(CNN)There are stump speeches, handshakes and even an official statement refuting voting fraud.
But the election isn’t for a president, but for an “angel” in the world’s largest pop group AKB48. A total of 322 members are in the running for 16 coveted spots performing and singing their 49th single to be released in August.
Think “Baby One More Time” era Britney Spears, cloned over and over.
As Japan’s most popular and highest-earning girl pop group, AKB48 sold over 50 million CDssince launching in 2005, ranking in the top four highest selling music groups in Japan. Their last single “Negaigoto no Mochigusare,” was recently released on May 31 and sold 1.3 million in the first week.
“I am totally taken into the marketing plot. I know that and I am enjoying it,” said 43-year-old fan Norio Uchida at AKB48’s permanent venue, Tokyo’s AKB Theater.
“Unlike the usual idols who are always cute and great, the gap, or offbeatness is attractive to me … They are very ordinary. That’s great.”
Like Uchida, many of their fans are male and come out in droves to vote in their annual election. Results will be announced on June 17 in the sub-tropical resort of Okinawa, with nearby lodging already booked solid since April, with some 10,000 expected, reported Okinawan news site japanupdate.com. For the last couple years, there were more than 3 million votes.
“This ‘friendly competition’ between the members and fans is pretty genius, it guarantees very high sales,” said Kyle Phillips, a 27-year-old Canadian who voted in the elections online from 2010 to 2012 and founded the Japanese pop culture site ARAMA! JAPAN. “Fans have been known to literally buy dozens, sometimes hundreds, copies of the single to support their favorite member.”
To vote, fans buy a CD at around $15 for a ballot, but some spend thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands, to ensure their favorite wins.
“In principle, we are happy to have the people participate to the election,” said Junji Yuasa, Chairman of the AKB48 General Election committee. “We just can say to the fans that you would not have to go too far.”
AKB48, which stands for their hometown of Akihabara, Japan, includes more than 120 members, but their four sister group members are eligible for the election too, taking the total to 322.
They are in their teens to mid-20’s, and split up into teams to rotate performances and when they “graduate” are replaced by trainees. And like Spears, they flirt with the schoolgirl image and sexuality with short skirts and sometimes suggestive lyrics.
They are commercial darlings, selling everything from chocolate to cell phones and even hawking for Japan in a military recruitment video and government bonds. AKB48 even spawned their own manga series, video games and several sister groups, like Shanghai’s SNH48, Jakarta’s JKT48 and Manila’s MNL48.
But what sets them apart from other pop groups is their mantra: “idols who you can go and meet.” They hold regular meet-and-greets and concerts in their own venue, the AKB48 Theater.
Regular and accessible
“It basically revolutionized the idol industry not only in Japan, but Asia as well,” said Phillips. “Idols used to be something you only saw on television, or from far away on a stage, but AKB48 really helped change all that.”
And unlike the more polished stars of Korean pop, AKB48 members are more like the girls next door.
“The charm of KB is being natural. They were not trained at all. They were not good at singing or dancing,” said Yuasa. “Fans go to the theater to enjoy them improving. They feel like parenting your favorites.”
But for a group that often dresses alike in concerts and music videos, AKB48 members have to differentiate themselves during the election. They design posters and make speeches that could include anything from cooking to playing the guitar.
“It’s tough to stand out in crowd,” said Yui Yokoyama, the team leader of AKB48. “We are such a big group. The members are constantly thinking about her own uniqueness.”
The election, however, does take a toll on group members. Yokoyama said she became “very emotional” from the pressure and “could not stop shivering.” She joined in 2009, first entered the election in 2010 and did not even break the top 80. She ranked No. 11 in last year’s election.
Although the group has been around since 2005, no members have reached the level of same level of success solo. And while Yokoyoma wants to be in AKB48 “forever,” she knows it’s “not possible.”
“AKB is a passing point and I learned a lot in AKB and will use the experience for the future dream,” said Yokoyoma who wants to be an actress who sings.