Since AKB48 was founded on the concept of idols that fans could meet, the staff listened closely to feedback from fans. The whole concept was a new one and at first the girls did not have many fans. So the management was very attentive to the feedback they received with the hopes of keeping the fans happy and attracting new ones. At the time there was a vote box in the lobby for fans to write the name of members that they liked. Votes started popping up for a girl who was not appearing on stage. At first the staff thought that it was a prank until someone remembered that they did have a girl named Shinoda Mariko working in the café.
Mariko was from Fukuoka, which is fairly close to where I was living in Japan and not really close at all to Tokyo. After she graduated from high school she moved to Tokyo to audition for the first generation of AKB48. She was 18 at the time. But she failed the audition. Despite this, she didn’t return home. She wanted to try a bit longer, so she got a job working in the AKB Café serving juice and ice cream to customers and handing out flyers outside to promote the stage show. From the café she could glimpse the stage whenever anyone entered or left the theatre. The stage was so close, and yet it was still far from her reach. Mariko had chatted with many of the customers about her dream of being on the stage one day and to show their support for her they had written down votes for her.
One day Akimoto approached her. He had seen the votes for her and had observed her working in the café. He did not remember her from the auditions, but told her that if she could remember twelve songs in four days then she could perform on the stage. This was no small request, but Mariko saw her dream closer than ever and practiced as hard as she could, learning the lyrics and the dance steps. Her hard work paid off and she was made an official member of AKB48. Because she entered the group after the first generation but before the second generation auditions were held Mariko is considered to be the only member of generation 1.5.
Like several of my other oshimen Mariko drew my attention early on because she was easy to pick out of the crowd. With her height and short hair cut she was easy to recognize. I was also drawn to her because she is the oldest member of the group, only a few months younger than me. But the more I get to know about other members, the lower Mariko seems to drop for me.
There isn’t really anything I dislike about her. She’s cute and has a nice smile. But we don’t seem to share a lot of interests. She’s super into fashion and I’m really not, so a lot of her appearances in magazines just don’t appeal to me. She seems to have a really quirky sense of humor and is known as the elder sister to all the AKB girls (which includes teasing them as an older sister would quite often). She clearly cares a lot about the group and its members, but there just isn’t anything that really endears her to me in the special way that my other oshimen have.
Mariko was ranked number 3 in the first two elections and dropped slightly to number four last year. She’s very popular with women, especially high school aged girls. She’s another who appears in almost all of the singles. This past year she won the yearly janken tournament, winning the center position for the next single. The single was set to be a cute fluffy song about penguins, but with Mariko as the center they decided to change it to fit her image better (the penguin song was made into a coupling track on the theatre version of the CD and performed by Team 4). They went a step further and actually made the song about her, making her the first and only girl in AKB48 to have her name in the title of a song. This shows that she has a lot of pull and influence in the group, even among the staff. (It's kinda a long video, if you just want to hear the song skip to about four minutes in.)
While most of the older girls in the group have graduated or were shuffled off to SDN48 Mariko has remained. I think it’s good for AKB’s image as idols are often seen as only young girls, so having Mariko around shows that being an idol is about more than age. Older girls often graduate to go on to “more serious pursuits,” but Mariko seems to be doing just fine where she is, so I can’t imagine why she would ever want to leave.