The all-girl super-idol group Morning Musume has been astonishingly popular since it was formed in 1997. But it isn’t because of their singing or dancing, their songs or their looks. What keeps them constantly in the limelight is a carefully crafted and well-oiled mechanism.

Under the direction of their producer, Tsunku — the alchemist behind the girls’ success — the trick that’s worked so well has been simply to change the number of Morning Musume’s members through competitive auditions, while also creating new spinoff units. That way, both the mothership (whose name means “Morning Girls” and is abbreviated as Mo-musu) and its satellite units keep themselves visible as they launch one hit song after another.

Also feeding the fan-base has been a pseudo-reality-TV program called “Asayan” that, until this past spring, chronicled each stage of the long journey each Mo-musu member made toward stardom.

Now in its fifth year, the group is morphing yet again, with members being shed and subunits reshuffled. In the J-pop idol business, this is a common-enough practice, but never has it been done on a scale this large or in a system this complicated.

Mainly consisting of mid-teenage girls who joined the group in their early teens, Morning Musume and its sister units have, for some time, been part of a conglomerate called the Hello! Project. It involves other girl groups and solo performers who are mostly produced by — surprise, surprise — Tsunku.

The makeup of the project, which began two years ago, is always evolving. Currently, the number of performers in Hello! Project comes to a grand total of 44 girls. Through shuffling, additions and divisions, three temporary groups are kept afloat and on the charts. One season they were Kiiro 5, Aoiro 7 and Akagumi 4; this year saw Odoru (Heart) 11, Sexy 8 and Happy (Heart) 7.

The flexibility of Mo-musu and its subunits has reportedly inspired Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. President Kunio Nakamura to call them a role model for corporate structures in the 21st century. With the Hello! Project, the metabolism of the “corporation” is accelerated.

The project’s dynamic nature also serves to help up-and-coming idols find more recognition through their appearance with core Morning Musume members — the aces in any of these pop decks.

In short, Morning Musume are more than a group — it’s a brand. And it’s a brand that advertisers know connects with a large market. Morning Musume have done ads for everything from sweets to a home-karaoke device and scooters.

The project also stimulates the girls’ competitiveness. Maki Goto, 17, Mo-musu’s lead singer, who “graduated” from the group on Sept. 23 to pursue a solo career, said in a TV interview that her experience of performing outside Mo-musu was fun, but that it also encouraged her to try harder to stand out among her rivals.

Goto’s graduation, as well as that of senior member 21-year-old Kei Yasuda next spring, is of course another part of the scheduled restructuring of Mo-musu’s subunits. But while previous member changes were done within the mothership, this time Tsunku is adding members from sister groups.

To ensure a fresh supply of talent, Tsunku added 15 elementary schoolgirls to the Hello! Project this year. From their numbers a new unit will be formed and headlined by 19-year-old Mo-musu member Mari Yaguchi. The songs, dance and the fashion of Minimoni, which has also been led by Yaguchi, have attracted many preteen fans, so it was only a matter of time before the “Tsunku family” would give birth to a younger generation of performers.

This “get ’em while they’re young” strategy mirrors that of Johnny’s Jimusho, the highly successful production company behind male idol best sellers such as SMAP and Tokio. If you want to see the next crop of superidols, look no further than Johnny’s Jr, where young SMAP wannabes get their first taste of stardom.

There is another precedent for the Tsunku phenomenon. Back in the mid-1980s, an all-girl idol group called Onyanko Club, emerged on the J-pop music scene. It comprised high school girls who were culled from televised auditions. They quickly found fame, and among their fans was none other than Tsunku.

Onyanko also spawned solo performers and subunits, and including those who graduated for various reasons during the two-year life span of Onyanko (which means “pussy cat girls”), the total membership ended up topping 50.

Onyanko broke up at their peak in 1987, but several former members — including Shizuka Kudo (who, appropriately, married SMAP heartthrob Takuya Kimura) — have remained successful on the show-biz scene since then.

Morning Musume have already proved they will have a longer shelf life than Onyanko ever did, developing in accordance to whatever new strategies Tsunku dreams up. Indeed, with a system like this, youth is guaranteed to spring eternal. The only unknown variable now is how long can Tsunku play Svengali. Is a Tsunku Jr. far away?

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