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Otaku band AKB48 morphs into $200M business

All-girl Japanese group has nearly 100 members, including one who's computer-generated; myriad otaku fans; and a new diplomatic assignment.

Idolatry: With a reported $212 million in record sales in 2011, AKB48 is one of the highest-earning pop groups in the world.

What if the vice president of your university were a genius producer who had put together an insanely successful pop group of 90 singers and then approved the creation of identical doll versions of them?

Weird? Not for Kyoto University of Art and Design and Yasushi Akimoto, the Steve Jobs of otaku (supergeeks) in Japan. The school just hosted a hit exhibition of dolls based on the gals in the band he produces, AKB48.

At 90 members, AKB48 is the Guinness-certified world's largest pop band. Its members are all females in their teens and early twenties, and all its bubble-gum singles top the charts on the day of their release.

The music is, shall we say, an aquired taste; it sounds like arcade game tunes drenched in a massive one-part vocal harmony. Yet intense otaku fandom has lifted the hydra-headed, miniskirted band to the highest levels of Japanese acceptability. It's even acting as Japan's unofficial representative in China.

Created by Petworks, these AKB48 dolls are 10 inches tall and identical to the real thing, right down to the coiffures and eyelashes. Flickr: petworks_co_ltd

The original idea behind the group, which was founded in 2005 with 20 girls, is "idols you can meet." At an AKB48 theater in Tokyo's Akihabara electronics district, otaku who are lucky enough to have won tickets in a lottery run by the band can see some of their idols onstage. The men dance to the songs, wave glow sticks, and get to briefly meet the performers after the show.

But the adulation doesn't end there. AKB48 also runs popularity contests for the girls, and fans get to vote with tickets included in CD packages. Some otaku spend thousands of dollars buying the same disc to give their favorite member a better chance of winning the contests.

Akimoto has added to the band's ranks so they now number some 90 girls, including various teams, captains, "trainees," and one, Aimi Eguchi, who's a computer-generated character.

On the human side, the youngest trainees are only 14 years old.

Indeed, AKB48's videos sell young faces, young flesh, and more than a bit of titillation, with bikini dances and locker-room romps; YouTube views rank in the tens of millions.

That's nothing new in pop, but AKB48 has seen unbelievable success recently: 16.28 billion yen ($212 million) in 2011 CD and DVD sales alone, according to compiler Oricon. That's more than what Forbes' chart-toppers U2 makes.

The accuracy and impartiality of Oricon's charts has been questioned before, and it could be way off now. Yet even if the latest AKB48 numbers are inflated, there's no denying the band has gone mainstream in its popularity.

In Tokyo's gadget nirvana Akihabara, AKB48 has expanded to a cafe and movie theater screening concert footage; huge posters of the group can be seen at Akihabara Station.

When Japan Post announced AKB48 stamps, fan zealotry crashed its Web site. Japan Post

Meanwhile, Shiseido hair products, Glico candy, Asahi drinks, Peach John lingerie, and other big brands have entered endorsement deals with the girls. Even the staunchly conservative Japan Post has started selling AKB48 stamps; fans crashed its Web site when the product was announced.

AKB's tentacles have spread to other parts of Japan, and even Indonesia, sprouting clone groups and waves upon waves of merchandise. Producer Akimoto apparently wants to take the concept to other Asian countries as well. Is there a universal appeal?

"Boys like them because they think the girls are cute," Akimoto explained to The Wall Street Journal. "Slightly older men want to cheer them on, as they would little sisters or daughters."

Somehow I doubt there would be as much cheering without the bikinis and miniskirts.

But Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba seems to agree with Akimoto, and recently recruited AKB48 girls to act as goodwill ambassadors to China to improve the countries' often rocky relationship.

The girls will try to boost Chinese tourism to Japan, which dropped off following last year's massive earthquake. In their thigh-highs and ponytails, they'll outshine anything else Tokyo could send.

As for the dolls, fans are clamoring to take them home. Created by design studio Petworks, they're 10 inches tall and just about identical to the real thing, right down to the coiffures and eyelashes.

They're not on sale yet, but it's probably just a matter of time before otaku will be able to get their own little piece of AKB48 to love and cherish forever.