The biggest event of the year for AKB48, the 48-member pop group that’s the most popular music act in Japan today, arrives next Wednesday.

Thousands of fans are expected to fill the historic Nippon Budokan to watch, while Fuji TV will broadcast the three-hour show live. It should also attract a healthy overseas viewership, as theaters across Asia are set to screen it live. It’s not a concert though — it’s an election-results show.

The fourth annual AKB48 general election, going on now, concludes June 6 at the Budokan. For a pop group in love with spectacle — they boast a rock-paper-scissors tournament, music videos regularly clocking in at over 10 minutes and, oh yeah, 48 members — this display of pop democracy tops everything else they do. The official press release for the election says that the “Japanese media and level of general awareness of this event are almost on par with a real political election,” which is frighteningly accurate. It’s also one of the smartest marketing moves the people behind the group have ever made.

The premise of the election is pretty straightforward: Voters fill out a ballot to determine the most popular member of the sprawling group, who becomes the school-uniform-clad face of AKB48 for the next year, earning the right to be the center performer during live performances. The lower rankings matter, too. The top 16 vote-grabbers get to appear on AKB48’s next single, which barring a radical change in Japanese consumer habits, should see big sales. Throw in a few more advertising deals for the winner, and you have a harmless popularity contest.

Yet the insidious — and genius — twist of the whole idol electoral process (as conceived by producer Yasushi Akimoto) is how fans obtain a ballot: They come included with copies of the group’s latest single, “Manatsu no Sounds Good!,” which retails for ¥1,200 on Amazon Japan. Die-hard fans, those obsessed with individual members, will buy extra copies to procure more ballots. AKB48 sees spikes in sales whenever they release one of these “election singles.”

“Sounds Good!” went the extra mile — it sold 1.61 million copies in its first week, breaking Oricon music-chart records.

This J-pop poll tax isn’t without its critics. On TV show “Tokudane!” last year, announcer Tomoaki Ogura said, “A fair election should be done with one vote per person. A person buying 50 or 100 CDs gets 50 or 100 votes — so the election is dominated by big money?” (Ogura probably shouldn’t read up on the role of Super PACs in this year’s U.S. presidential election.) On the same program, talent Kawori Manabe countered by saying, “The CD sales could be in proportion to the fans’ passion,” while Fuji TV talent reporter Chumei Maeda added, “The system rewards fans’ kindness.”

AKB48’s fans have certainly been kind. Atsuko Maeda won the inaugural general election with 4,630 votes. Yuko Oshima grabbed the title the next year courtesy of 31,448 ballots cast for her. In 2011, Maeda regained the throne with 139,892 votes. With a little less than a week to go, a polling update (yes, they exist for this) tallied 15,093 votes for Oshima, with her nearest competitor Yuki Kashiwagi at 12,654. If CD sales can be trusted, expect those numbers to jump up the night of June 6.

Alongside the number of people voting, the media’s coverage of the AKB48 election has grown significantly from year to year. News outlets give the election more attention than it deserves (which is none at all and, before you fire off a letter to the editor, remember that this article graces the music page rather than the news section).

For the first time this year, Fuji TV will broadcast the three-hour ordeal, fluffing the show out with backstage footage, segments on AKB history and speeches from producer Akimoto and Maeda, who withdrew from the election when she announced she would be “graduating” from the group in the near future … which has been manufactured into an election storyline, too.

The people behind AKB48 are also using this election as a chance to spread the group’s name internationally. Last year movie theaters in Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong showed the results, but for the 2012 edition the group has teamed up with Google’s ho-hum social network Google Plus to reach fans overseas, including in English-speaking nations. Users can add members of AKB48 — or anyone from the various spin-off groups, who are also eligible to win this election — to their circle, and if they get lucky they can win a personal video from said member or even a trip to the Budokan to “report” on the election.

All of the media attention and social-network tie-ins come off as bizarre, but the whole election is genius because it further feeds the fantasies of AKB48 fans. The group rose to prominence by being “idols you could meet,” the members of AKB48 regularly interacting with fans via daily concerts and events. This approach creates the illusion of connection — hardcore fans feeling like they have a deeper relationship with their favorite member, when in fact it’s still a consumer-seller deal. The election capitalizes on this — while plenty of casual fans probably just want the song and will send off a single ballot, someone who feels a bond with a specific member will go to extra lengths to help said member — by buying multiple copies of a single. AKB48 are masters of pulling off tricks, and this is one of their finest — turning a meaningless popularity contest into something that matters to many and makes a fortune.

Many AKB48 fan sites are convinced former-winner Oshima will take this year’s election, and will thus become the face of the group. That could change, but it does seem certain AKB48 will make serious bank off of all of this. The pre-election singles might get a spike in sales, but that’s nothing compared to the first post-election single, which trampolines up in sales. The next week might be full of spectacle, but that spectacle is pretty smart.

The AKB48 General Election will be broadcast on Fuji Television on June 6 from 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.akb48.co.jp.

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