AKB48 Senbatsu Sousenkyo. The 48 group’s biggest event of the year, a time where fans cast millions of votes with the hope that their favorites will have the honor of standing on stage and appearing in the next AKB48 single. The sousenkyo is an event full of intense emotions, and its size and scale means a huge amount of importance is attached to it.
That being said, how much weight does ranking in the elections really have? This series will examine the activities and statistics of AKB’s idols, going by 2014 sousenkyo rank, to see what ranking in really means for an idol.
Watanabe Mayu (Mayuyu)
2014 Sousenkyo Rank: #1 (#1 in AKB)
2015 Sousenkyo Rank: #3 (#2 in AKB)
There’s no rank higher than #1, and Watanabe Mayu taking the position in 2014 aligned nicely with AKB management’s plans for her. As an “orthodox idol”, Mayuyu was a way to keep AKB’s public image stable after Yuko’s graduation, and she’d already been given center for previous AKB senbatsu songs such as “Mosh & Dive” and “Labrador Retriever”.
Despite not being as well-known or popular as a few other members, it would appear that Mayuyu’s #1 position gave her a strong boost in terms of media relevance. However, Mayuyu’s time at the absolute top has proved short-lived. “Kokoro no Placard”, her sousenkyo single, sold just 1.005 million physical copies in its first week (the lowest of any AKB million-selling single at the time). Mayuyu was then made double center for “Kibouteki Refrain” with Miyawaki Sakura, another popular orthodox idol, and was later dropped from the center position in AKB A-sides altogether.
On top of this, Mayuyu’s prime-time drama Tatakau! Shoten Girl was eventually cancelled due to historically low ratings. While Mayuyu is still one of the most famous and marketable idols in AKB, her time as the group’s center has ended for now.
Kashiwagi Yuki (Yukirin)
2014 Sousenkyo Rank: #3 (#2 in AKB)
2015 Sousenkyo Rank: #2 (#1 in AKB)
If sales decided everything, Yukirin would be the queen of AKB. She’s an idol who fans just can’t get enough of, and her massive popularity among fans of AKB translates well to the environment of the sousenkyo. Despite her legendary status among wota, there appears to be a slight difference in support between the people trapped in Yukirin World and the people who aren’t.
However, Yukirin is one of only three idols in this article to receive a brand-new CM deal in the past year, and she’s still among the elite of AKB (if not the entire 48 group), so she’s not someone who management wants to see gone anytime soon.
Now that Yukirin’s concurrency with NMB48 has ended, AKB’s management needs to find something else to keep her busy with to ward off fears of graduation, so they’ve given her a concurrency with NGT48 several months before the group’s actual debut. It’s a clunky solution, but it’s also better than simply hoping for the best.
Shimazaki Haruka (Paruru)
2014 Sousenkyo Rank: #7 (#3 in AKB)
2015 Sousenkyo Rank: #9 (#4 in AKB)
With Paruru, saltiness isn’t always a disadvantage. Despite her infamy at handshake events, Paruru still regularly places in the top tier of sales. In fact, if one were to discount “Green Flash”, Paruru would join Mayuyu, Takamina, Kojiharu and Yukirin as the only idols in AKB to sell out all available slots from 2012 and on.
From fashion magazines to children’s shows to military recruitment, Paruru is a success story of AKB’s new generation, and she’s living proof that character and appeal can be stronger weapons in an idol’s repertoire than singing and dancing skills.
Kojima Haruna (Kojiharu)
2014 Sousenkyo Rank: #8 (#4 in AKB)
2015 Sousenkyo Rank: Did not participate
Many people expected Kojiharu to graduate nearly two years ago with “Heart Ereki”, but at this point it’s clear she’s perfectly content with taking her time. Kojiharu’s enormous social media following, fantastic sales and top-tier public interest levels shows that she’s still an idol very much in demand despite her age, and management isn’t in a hurry to show her the door either.
It seems likely that Kojiharu simply opted to decline new media offers this year, but the gap between her sousenkyo rank and popularity elsewhere points to the differences between appeal among AKB fans and appeal among the Japanese public.
Takahashi Minami (Takamina)
2014 Sousenkyo Rank: #9 (#5 in AKB)
2015 Sousenkyo Rank: #4 (#3 in AKB)
Whatever impact Takamina’s stagnating sousenkyo rank brought was negated by the announcement of her graduation and AKB’s 10th anniversary looming on the horizon. Given the slow decline of AKB’s sales over the past few years, it’s unclear just how much of Takamina’s miraculous 2015 sousenkyo rank increase was due to heightened public interest and how much of it was due to her fans making one final push, but given her massive presence on 755 and increase in sale speed it seems clear that someone’s efforts are being rewarded.
Yokoyama Yui (Yuihan)
2014 Sousenkyo Rank: #13 (#6 in AKB)
2015 Sousenkyo Rank: #10 (#5 in AKB)
Relatively low sousenkyo ranks and HS/2-shot sales haven’t stopped Yuihan from enjoying tremendous growth in exposure over the past year. As Takamina prepares to graduate by 2015’s end, AKB’s next general manager is now under pressure to support the group in a similar fashion to her predecessor.
Yuihan’s strong social and mass media presence compared to her sousenkyo rank suggests that she might not have as many wealthy powervoters backing her up as other idols do, but she’s still popular enough to be an AKB senbatsu staple regardless.
Kawaei Rina (Ricchan)
2014 Sousenkyo Rank: #16 (#7 in AKB)
2015 Sousenkyo Rank: Did not participate
Ricchan may never fully recover from the attack, and her presence will be missed in AKB when she graduates, but it hasn’t stopped her from pursuing a career in the entertainment industry. While Ricchan’s recognition rate was probably increased by a significant amount as a result of news coverage of the incident, she also has interest scores and an impressive amount of media exposure to match.
Ricchan has been a popular idol for a few years now, and in 2012/13 would frequently sell out all of her slots on single and album releases, so it’s clear the vast majority of her opportunities were granted on her own merit instead of on sympathy.
Kitahara Rie (Kitarie)
2014 Sousenkyo Rank: #19 (#8 in AKB)
2015 Sousenkyo Rank: #11 (#1 in NGT)
Kitarie once said that she would graduate AKB when she feels as if she’s no longer needed, and although she’s not the senbatsu regular she once was, management doesn’t want to part ways with her just yet. Compared to other 5th generation idols like Miyazaki Miho and Ishida Haruka, Kitarie has been able to maintain a strong fanbase and solid sousenkyo rank over the years.
Her sales aren’t high enough to warrant a senbatsu position over new generation idols like Mukaichi Mion, but management looks to breathe new life into her idol career with a preemptive transfer to NGT48. Even if Kitarie isn’t at the top anymore, she’s still relevant enough to warrant being given attention, and in these troubled times 48G can use all the talent they can get their hands on.
Senbatsu is the top of AKB, and an idol reaching that position in the sousenkyo means she’s guaranteed exposure for the subsequent single campaign. However, all the idols who ranked in 2014’s senbatsu are both popular and marketable, so it’s difficult to come to a solid conclusion as to whether or not the sousenkyo results have an impact at this tier beyond the #1 position.
Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, where I’ll be examining a group of AKB’s Under Girls and beyond!
*For “Bokutachi wa Tatakawanai”, all idols participating in handshake events were assigned a flat 18 slots. Kojiharu was assigned 16 slots, but this was later increased to 17 during resale rounds.