and Rina Hirata — call her Hilary, she encouraged — revealed that she personally kept two snakes for pets.
Oh no! The second-graders of Strong John Thomson Elementary School protested.
Oh yes! Snakes, Hilary, 13, revealed, are very cute. She, like Takajo, 20, and Miyazawa, 21, wore a navy plaid blazer over the smallest schoolgirl skirt, followed by yards of gangly legs, then knee socks. A wee, jaunty top hat perched on her head.
AKB48 is an all-female singing group. Sixteen of its members were in town for just 36 hours, a whirlwind cultural exchange celebrating the 100th anniversary of Washington’s cherry blossom trees.
They visited the school, accompanied by approximately 22 members of the Japanese press. They visited the residence of the Japanese ambassador, Ichiro Fujisaki, who speculated that “AKB” stood for Adorable, Kind and Beautiful. Such a joker, that ambassador. Everyone knows that the group name is a play on “Akihabara,” the Tokyo neighborhood in which the group holds nightly performances.
On Tuesday, they performed two free concerts at the Lincoln Theatre to packed, shrieking crowds. (The audience brought glow sticks, knew all of the words to all of the songs and were ecstatic when one member shared that she had studied the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in grade school.)
How to explain AKB48. The group contains 60-ish members, selected through a rolling “American Idol”-esque audition process. It is the largest pop group in the world. When its members get older, they graduate and are replaced with trainee AKB48s. The group’s past 11 singles have topped Japanese charts, and Japanese citizens get to vote on which members will appear in which videos. Tickets to the band’s shows are distributed via lottery. AKB48 is huge.
It is as if Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and the entire cast of “Twilight” were placed into a saucepan and simmered on a low boil until nothing remained but the sweet, cloying essence of fame, and if that fame were then poured into pleated tartan skirts and given pigtails.
Is AKB48’s target audience tweenage girls? Teenage girls? Something . . . else? The cutesy-saucy stereotype flounced about by AKB48 is not exactly subliminal. Anyone who thinks the group is G-rated has not seen their Puccho candy commercial, in which the members of AKB48 pass each other taffy, lips to lips, no hands at all.
At Thomson Elementary, the students wanted to know: Who is your favorite cartoon character, Hilary?
She enthusiastically pointed to a picture of a Japanese manga character. “Because he’s blue and round and has a pocket that is a door, and you can open the door and go anywhere you want.” Hilary, who was born in Arizona, speaks English.
After this cultural Q&A, the three girls sat with the students and helped them write messages of goodwill to residents of Japan on pink cutouts of cherry blossoms.
“Just draw anything?” Takajo, through her interpreter, asked the young girl who pressed a crayon into her hand and asked for assistance. The girl nodded. Takajo took the crayon and carefully sketched a small figure. It was Hello Kitty.
Then the girls were whisked away, waving cheerfully. The approximately 22 members of the media also dispersed, catching taxis to the ambassador’s residence, where the girls were scheduled to give a news conference.
The girls arrived about 10 minutes late to the open, airy room decorated with pictures of the Japanese emperor and empress. These girls were new girls, three different members of AKB48. The skirts and blazers were identical, however, and the replacement girls appeared to be equally adorable, kind and beautiful.
A member of the media asked the new girls how they felt to be visiting Washington.
“We are looking forward to giving you our show,” one girl says. “We are so honored and pleased.”
And do they have any tourist plans?
“We wanted to see the beautiful cherry blossoms,” Minami Takahashi said through an interpreter, though she was not sure they would have time. “We appreciate the many famous things in Washington, D.C.”
The resulting applause seemed the slightest bit outsize for the girls’ responses, but they were very personable and lovely, and it is always possible that something was lost in translation.