No stopping the AKB48 juggernaut

By Mutsumi Morita

Ubiquitous media darlings who sell more than 1 million CDs whenever they release a new song, the popularity of all-girl idol group AKB48 is nothing less than a social phenomenon.

The group, who garnered more than 1.16 million votes in a recent "general election" to determine the most popular AKB48 member among 150 girls, has come a long way since its formation in 2005.

"Even if you don't like me, please don't dislike AKB48," pleaded Atsuko Maeda during the group's annual election of its front-line members at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan on June 9.

Drowned out by the roar of 8,500 AKB48 fans who had packed the hall, declaring they would never disown her, the tearful 19-year-old needn't have worried. She was returned to the group's coveted No. 1 spot.

To vote in the election, it was necessary to buy an AKB48 CD or become a member of an AKB48-related service. One person could cast more than two ballots, for example, by buying more than two CDs.

This year 1,166,145 votes were cast, including 139,892 votes for Maeda. Maeda's tally was 4.4 times larger than last year's winner Yuko Oshima, and about 30 times larger than her own total recorded two years ago.

The ballot counting was televised to about 38,000 fans at 86 theaters around the nation and seven overseas, receiving extensive media coverage.

NTV touched on the event during a special bulletin on the group's regular program, Naruhodo! High School. Immediately after the vote, TBS' midnight program Ariyoshi AKB Kyowakoku reviewed the event and invited AKB48 members to comment on the results.

TV and newspapers widely reported on the election the following day and in total, 150 media outlets covered the spectacle.

It was a far cry from December 2005, when the group was created to perform in Akihabara, Tokyo, at a theater owned by its management company. During the early days of AKB48, there were times when only seven of the theater's 250 seats were occupied.

Yet the group expanded its popularity, thanks mainly to the literal proximity and close relationship it developed with its fans. Conventional idols appearing on TV, for example, were less accessible.

These days, tickets to AKB48's Akihabara theater are extremely hard to obtain. Unfortunately, some fans have been ripped off when trying to buy tickets to the immensely popular shows.

But other events at which AKB48 members shake hands and "meet and greet" their fans are ongoing--though unfortunately still subject to fraud. The more popular members are said to spend seven to eight hours a day at such events.

Since River was released in October 2009, AKB48's last eight singles have hit the top spot in the weekly singles chart, according to entertainment information provider Oricon Co. Three of these eight singles have sold more than 1 million copies.

AKB48 members now star in 30 TV programs and 18 radio shows.

Shinobu Mori, NTV producer of Naruhodo! and AKBINGO!, said the AKB48 phenomena can best be explained by the word "gachi," or playing for keeps.

"The members receive support from their fans even when they have to perform almost-impossible tasks or participate in punishing games," he says.

AKB48 members also appear in 30 commercials. In a TV ad for "Puccho" candy that has been airing since August last year, troupe members are reinvented as caricatures on a cross-section of the candy's surface.

"They accepted all of our suggestions when we made the commercial. We actually didn't think they'd agree to such warped changes," said a spokesperson from Osaka-based UHA Mikakuto, manufacturer of the candy. Program sponsors welcome the group's willingness to go along with such requests.

With the group's popularity showing no sign of flagging, the AKB48 juggernaut is looking to far-flung shores and becoming popular overseas.

The election was televised at seven theaters in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, while official AKB48 stores have opened in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, where the all-girl group regularly performs.