Friday, August 7, 2009

The Eternal Boy Band

Imagine, if you will, the boy bands that were popular in the early 90s. For those of you in the UK, that would probably be Take That. For those of you in the US, perhaps New Kids on the Block? Backstreet Boys? For those of you elsewhere, I have no idea.

Now imagine that these bands are still popular now, making music on a regular basis.

I know. The horror.

Don’t stop there though. Imagine further that members of the band star in dramas on TV every year. Imagine that they turn up as the lead actor in many movies too. Imagine that the band has its own variety show on TV every week that lasts for several hours, where they cook dinner for Hollywood celebrities, do comedy sketches and perform their music. Imagine that now, after almost 20 years, a double chinned and slightly portly Gary Barlow or New Kid is on countless billboards and television advertisements.

Nooooooooooooooooo! Pleeeeeaaase!

In Japan, this is a reality. Allow me to introduce, if you haven’t heard of them already, the band called SMAP.

Masahiro Nakai, Takuya Kimura, Shingo Katori, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Goro Inagaki

In typical Japanese English that makes little sense, SMAP stands for “Sports Music Assemble People”. The group consists of five members, each of whom Japanese people know very well. As I’ve discussed previously, social rank is very important in Japan and your age is a big part of determining this. Therefore, it is interesting that most Japanese people know the age ordering of the members and they definitely know which SMAP member is the oldest and which is the youngest. The eldest is Masahiro Nakai, who is the leader and is 36! (Incidentally, he is absolutely terrible at singing. Simon Cowell would destroy this man.) The youngest is Shingo Katori, 32, who is the clown of the group.

By far and away the most popular member is Takuya Kimura, or Kimutaku for short. When I studied Japanese in a language school in Tokyo, all of the female students from the Asia region (and some from outside Asia) loved this guy. He is Japan’s Brad Pitt. Disgustingly talented: he acts well, sings reasonably well, plays sports well and generally does everything pretty well.

SMAP are making waves again with a new series of advertisements and commercials for mobile phone network operator Softbank. Softbank bought Vodafone Japan a few years ago and are the smallest of the three main operators in Japan. They have been launching a number of very aggressive advertising and marketing campaigns in the last few years. Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt have featured in many of their television commercials but now they’ve brought out the big guns: SMAP.

On the 1st of August, at 18:59, a television commercial lasting an incredible 60 seconds, unusually featuring the entire group, was broadcast simultaneously on 124 channels to the whole of Japan. The blog Naked Tokyo commented, “Pass the crackpipe”. Here it is:

I shudder to think of how much that cost Softbank. Let’s hope that they’re not leveraging themselves too hard with all of this marketing. So how can a boy band be so popular for such a long time? I think there are three important factors.

One is that Japanese pop stars tend to age well. Takuya Kimura still looks like he’s in his 20s to me. The other more important factor is the working culture. Japanese workers traditionally have the same job for life. The entertainment industry is influenced by this and there are many comedians and performers who have been in the business for a LONG time.

A good example is the comedian Tamori, who is 63 and appears on television every day on live variety programs. Due to a problem with one of  his eyes, he always wears sunglasses and they have become his trademark. Hilariously, he has even worn them when he has appeared in samurai dramas, set in times when sunglasses didn’t exist. Legend has it that he hasn’t taken a substantial holiday since 1984! He’s really entertaining to watch and like all Japanese comedians, comes across as a really nice guy.

The third factor is the company that holds SMAP and all idol groups on a leash: Johnny & Associates. Johnny Kitagawa and his talent agency recruits and trains male idols in Japan. They have enormous power in the entertainment industry due to their monopolization of male talent for the last 40 years. If you want male performers to appear on your show, you need to go through Johnny, who owns all of them. It’s obvious that SMAP are still a huge money spinner for Johnny and I reckon that his company drives them to continue working hard, despite the fact that any of them could retire right now. I know that if I had their money, and I was working as hard as they do, I would.

Johnny and Associates has been mired in controversy for a long time. In the 90s, a book was published by a male idol accusing Johnny of sexually abusing the young boys that he recruits. Subsequent to that, about a dozen other idols came forward to one newspaper, Shukan Bunshun, and on condition of anonymity contributed to a 10 part series detailing more accusations of abuse. Johnny sued the newspaper for libel and in 2002 won the case and was awarded 8.8 million yen (a relatively small amount). No other newspaper or media agency joined Shukan Bunshun in accusation. As one entertainment reporter put it in a New York times article:

"If you're a television station and you don't comply with Johnny's Jimusho's wishes then all the popular stars will be withdrawn from your programs, your variety shows will not get any interviews with celebrities, and your ratings will plummet," said Masaru Nashimoto, an entertainment reporter. "The same thing goes for publications," he added.
Despite these upsetting stories, and my joking earlier, I must give credit where it’s due and admit that SMAP are entertaining. I must confess to watching many of their TV programs and not switching the channel when I could. They do have personalities that make you watch.


  1. word up what's that other band called glade??

  2. Yeah, they're called Glay I think. I've seen them on advertisements in the train but I haven't heard much of their music. I don't see them on TV very much either.

  3. Haha.....I agree. Nakai's singing is terrible but he's a good host. Anyway, he will definitely win in a fight against Simon Cowell, both physical and verbal. That man has got a sharp tongue XD

  4. Looks like they removed the video. Terms of use my a$$.

  5. Elistina GrindemyrAugust 17, 2010 at 6:30 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. very good writing! so informative and funny.