But one of its 90 members has made headlines around the world, in an extreme gesture of contrition.
20 year-old Minami Minegishi has shaved her head and apologised in an act of remorse, after a tabloid magazine published pictures of her leaving from a night spent with her boyfriend.
A bizarre Youtube video captures a tearful Minegishi, apologising for breaking the band's strict rule of no boyfriends.
Presenter: Girish Sawlani
Speaker: Dr Carol Hayes, senior lecturer of Japanese studies at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific
HAYES: Well there's been an enormous amount of discussion about this all over the place, and with these girls they sign this contract to say that they're not going to have any involvement. And there has been quite a lot of scandals already in the Japanese press and the expectation is that if they do want to have a relationship that they'll "graduate", they refer to it as, and that then they can have a relationship with a boy but they're to remain pure and virginal I suppose is the idea while they're members of the band. But what I find fascinating looking at it yesterday there's now also a raft of parodies coming out on Youtube, so there's quite a lot of people copying her voice but using an animation to sort of setup apologies or writing their own apologies about something. And now even quite a lot of particularly male fans are shaving their heads in sympathy.
SAWLANI: Is this sort of a break of Japanese traditions do you think?
HAYES: Well there has always been a tradition of head shaving for contrition, so there's a long history of public apology I suppose, and that one aspect of public apology has always been this aspect of shaving your head. So if anything it's a bit like Anne Hathaway having her hair hacked off in Les Mis, but in that one society is forcing this on her, isn't it? She's been forced into prostitution. While here it's an individual showing that they've disobeyed the social rules and want to apologise for that. So there's certainly a long tradition of that in Japan.
SAWLANI: As to the reasoning behind punishment of this kind, is this typical in Japan's work culture?
HAYES: Well I think yes, these girls are supposed to, I mean I don't think it's very common for someone to go this far, to go to the point where she is sort of publicly apologising in this way. But I must admit I'm slightly cynical about this, it's an enormous marketing successful enterprise and that she is saying that she didn't speak to anybody. But you wonder, there's a lot of marketing around this isn't there and that there's a lot of discussion about how can she stay with the band. So she's been demoted rather than being kicked out of the band, and has been going to attend some of their hand-shaking meetings where they meet their fans.
SAWLANI: Indeed a sort of a publicity stunt you're saying?
HAYES: Well that's right. I wonder a little bit about the publicity aspect of this, because it's certainly done a lot for the band's publicity, not they need much more publicity. But she does seem to be genuinely contrite. But it is astonishing that they are expected to sign this contract don't you think? That I am not to have any relationship with anyone. And I talked to lots of my Japanese students who are saying that the idea is that they have to be an idol for everybody, so they're everybody's idol and they're not allowed to have one specific relationship. So this particular band is setup so that the fans are very involved in the development of the band, so you get your favourite and you vote online for which favourite member of this rather large band you want to be on their next CD for example. And so you choose this particular girl and then every time you make a vote you have to buy a CD, so that every time you vote, so then a particular hard core fan would buy multiple CDs so they can cast multiple votes for their particular fan.
SAWLANI: How is this idea of shame seen in Japanese popular culture? At the very least, is this accepted quite widely or is this a manner in which this artist in question makes amends?
HAYES: Well I think shame and public apology is very much present in popular culture, I mean we usually see it with the politicians or the heads of big Japanese companies who take the fall when something has gone wrong. We've been seeing it with the Japanese politics for many years. So certainly tearfelt apologies on public television is very common in popular culture, like relationships that broke down or someone who has an affair with a married person. I've not seen one that's gone quite this far that shaved the head and that is now causing other people to shave their head in apology. But it's certainly bringing up discussion about is it fair to ask these girls to sign this contract that they won't have any relationships with anyone? But members of the band are also posting things saying I knew this, I signed up for this, we're all aged between 15 to 20 and this is part of our job to remain pure.
SAWLANI: With this perceived negative impact on the group's virginal image as you mentioned earlier, do you necessarily think this will turn fans away, especially the younger generations?
HAYES: Well that doesn't seem to be the effect that's happening at the moment. Most people are sort of coming out in support of her and feeling that she's being persecuted by the system, and that it's hard for them to have to follow this rule. So I think there will be some who will reject her and go for the ones who are saying no, no, no, we want to stay like this, this is a good rule, versus ones who think it's unfair to subject her to this rule and that she's a wonderful person and a great singer and we should support her through this time of trial. I mean I look at her Facebook support fan site and on the AKB-48 site there's individual sites for each member that you can go and look at, and most of the stuff is there is, hang in there, go for it, we support you, we love you, whatever. It's not you should leave the band and get out because you've completely destroyed the band for everyone else.
SAWLANI: And has this got to do with this concept of Kawaii from what I understand it's one required to project an image of both overt sexuality and virginal innocence and cuteness?
HAYES: Absolutely, I think it's very tied with that, and I've always been a little bit, there's a lot of discussion about have you heard of the 'goth lollies' or lolitas who are these girls who dress up in sort of very frilly costumes with long high lacy socks and bonnets and lots of embroidery. Have you seen images of those?
SAWLANI: I haven't heard of them but I might have to look them up.
HAYES: Well the gothic lolitas are the ones that tend to wear black velvet or purple velvet along with the white frilly things, so you wear a shortish skirt with lots of, you know sort of think Victorian doll with lots of lace and very pale faces. Now their argument is that they do this for their own pleasure, they dress up like this perfect doll for their own pleasure and that they're not interested in the male gaze. But I've always found this a bit suspicious that there's quite a lot of these young girls who create this sort of kawaii, cutesy, very sort of orchestrated costumed image and then it's very hard to be a real person underneath that isn't it? So that's what's happening with these girls I think they're another reflection of that.