NSK Origins

In light of Maeda Atsuko’s upcoming graduation, I feel it’s a good time to look back and reflect on the past 2-3 years of my idol fandom and tell you about how it all started. I encourage my fellow writers here on New School Kaidan to also tell their NSK Origins stories.

A brief intro if you don’t already know who I am and what I do. I joined New School Kaidan in September of 2011 after having been a fan of the site in its earlier days (think rockliao.wordpress and Japancast Academy days). I used to leave walls of text for comments and my favorite part of the NSK site was the weekly podcasts that I would tune into during my work day. It shows in my contributions that I am mostly an AKB48 fan, but I do believe in having an open mind.

My idol fandom is relatively new in my life, though Japanese media and culture have attracted me since my younger days. My first exposure to any sort of Japanese entertainment was the imports of anime to localized versions in the United States. English dubs of Pokemon and Yugioh were the extent of my knowledge of Japan for a while. Surprisingly, I wasn’t even a fan of Sailor Moon or Dragonball, though Samurai Pizza Cats was probably the best show ever.

Trigun

The summer before I entered high school (9th grade), my sister brought home an anime called, Trigun. I was intrigued by this cartoon that had Japanese speech in it. I borrowed it and suddenly I became hooked to anything that was animated and Japanese.

I was obsessed. I tried to learn how to draw in anime/manga style. I tried to pick up common Japanese phrases here and there in the shows I watched. I dreamed of 2D girls. I was watching whatever I could get from my friends (I only had dial-up at the time). And I was listening to as much Japanese music as possible. Mostly anime music, of course.

Due to this, I received some songs from a friend by a Japanese girl group called, Morning Musume. This was around 2003 and I had been exposed to songs such as; The Peace!, KoiING, and 11WATER’s BE ALL RIGHT! I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I do remember trying to find pictures of Morning Musume, without much luck. Both the internet and I were not as developed as we are now. I do remember discovering Goto Maki in a bikini, and that became my favorite wallpaper for a while.

Goto Maki bikini wallpaper

In my latter half of high school, I don’t remember watching much anime at all or listening to much Japanese pop. I’m not sure what was going on during that time, it was probably just a drought period.

When I entered college, I lived away from home and had cable internet, so suddenly torrents were my best friends. I went on downloading sprees and started watching tons of anime as well as listening to tons of anime music. I watched the drama, Densha Otoko, and got exposed to otaku and Akihabara culture. I saw the first episode of Lovedol ~Lovely Idol~, an anime about idols, and I thought of the genre as amusing at best. The idea and concept of an idol did not appeal to me at the time. I honestly thought it was kind of dumb. 2D girls > 3D pig disgusting, right?

I started taking Japanese in my second year of college and I was enjoying every minute of it. I was finally beginning to really understand the language that I had been listening to for so many years. I had some experience with Kanji because I had a few years of Chinese school during my elementary school days. I was enthusiastic, enjoying the material, and had previous experience in East Asian script, so I thought I was doing really well for myself.

Well, I fell into my second drought of anime, where I wasn’t watching anything. Honestly, I might have never recovered from that, because I feel like I’m at my third drought, but when the last animes I have finished are Cross Game and Bakemonogatari, it’s quite clear I’m not following the scene anymore.

The Japanese program was accelerated and fairly advanced at my college, so I did feel like I was learning quickly, but it was also hard to keep up and soon I got burnt out. Learning Japanese in the setting of Academia was not ideal to me. I was still hesitant to speak and I had to have a dictionary with me at all times. I still couldn’t watch anime raw with 100% understanding. I was discouraged, naturally.

Renai Revolution 21 CD Cover

Though, the silver lining was that singing in Japanese was actually possible now. Some of my fondest memories in college were of going out with friends to karaoke. I was always uncomfortable with the idea of karaoke boxes until going with these friends. One night, someone chose Morning Musume’s Renai Revolution 21 to sing. I fell in love with the song immediately. I didn’t give the group itself much thought, but this song kept them in the back of my mind.

In 2009, Morning Musume came to Anime Expo. Knowing that I had heard of this group before, I decided to give their concert a shot. Maybe I would see my favorite member, Goto Maki, right? Wrong. Everyone from that era graduated. What? Most of the songs they sang were completely unknown to me. When they started the medley that consisted of Renai Revolution 21 and The Peace!, my interest skyrocketed. I heavily enjoyed the song, 3, 2, 1, BREAKIN’ OUT! and I went home to check out their recent music videos.

Tanaka Reina screenshot from Anime Expo 2009

The girl I noticed the most was Tanaka Reina and she’s been my favorite H!P girl ever since. I had no idea that these 9 members were the most stable line up of Morning Musume in history. I was also surprised that there were 2 Chinese members in the group now.

I googled anything and everything about these girls and ended up finding PVs, TV shows, photobooks, etc. I became obsessed. Their music and their media became my primary hobby and I enjoyed every minute of it.

A flashback to my die-hard anime days: I went to a friend’s house and he told me about this underground Japanese girl group called, AKB48. Apparently, they had 48 members and their music video looked super low quality and the music in general was not to my tastes. Too girly, right?

When I was researching Morning Musume like crazy, I had come across the fact that they were “competing” with this other girl group who appeared to be gaining a lot of momentum. That group was called AKB48. I learned that there was a rivalry between the fans of the two groups and that Morning Musume and Hello!Project as a whole was way better than the garbage and trashy exploitation of AKB48.

When RIVER came out, I watched the music video and closed it in disgust, seeing girls like Maeda Atsuko and Takahashi Minami trying too hard to be alternatives to superstars like Takahashi Ai and Tanaka Reina. Clearly, Kimagure Princess was a better song and PV. (I actually like the song, no joke) Kusumi Koharu graduated and even though I didn’t particularly favor her, I felt the graduation effect for the first time.

Maeda Atsuko's profile photo from March 2010

AKB48 came to Los Angeles for Anime Expo in 2010 so I decided to give them a shot.

My world got flipped, turned upside down.

In the program guide, I looked at the photos of the girls and the one that stood out the most to me was Maeda Atsuko. She wasn’t too flamboyant or too plain, she wasn’t too anything to be honest. (Perhaps why she has been so polarizing as the ace and center, Acchan analysis blah blah blah) She was downright cute and I told myself to keep an eye out for her.

I watched their live performance, which was honestly just playing a CD and lip syncing. They seemed mechanical, factory-produced, dare I might say professional; but they had their own personal and humble rags to riches charm. I bought the Japanese version of Kamikyokutachi and got autographs from 8 of them, and although I had no investment in them, this was my first real connection with them. (Also a big reason why Kitahara Rie is special to me)

Kamikyokutachi, the Japanese CD+DVD Kitahara Rie's signature next to her photo

That CD became something I would loop over and over again. Namida Surprise quickly became my favorite song. This music was familiar, but also very different, and I was really liking what was different.

Well, the same cycle happened. I became obsessed and I noticed their content was being uploaded to trackers that also had H!P stuff. It became easier and easier to grab AKB48 content and a lot of it was brand-spanking new, and ever expanding.

It’s funny because for a good 3 months, I vowed to not ditch Morning Musume. AKB48 was the evil taint that was consuming my soul. I would constantly utter the words, “these stupid bitches, these stupid bitches, god damn it, stop it!” as I watched AKB48 music videos.

I eventually accepted my fate, and becoming a fan of them while they were on the rise has been huge for me. With Morning Musume, they were already on the decline so things were never going to be like the golden age ever again. Now, I’m actually experiencing the golden age and it’s fantastic. These are the “good old times” right now. Remember back in the day, when “times were good”? Yeah, that’s right now.

And that, folks… is how it all began.

Maeda Atsuko doesn't even have to try