AKB48 has taken the pop singing idol phenom and multiplied it into a mass-production, mass-marketing, mass presence affair.

Founded in October 2005 by producer and renowned lyricist Yasushi Akimoto, Teams A, K and B each have 16 young female members who find themselves constantly promoted for media exposure, and for actual meet-the-fans hand-shaking encounters.

When the group isn’t appearing before the cameras, at least one of its teams performs daily at a small theater in the district the group’s letters represent — Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics and geek mecca — where between performances fans have an opportunity to schmooze with the members .

A key appearance for the group came on New Year’s Eve 2007 when they sang on NHK’s “Kohaku Utagassen” (“Red-White Song Battle”). 2009 saw them turn out for the Japan Expo in Paris, one of the largest exhibition on Japanese pop culture held outside Japan.

Following are questions and answers about AKB48:

Who are its members?

The 48 females range in age from 14 to 24. All are selected via auditions.

A popularity poll among fans in June voted Yuko Oshima, 21, most popular, unseating Atsuko Maeda, 19, who was No. 1 in last year’s survey.

Oshima now stands in the center of the group in public appearances. Those ranked high in the polls tend to get more media exposure.

The three teams take turns performing at AKB48 Theater on the eighth floor of the Don Quijote discount store in Akihabara, what the group’s official Web site calls “the most energetic town.”

There is a performance at the theater almost every day, unless there are events elsewhere that AKB48 members have to attend.

How can people get tickets for the AKB48 Theater shows?

Applications must be sent to the Web site of AKB48 Theater Ticket Center and those who win a ticket via a lottery are notified by e-mail. Fans were able to buy tickets at the theater until February 2008, but too many were showing up, a theater employee said.

Tickets cost ¥3,000 for adult males, ¥2,000 for females and high school boys or younger.

Recording and photographs are prohibited in the theater.

What brought about the formation of AKB48?

Akimoto started a project in July 2005 using a local theater to look for new talent, and three months later selected 24 out of 7,924 contestants in an audition, according to AKB48’s Web site. Twenty of the new idols made their stage debut that December.

Through more auditions, AKB48 expanded to 48 members and 20 alternate candidates, who also get to perform.

What are AKB’s achievements?

Besides appearing on “Kohaku Utagassen” and at the Japan Expo, the group’s songs routinely top the charts.

King Records, which handles AKB48’s music sales, initially shipped about 650,000 copies of “Heavy Rotation,” a CD single released last Wednesday, said Tatsuro Murase, who is in charge of AKB48’s songs at King Records.

That compares with about 690,000 total shipments for “Trouble Maker” by the male idol group Arashi, this year’s top-selling CD single, released in March, a media report said, citing the Oricon music hit chart company.

AKB has released four CD singles and one album since last October, and all made the top Oricon ranking in the first week after release, Murase said.

Why is AKB48 so popular?

“A strategic approach that always surprises the public, hand-shaking events that connect AKB48 members and fans . . . and strong connections with advertising giant Dentsu Inc., TV broadcasters and sponsors. These are behind AKB48’s popularity,” journalist and AKB48 expert Reiji Honjo said.

Honjo praises Akimoto for surprising fans by holding popularity polls to let them decide who stands in the center.

Also, fans who want to vote for their favorite members need to buy AKB48’s CDs, which include voting slips.

“The mass media were surprised to find out Yuko Oshima beat Atsuko Maeda,” Honjo said, complimenting Akimoto for creating the surprise and switching out the group’s top singer.

“Hand-shaking events are also another attraction of AKB48. No other idols are as close to fans physically and mentally as AKB48,” Honjo said.

What challenges are there for AKB48?

The main members are all high school graduates, thus the challenge is to let younger members play central roles, Honjo said. However, he doesn’t see much cause for concern because AKB48 has 20 candidates preparing to become the next stars.

What does the future hold for AKB48 members?

Nobody has “retired” from AKB48 to go on to become an individual celebrity. Oshima and Maeda are arguably the most successful in the group’s history.

Those two and other members appear on TV dramas. Maeda has appeared in the prestigious “Ryoma Den” NHK Taiga Drama this year.

Oshima and Maeda, and the others are pursuing their dreams in show business, Honjo said.

What companies are involved in AKB48?

Akimoto and people supporting his idea helped create the company AKS, which held the auditions for AKB48 candidates and runs the AKB Theater, according to a theater official. All 48 members of AKB48 belong to talent agencies.

Has Akimoto tried to copy AKB’s success elsewhere?

Yes. He has also created SKE48, NMB48 and SDN48.

SKE is an abbreviation for Sakae in Nagoya, NMB comes from Namba, Osaka, and SDN stands for Saturday night. SDN48 performs at the AKB Theater on Saturday nights.

While they have yet to reach the heights of AKB48’s success, they have been doing fine, Honjo said.

Akimoto said earlier this year he will produce similar groups in Hong Kong and other locations overseas.

AKB48’s overseas versions may succeed if “they can reach to their fans’ hearts with their Cinderella story in which the girls make tremendous efforts to follow their dream,” Honjo said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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