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Japan's hottest band mixes cute looks, democracy

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 affiliates across the country and has 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 US$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 to 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 media. After each show, all the girls line up outside the theater 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 published DVDs showing backstage scenes, including personal struggles and conflicts among teams.

But performances can seem orchestrated. As the girls sing and dance in unison, fans follow a 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 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. The Indonesian group 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.

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In this June 6 file photo, Japan's all-girl pop idol group AKB48 member Yuko Oshima, front row center, flashes a victory sign as she poses with other members after winning the annual AKB48 popularity poll in Tokyo. In the event, fans pick their favorites from the group members.(AP)

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