Idols and You — Thoughts on Galbraith & Karlin’s 33 1/3 JAPAN, AKB48 (a book recommendation and some musings thereafter)

Caught up on some reading this month so πŸ˜€

If you’ve happened to come across my few writings on idol viewing culture as it relates to anime viewing culture (such as this one one on the interpellation of 2.5D idols or this one on 2.5D idol spectacle) you might’ve seen me mention “Islands of eight million smiles: idol performance and symbolic production in contemporary Japan” (1999) and β€œIdols and celebrity in Japanese media culture” (2012).

These two texts combined are very a fascinating introduction to what has been referred to as ‘idology‘, or discourse in the context of idols and idol fandom. Aoyagi Hiroshi’s dissertation (which is totally free to read by the way) combines both an ethnographic and anthropoligical perspective to illustrate what he sees as the inner workings of the idol industry and its ‘products’ in the form of fan culture. Despite his piece being almost a whole two decades old in the time that I’m writing this, a lot of Aoyagi’s observations still hold true and relevant to this day, thus it is still viewed by many as an important cornerstone of research by many in the field.


Patrick Galbraith and Jason Karlin are among such reseachers. The pair’s compilation of texts (which included their own respective articles) brought in different approaches from scholars that come from different fields of study in an effort to paint an even broader picture of the overall idol landscape. “Idols and Celebrity” ultimately served to cover the many blindspots that Aoyagi’s research ended up having (namely his focus at the time exculsively being on female idols), whilst also adding on to the body of work that Aoyagi had set out to build.

The two books, extensive as they are, do boast a modest page count (which together I’d ballpark at about 400 pages of text proper or so,) and while that might not seem like much for some, I’m sure there are some who see that as rather daunting especially when you consider that these are all still technacilly scholarly texts and are formatted as such, and thus may even contain terminology that would require a fair bit of prior knowledge to understand. Luckily (as we now finally get to the crux of my post here, lol), Galbraith and Karlin have since come out with yet another contribution to idol discourse that may prove to be more accesible, in the form of “33β…“ JAPAN, AKB48“.

33β…“‘ (thirty-three and a third, in reference to the speed at which a vinyl record spins) is a series of books originating in the UK in the early 2000s wherein each volume discussed one specific album by a paricular artist or band at length. The series has then expanded its reach after a turnover in publication, and now offers to play host to writings from all over the world, starting with their release of 33β…“ BRAZIL and most recently the aforementioned 33β…“ JAPAN. I actually first learned of the series from a post by Rise from Phoenix Talks Pop Culture Japan when she talked about 33β…“ JAPAN, GAME, a volume of the series which talked about the idol trio Perfume’s album of the same name and how it came about(check out her review of the book if you haven’t yet!).

However, quite unlike 33β…“ JAPAN, GAME, and all the other books in the series for that matter, 33β…“ JAPAN, AKB48 doesn’t talk about one specific album by AKB48 nor does it really talk about AKB48’s music at all. Rather, Galbraith and Karlin took this opportunity to once again discuss topics on idol and idol fandom. On the one hand, someone familiar with how AKB48 operates might come to expect this (despite the nature of the book series) given that AKB48 as an idol group historically has never been known for any one standout album in the first place. On the other hand, it’s this very peculiarity, that sort of forms the metanarrative behind 33β…“ JAPAN, AKB48.

I think I should point out first and foremost that this book is not a book strictly about AKB48, and someone who wants to know more about AKB48 and only about AKB48 might find 33β…“ JAPAN, AKB48 a bit lacking in that area. For example; while it does in fact delve quite a bit into the history of AKB48, from their inception as an idol group to the near-worldwide notoriety they now hold, the book doesn’t really go and talk about the idols themselves. If anything, Galbraith and Karlin use AKB48 as a conduit for the many concepts they end up presenting here, stemming from AKB48 being a microcosm for idols and idol fandom in general. Having read Galbraith and Karlin’s work prior, 33β…“ JAPAN, AKB48 honestly reads like an abridged version of “Idols and Celebrity”, albeit much more streamlined and carefully arranged than the latter, and in my opinion feels very considerate towards its readers with regard to the brevity of its content, while still honing in on key concepts of their idol discourse.

I wanna say this book is meant for people who want to get their feet wet in texts that cover these sorts of topics, and I do recommend it as such. It’s a fairly light read in terms of page count (which Amazon lists at 160 for the print version) and the chapters have a nice flow to them, given that Galbraith and Karlin have structured the chapters to connect in a sort of chronological way (whilst still running parallel to the conceptual framework of the overall text). The chapters themselves are very concise for the most, and overall written in a way that doesn’t dig too deep down the rabbit hole, which I thought was a great move on their part. Of course, it can’t be helped that the sections on say “affective economics” and “culture industry” will invariably be quite the lull for those encountering these terms for the first time, and is really a testament to how hard it is to strike that balance between casual and scholarly writing.

One complaint I can see being raised (and was something that surprised even myself when I first noticed it) is that the text proper is roughly two-thirds of the book, with the rest of the it being reserved for notes, references, and a very robust index section (lol). While that might seem like a bit of a ripoff, I personally didn’t mind this as much. I like thinking of book references as a refined recommended reading list, and they reference A LOT of work here, so I look forward to checking those out at some point πŸ˜›

So yeah (TL;DR), definitely check this out if you have at any point been curious about the idol industry in Japan and the idol culture it subsequently created. More so if you’ve come across works such as “Islands of Eight Million Smiles” and/or “Idols and Celebrity” but have thought against reading those in lieu of their scholarly nature.


5 thoughts on “Idols and You — Thoughts on Galbraith & Karlin’s 33 1/3 JAPAN, AKB48 (a book recommendation and some musings thereafter)

  1. I’ve been curious about picking up a digital or print copy of this for awhile. Considering I still haven’t read “Islands of eight-million smiles” or “Idol and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture”, which I have both digitally bookmarked, I might have to keep it on hold. I’m glad you managed to take a look, and it sounds like it’s not a bad read. One day I’ll definitely get to it!

    • Yeah, this really serves more as both an introduction as well a supplementary material for those two books (but more so for “Idols and Celebrity” since it’s by the same guys), so if you already have both on your reading list then I think this one can sit further back on the shelf yep (xD)

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