Today, ABK48 are an institution, commanding the nation’s attention for weeks during the lead up to an annual live “election” at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan concert hall to elect the most popular members. The public can only vote by buying a copy of the group’s latest single – priced ¥1,200 yen (£6.90) – and some have been reported buying dozens of copies. The election is broadcast live on national television, complete with polling updates and expert analysis.
But all that success is steeped in controversy. There is the group’s flirtation with underage sexual imagery and themes. In “My School Uniform Is Getting in the Way,” the girls sing: “I want to take off my school uniform, I want to misbehave, you can do whatever you like, I want to experience adult pleasure.”
In an interview with CNN in 2012, the producer defended charges of sexual exploitation, saying he was depicting the realities of teenage life in his lyrics and images.
“I’m not forcing them. I’m picturing their private lives, partly based on my imagination or newspaper articles or television news. I watch what their generation is doing.”
Mr Akimoto is now trying to export his empire abroad. AKB48 has sister groups in China, Taiwan and Indonesia. He believes the “idol you can meet” formula might even work in the US or Europe.