In 2017, it was announced in MAMA Japan that there will be a new season of Produce 101. But instead of the usual “101” title, the show is called “Produce 48.” Back then, it was announced that the new season will a collaboration involving Korean and Japanese trainees.
Then in the first half of 2018, it was announced in ABS-CBN that there will be a show that will search for the Philippines’ top idol group, named MNL48.
For the uninitiated, this can cause confusion. Is MNL48 trying to copy the Produce 48 concept? Why are Japanese trainees in Produce 48? And what’s with the use of 48 in these group names anyway?
First Thing’s First: A Look into AKB48
Before you understand what MNL48 and Produce 48 are, it’s important to first understand the group that started the phenomenon: AKB48.
Debuted in 2005, AKB48 is an idol girl group in Japan named after the location of its group theater, Akihabara, and the number of original members, 48. The group was created by Akimoto Yasushi, who wanted to form a group of “idols you can meet”. So instead of just seeing idols on concerts and on television, fans can see AKB48 on its own theater, through several mini-concerts or “handshake” events.
Another unique feature of AKB48 is its members. Unlike many idol groups with fixed members, AKB48 is split into several teams (or sub-units) in which members can either leave or move to another team/unit. (Think NCT and After School!) Members can also choose to leave AKB48 entirely (aka, to “graduate”), and they usually have a graduation concert to celebrate their leaving the group.
AKB48 continues to be one of the highest-earning idol groups in Japan. Since 2008, the group tends to hit 1 million sales on the first day of a single’s release. In fact, its highest sales in history is 2.5 million in 2016. As of 2017, it has sold over 50 million records, including over 6 million albums.
For the curious, here are some AKB48 songs worth listening to:
Sakura no Hanabiratachi (2006)
Sakura no Hanabiratachi is AKB48’s debut song, released in 2006. It was re-released in 2008 with a 10-minute music video.
Oogoe Diamond (2008)
This single marked a couple of firsts for AKB48: it is the first single on their current label King Records and the first single featuring a member from a sister group, SKE48. SKE48 center and current Produce 48 contestant, Matsui Jurina, also made her official AKB48 debut in this single, sharing the center position with Atsuko Maeda.
Heavy Rotation (2010)
Perhaps AKB48’s biggest hit, the song charted on JOYSOUND for 43 weeks. Even today, the song is still commonly sung in karaoke. And remember when Produce 48 trainees danced to it on Episode 2? And when IOI and some AKB48 members performed it on MAMA 2017?
Koisuru Fortune Cookie (2013)
This song is AKB48’s 13th song to reach over 1 million copies. The song also started a dance craze in Japan.
Apart from their regular promotions in theater, AKB48 spawns numerous activities, which helps the boost of their sales. For one, they host four variety shows on Japanese television. Several dramas and movies also feature their members, individually and sometimes as a group. They also spawned manga, anime shows, and video games.
So technically, AKB48 isn’t just an idol girl group. It’s a phenomenon.
Understanding the 48 Group
So where does MNL48 and Produce 48 fit into the picture?
Technically, they’re two of AKB48 sister groups. Setting aside the two groups, AKB48 already has five sister groups in Japan (SKE48 in Nagoya, NMB48 in Osaka, HKT48 in Fukuoka, NGT48 in Niigata, and STU48 which performs on a boat) and six groups outside Japan (JKT48 in Indonesia, BNK48 in Bangkok, and TPE48 in Taiwan). There are also plans to create sister groups in India (MUM48), Shanghai (AKB48 China), and Vietnam (SGO48).
As part of the 48 Group, sister groups share the same concepts as AKB48. This means they adopt the “idols you can meet” concept in which they perform regularly in their theater and hold handshake events. And apart from their original songs, they also release covers of AKB48 songs in their language.
Here’s one example: MNL48’s version of Sakura no Hanabiratachi:
And another: JKT48’s version of RIVER:
Member Selection: The Senbatsu Sousenkyo
With so many members in a group, how do AKB48 and its sister groups determine which members get the most attention?
Believe it or not, Produce 48 got its voting concept through AKB48’s Senbatsu Sousenkyo, literally translated to “Selection General Election”. This annual event determines the members who will promote in a single, with the Top 16 (Senbatsu) appearing in the title track and the rest in the remaining songs in the single. Of course, the member with the highest votes in the Sousenkyo gets to be the center.
Sousenkyo has been an annual AKB48 tradition. The main group used to do it, but now, even sister groups in Japan join Sousenkyo. And this year, on the 2018 Senbatsu Sousenkyo, even sister groups outside Japan had a shot to be part of Senbatsu.
It started in 2008 with AKB48, but now Sousenkyo allows sister groups in Japan—and recently abroad—apply to have a shot to be part of the group. In fact, two members from BNK48 will be part of the senbatsu single.
So how does the Sousenkyo work? 48G members will file an application to join, after which they will make appeals to their fans through videos uploaded in the groups’ official channels. Fans can then get ballots by purchasing AKB48’s latest “election single” (the single released before the Sousenkyo date), through the groups’ mobile app products, and through fan club subscriptions. In fact, fans go out of their way to buy hundreds of copies of singles to vote for their favorite members.
The Sousenkyo is a big thing in Japan, as the event is held in a huge arena. 48Group members hype up the crowd early in the day with concert performances. Then, by afternoon, the results are announced. The center, announced last, then gets a cape and a trophy, and gets to sit on a shiny throne.
With all’s been said and done, no one is copying anyone. MNL48 and Produce 48 are part of a larger phenomenon. What is more exciting, though, is these girls’ journeys as a member of an AKB48 sister groups. Who knows? You might see them next in the larger stage—next year’s Senbatsu Sousenkyo.