TOKYO - AKB48 is not exactly a band. It's an army of girls-next-door, ranked by its fans, and after taking Japan by storm it's getting ready to go global.
More than 60 girls and young women, split into four teams, make up what is arguably Japan's most popular pop group. It performs almost every day, has spawned affiliate groups across the country and has recently given rise to sister mega-groups in China, Taiwan and Indonesia.
AKB48's big event is an annual vote — by almost 1.4 million fans this year — to determine who gets to record their next single, which inevitably becomes a hit. AKB48 raked in more than $200 million in CD sales last year alone.
The girls pranced and sang on stage before last week's vote as their fans waved glow sticks and sang along with familiar tunes. When the winners were announced, the girls cried, bowed deeply, thanked fans for their loyalty and promised to live up to their expectations.
Their singing and dancing aren't always perfect, and the group's ever-changing members are hard to keep track of. But fans are very forgiving to their flaws, and view them as their friends or little sisters, not out-of-reach superstars.
There are other mass girl pop groups, such as South Korea's Girls' Generation and KARA, but they are more polished and have a set membership and no elections.
AKB is also much more accessible: Fans can visit their daily shows in downtown Tokyo, attend handshaking events or exchange messages via social networking services. After each show, all the girls line up outside the theatre to see off the fans with high fives and exchange a few words.
"You get to watch them grow. In the beginning, perhaps they weren't very good, but then later you see them evolve and shine on stage," said Kao Yi-wen, a Taiwanese student who was among three overseas fans selected to attend last Wednesday's election results at Tokyo's Budokan hall.
Founder and producer Yasushi Akimoto formed the group in 2005, calling them "idols whom you can go and meet in person."
Fans get to see a slice of their ordinary lives by reading each girl's blog. The organizers have also published DVDs showing backstage scenes, including personal struggles and conflicts among teams.
But performances can seem rather orchestrated. As the girls sing and dance in unison, fans follow a set cheering formula, shouting "A! K! B! 48!" Fans know exactly when and what to do — like an experienced Kabuki audience that knows when to yell an actor's name exactly at the right moment during a play.
Now Akimoto is taking the enterprise abroad, creating what are essentially AKB48 clones in Jakarta (JKT48), Taipei (TPE48) and Shanghai (SNH48).
JKT48 is the farthest along. Made up of Indonesian girls and young women, it follows the AKB routine exactly, down to the opening cheers, with the same songs and choreographed dancing. The only difference is the Indonesian translation of most lyrics.
"I wasn't fully confident (AKB) could make sense to anybody but the Japanese, and I thought hurdles would be higher overseas," Akimoto said in a recent TV interview. "But I want to tell everyone that 'let's have confidence.' Today the world is watching Japan, and we are also watching the world."
The main group got its name from the location of its theatre in the downtown Tokyo district of Akihabara, sometimes called "Akiba," the birthplace of Japanese "otaku," or geek, subculture dominated by comics, anime and video games.
AKB is still shaped by those influences: Many of its members dress in schoolgirl uniforms like characters in comic books, and some members talk in a cartoon-like, high-pitched sweet voice.
Many Japanese, including self-described "geeks," are not seeking a superstar like Lady Gaga, said Takuro Morinaga, an economist at Dokkyo University who is also an expert of Japan's "otaku" culture.
"They are certainly cute, but not outstanding beauties," he said. "You can probably find one in your classroom, and that's what makes them likable."
Core fans are mostly men, but AKB is gaining a following among teenage girls and older women.
Some critics say they come across as sex objects that encourage men to exploit young women. They sometimes perform in itty-bitty bikinis for video clips or pose for photo books.
But others say they have a positive, hard-working image: They are required to devote themselves to AKB, wash their own laundry and aren't allowed to have boyfriends.
The group initially had three 16-member groups — Team A, Team K and Team B — hence the number 48 in its name. It has since expanded to at least nine sister groups and teams of "interns" around the country — including SKE48, NMB48, and HKT48, representing various cities.
Only people who bought the latest AKB CDs or joined fan clubs are allowed to cast ballots, which can be done online.
People gathered in front of TV screens in downtown Tokyo for last week's election. Morinaga said it "seems to be monitored even more closely than the real elections."
The top 16 performers will record the next single, and the number-one vote getter sings in the centre position. For most girls, the primary goal is simply to make the top 64, which brings more TV and other media exposure.
Yuko Oshima, the winner two years ago, returned to the top seat with 108,837 votes.
"I really wanted to be up on this stage again," the tearful 24-year-old said. "I was under enormous pressure (to win)."
She praised the younger girls for their ambition and said "that is what will keep us going."
Many of the performers — aged 14 to 26 — said they have "no special talents" but vowed to improve and continue to pursue their dreams to become a top singer, dancer or actress, and eventually "graduate" from the group to go solo.
So far, no AKB alumna has made it big on her own.
Joseph Salmingo of El Monte, California, found AKB48 through the Internet while studying Japanese. He was among the three overseas guests who won tickets to the election by submitting what's considered the most enthusiastic cheers for the girls.
He said he enjoys the drama that he sees in the group — friendships, rivalries and dreams.
"There's just so many of them and each one has their own story," he said. "It's kind of like a reality show."