But others say they have a positive, hard-working image: They are required to devote themselves to AKB, wash their own laundry and aren't allowed to have boyfriends.
The group initially had three 16-member groups — Team A, Team K and Team B — hence the number 48 in its name. It has expanded to at least nine sister groups and teams of "interns" around the country — including SKE48, NMB48, and HKT48, representing various cities.
Only people who bought the latest AKB CDs or joined fan clubs are allowed to cast ballots, which can be done online.
People gathered in front of TV screens in downtown Tokyo for last week's election. Morinaga said it "seems to be monitored even more closely than the real elections."
The top 16 performers will record the next single, and the number-one vote getter sings in the center position. For most girls, the primary goal is simply to make the top 64, which brings more TV and other media exposure.
Yuko Oshima, the winner two years ago, returned to the top seat with 108,837 votes.
"I really wanted to be up on this stage again," the tearful 23-year-old said. "I was under enormous pressure (to win)."
She praised the younger girls for their ambition and said "that is what will keep us going."
Many of the performers — aged 14 to 26 — said they have "no special talents" but vowed to improve and continue to pursue their dreams to become a top singer, dancer or actress, and eventually "graduate" from the group to go solo.
So far, no AKB alumna has made it big on her own.
Joseph Salmingo of El Monte, California, found AKB48 through the Internet while studying Japanese. He was among the three overseas guests who won tickets to the election by submitting what's considered the most enthusiastic cheers for the girls.
He said he enjoys the drama that he sees in the group — friendships, rivalries and dreams.
"There's just so many of them and each one has their own story," he said. "It's kind of like a reality show."
(This version CORRECTS Oshima's age to 23.)
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.