In the Chinese zodiac system, 2015 is the Year of the Sheep. It's a significant time for idol group AKB48 for at least two reasons.
First, the kanji character for "hitsuji" (sheep in Japanese), is also found in the kanji for "mure" (herd), which was originally created to indicate a herd of sheep flocking together. AKB48, as a "flock" of young performers, has certainly proven itself worthy of attention.
Secondly, Minami Takahashi, one of the first-generation members of the group, was born in an earlier Year of the Sheep, and she is to leave the group at the end of the year.
"Since I was small, I wasn't the type of person who would flock together with others," said Takahashi, who has been working as the group's general manager since 2012. "I absolutely like to be on my own, so it feels somewhat strange [to have been in the group for a long time]."
Born in April 1991 in Tokyo, Takahashi joined AKB48 in 2005. Apart from her activities at AKB, she has also been active as a member of No Sleeves with Haruna Kojima and Minami Minegishi, who are also first-generation AKB members.
Together with members of its sister groups in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Fukuoka and overseas, AKB as an affiliation has about 450 members.
In the groups, young girls of different ages and personalities work together, and Takahashi was not sure how to behave at first.
"Nobody intended to be part of such a [big] group. Because of the age differences and other reasons, it took us some time until we got used to the environment," she said.
As a member of the group, nobody was allowed to be visibly poor at both singing and dancing. "So, everybody was desperate about improving their own abilities," she said.
However, when the members stood on the stage for their debut performance, they faced the reality - a sea of vacant seats in front of them. From that moment on, the members began to move in the same direction.
"All of us wondered what we should do next, and this helped unite us," she said.
Dealing with problems together, sharing joy and pains, uniting under one goal - what the group has done can be seen as a conventional growth model found in Japanese businesses.
But in the case of AKB48, competition is brought into the group to help it grow in a way that is visible to outsiders.
For instance, at a point when the number of members increased to a certain point, the group was split to form some other groups.
"We had thought that first-generation members would continue working together, so when we were told to compete against one another as part of different groups, I felt at a loss for a while. We had a rough time for a while because we were comrades and rivals at the same time," she said.
This was followed by such new moves as the annual popularity vote known as the "general election" and the replacement of group members. Members were also told to cultivate their own identities. Takahashi said she later realised all of these helped stimulate the group.
"In a sense, it's like a class shuffle. If you are always with someone you feel easy with, you won't be challenged and will not be able to grow," she said. "If you lose something you've built up, you'll strive to make new personal connections and build something new."
AKB fans closely observe the conflicts and growth within each group. Individual members have fans called "Oshimen" (supporting men), who unite and try to help their idols win in competitions.
"If you are by yourself, there are so many difficult things [to overcome]. That's why you form a group. If you take on a challenge with others, you will have a better sense of accomplishment. That's the wonderful thing about being in a herd."
AKB48 will celebrate its 10th anniversary in December this year. At the end of last year, Takahashi announced she would "graduate" from the group on that occasion.
"I wonder whether I'll be able to feel a higher sense of accomplishment [after leaving the group]," Takahashi said. Yet, she also said those who had left the group, such as Atsuko Maeda, gave her positive comments about their post-AKB lives.
"I think I'll definitely have more time to face up to myself. Up until now, I've always been thinking about the group rather than about myself, so I still cannot imagine what it will be like when I don't have to do that. But for now, I'd like to make this year the fulfilling final year that will lead gracefully to the next phase," she said.