SMAP: How a Boy Band Became a National Institution

Society Culture

After 28 years of activity, the popular group SMAP is to break up at the end of this year. They have played a unique role in the Japanese entertainment industry, becoming national icons along the way.

“SMAP to Split!” The August 14 announcement of the popular musical group’s breakup sent shockwaves rippling across Japan and beyond its borders, particularly other Asian countries where the five singers have a big following.

Japan’s tabloid-style weekly magazines and gossipy websites continue to speculate on the reasons behind the split and the future activities of the members. There is no hint of a farewell concert tour between now and the end of the year, when SMAP (standing for “Sports Music Assemble People”) is slated to cease its activities as a group, and so far we have seen no announcements of other special plans related to the breakup, such as appearances on music programs or the release of “best of SMAP” CDs. Oddly, though, the weekly variety show SMAP×SMAP, which alone brings the five together on a regularly scheduled basis, continues to be aired as if nothing had happened.

The breakup seems not to have been caused directly by ill will among the members. But the decision to split has reportedly had an adverse effect on communication among them. They may be under contract to continue producing the weekly program, but the broadcasts showing band members’ bearing, facial expressions, and verbal interactions are an ill-looking sort of entertainment. Being a pop star inevitably involves an element of being put on display like an exhibit item, but at this point the five are probably enduring the exposure only because they must.

A Pioneering Variety Show

SMAP×SMAP has been emblematic of the group’s popularity and fame. The weekly program has been on the air Monday evenings ever since 1996, five years after SMAP’s CD debut. And the guests have included countless world-class celebrities—names that you would ordinarily never expect to see on a Japanese variety show, like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Robert De Niro, Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Alain Delon, Sophia Loren, Jane Birkin, Michael Gorbachev, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, and Usain Bolt.

Before SMAP×SMAP, pop idol groups had appeared on variety shows as guests, but this was the first such show where the group members were the hosts, taking the lead in performing comedy and parody skits. Not only was it a break with broadcasting and entertainment-world convention in many ways, but it also enjoyed an extraordinarily generous production budget for a Japanese TV program. It represented a pioneering endeavor that gave broader meaning to pop idols’ existence and extended their potential.

Aware of Their Role as a “National Institution”

Ever since the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, for more than five years now, SMAP×SMAP has concluded with a spot where the five members, standing in a row dressed in formal suits, ask listeners to support the recovery effort. (Currently the spot also includes an appeal for relief fund donations for the victims of this April’s earthquakes in Kumamoto.) It is not unusual for musicians and other entertainers to hold charity events in the wake of major disasters, but this sort of sustained weekly appeal to viewers is unprecedented.

In January this year it was widely reported that four members were thinking of going independent from Johnny & Associates, the talent agency that created the group in 1988. But the five continued to record these appeals anew almost every week even after this flap. A large portion of the Japanese public have come to consider SMAP as a “national institution,” and the members have recognized this and constantly considered what they can do at each point in time based on their position. For over 10 years they have been heavily involved in solo activities, such as acting and appearing regularly on variety shows, and have won popularity as individual performers while also keeping up their status as members of SMAP. This is probably a reflection of their awareness of the group’s national role.

In this light, we can see that continuing to produce SMAP×SMAP is not just a matter of observing a contractual commitment with the broadcasters. Though SMAP has already stopped appearing on music programs and in commercials as a group, the members are seeking to fulfill their role by keeping up this weekly program until the group ceases to exist at the end of the year.

A Springboard for Young Musicians

SMAP has continued to perform as a group for 28 years. Obviously the members have not been motivated solely by a sense of responsibility as a national institution. Above all else, they are entertainers. Singing and dancing on stage has surely been a source of deep pleasure for them—a feeling that transcends words—and their performances have captivated countless fans.

In recent years top North American stars like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kanye West, and Justin Bieber have been actively tapping the work of young indie musicians for their own songs, thereby giving them global exposure. SMAP has been playing a similar role within Japan since the 1990s, both in the production of the group’s songs and through joint stage appearances on SMAP×SMAP. Many musicians expressed disappointment at the August news of the breakup, saying that it had been their dream to someday compose a song for the group or to appear on stage with them. SMAP had long served as a channel for underground musicians looking for a chance to go mainstream.

Nothing Is Forever

The oldest member of SMAP, Nakai Masahiro, is now 44, and the youngest, Katori Shingo, turns 40 next January. So as it happens, the erstwhile boy band will be deactivated just before it would have become a group of members all in their forties. Even as members have come to spend more time on their solo activities, having been together in SMAP for close to 30 years, they have surely had episodes of mutual discord. In 1996, Mori Katsuyuki, one of the group’s original six members, dropped out, and the members themselves have revealed that the group was on the verge of splitting on a number of occasions prior to this year.

Nothing is forever. SMAP fans—ranging from the avid followers who attended their concerts (for which the tickets were extremely hard to come by) to the more casual ones who watched them mainly on TV—came to take the group’s existence for granted, giving too little thought to the prospect of a breakup. Objectively considered, fans’ hopes that the members would keep SMAP going on into their fifties and sixties were almost cruel in terms of the mental and physical burdens this would have entailed.

Give the Five the Ending They Have Earned

Even so, this year’s developments—both the reports of an impending breakup in January, arising from the move by the group’s original manager to leave Johnny & Associates, and the August 14 announcement of the final decision—look to an outside observer like a deliberate lowering of the curtain on the group by their agency. I cannot help feeling that it is an inappropriate ending for a group that has played such a unique role in Japan’s entertainment world. The comments that members subsequently made in writing and on the radio revealed that, even if they were going to break up, the timing and delivery of the move were not of their choosing. And the media’s lopsided coverage has done more to exacerbate than quell the eddies of suspicion the announcement stirred up among the group’s fans.

Little time remains until SMAP’s official disbandment on December 31. The turbulence surrounding the development seems to indicate a glitch—or, more likely, multiple glitches—in the communications between the agency and the group members. I can only hope that SMAP’s final days will provide an opportunity for all five of the members to show their pride in the group’s history and accomplishments and to share with their fans the positive feelings that they have consistently embodied. Considering how much they have contributed to Japan’s entertainment world over the years, they deserve to make a smiling exit.

(Originally published in Japanese on September 12, 2016. Banner photo: Front-page headlines trumpet SMAP’s breakup the morning after it was announced. ©Aflo.)

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