After an earthquake and tsunami ravaged the northeastern part of Japan, companies like Sony and Nintendo opened up their hearts (and wallets) and donated big money to the rescue effort. Those electronics giants, however, were outdone by a group of young girls (and an old dude).
AKB48 is currently Japan's most popular girl group, and has hit a level of popularity that was previously held by Morning Musume. The Akihabara-based group has young fans, legions of male adorers and a growing female fan base. While their albums, singles and TV programs are popular, you wouldn't necessarily peg them as being able to pony up more cash than giant companies like Nintendo and Sony.
While Nintendo and Sony were generous enough to give ¥300 million ($3.6 million) each, the group, its sister groups (SKE48, NMB48, SDN48), their management and their creator Atsushi Akimoto are, according to Sanspo, shelling out ¥500 ($6.18 million) - more than Sony and Nintendo combined. If there was ever a good time for companies and famous people to try to outdo each other with charity donations, this is that time! The group also set up a bank account for fans to donate money to the relief efforts.
AKB48 has, give or take, around 48 members, but the group started in late 2005 first with only twenty members. The three teams (A, K and B) grew in size, and the girls could be spotted on the streets of geek paradise Akihabara, passing out fliers, trying to build a fanbase.
The group now rules the popcharts, and while they still perform at its Akihabara theatre, the group's most popular members are more likely to be found in television commercials than Akihabara street corners, passing out pieces of paper. Successful spin-off groups were created, too: Nagoya's SKE48, Osaka's NMB48, and the more "adult" SDN48. SKE48 was recently roped in to promote Kinect in Japan.
Yet, for as popular as the AKB48's most famous members are, they apparently aren't that well-paid, especially when compared to American popstars. Estimates put 19-year-old Atsuko Maeda's and 24-year-old Mariko Shinoda's yearly salary at ¥20 million yen or $US243,000 each. In 2010, the next highest paid members (Yuko Oshima, Haruna Kojima and Tomomi Itano) supposedly earned ¥18 million ($218,730), ¥16 million ($194,426) and ¥16 million ($194,426), respectively.
Yes, there are 48 girls on salary, but the less famous members make even less money - nowhere near what the group's biggest stars rope in. Don't get me wrong ¥20 million is a very good salary. But when somebody like Maeda is on television all the time and singing on number one albums, it does seem rather low (but still way higher than what Korean group Kara got paid).
Akimoto is the brains behind the group, penning most of the tunes. He's been in the music business for decades, writing iconic idol songs during the 1980s for groups like Onyanko Club. Akimoto might have written Onyanko Club's hits and produced their albums, but the group was owned by Fuji TV media moguls, meaning that Akimoto was simply a very creative salaried employee. The Onyanko Club girls didn't make much either. Former Onyanko Club leader Eri Nitta told me that the reason why she joined the group was that she made only the equivalent of $US25 a day during the group's heyday. Following this model, Akimoto created his own group, and sub-groups and spin-off groups. But unlike Onyanko Club, he does pay his top members more than $US25 a day.
But the popstar mogul isn't just sitting on all that money he's earned, as evident by his recent donation for disaster relief. Six million dollars is a good chunk of change, more than what huge international companies are giving. Perhaps their generosity will inspire others or motivate Japan's biggest companies to do more.
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