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SMAP: The pop idol media monopoly that dominated the Heisei Era

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

This is the 10th in a series on influential figures in the Heisei Era, which began in 1989 and will end when Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30. In Heisei, Japan was roiled by economic excess and stagnation, as well as a struggle for political and social reform. This series explores those who left their imprint along the way.

Poke around on social media in Japan and you’ll encounter people who still can’t get over the breakup of SMAP. The pop unit called it quits at the end of 2016 after months of rumors, awkward televised apologies and more. But many can’t let go of the most successful male idol group the Heisei Era — which is slated to end this month — and continue to share favorite songs and clips of the outfit on sites such as Twitter, where they sit alongside angry remarks from those upset with talent agency Johnny & Associates for allowing SMAP to dissolve.

However, that connection makes sense because SMAP was arguably bigger than pop music. The five-person lineup — consisting of Masahiro Nakai, Takuya Kimura, Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Shingo Katori, in addition to Katsuyuki Mori, who left in 1996 to pursue a career in auto racing — sold millions of singles and albums and also appeared in movies and on TV shows. The group hosted numerous programs, including the long-running “SMAPxSMAP,” which often started as a cooking competition before pivoting into a musical segment featuring guests ranging from Lady Gaga to Stevie Wonder. The outfit was omnipresent, setting the groundwork for how idoldom worked in the Heisei Era — both at home and abroad.

A man reads a four-page newspaper ad for SMAP in Tokyo in August 2009.
A man reads a four-page newspaper ad for SMAP in Tokyo in August 2009. | BLOOMBERG

SMAP started in the 1980s as part of all-male idol group Hikaru Genji’s backup dance team. It eventually got the chance to emerge as a fully formed act in 1988, just before the Showa Era came to an abrupt end.

SMAP (“Sports Music Assemble People,” not exactly a catchy moniker) initially hosted shows and popped up as a group of teenage TV actors, saving its music debut for 1991.

Before releasing their first single — the twinkly “Can’t Stop!! Loving,” in 1991 — the sextet performed their first live show as SMAP at Nippon Budokan on New Year’s Day that year. It was a performance that mixed cockiness with old-school strategies that banked on big splashes for a group with high expectations.

SMAP found early success, with its first few singles breaking into the top 10 on the Oricon music chart. However, none made it to No. 1, and they weren’t anywhere close to what was expected. So SMAP embarked on a strategy that would eventually turn the members into superstars — they focused on TV, devoting most of their time to appearing on programs and in commercials. The decision was bold but not rash, and it was clear that SMAP foresaw the importance of the format on which music in Japan would flourish over the next two decades and beyond.

And this in itself wasn’t entirely new. Japanese idols and TV personalities have adopted a jack-of-all-trades approach since the 1970s, spreading themselves over as many media platforms as possible.

Motorcycle racer Katsuyuki Mori, a former member of SMAP, poses on his bike in his locker room at Kawaguchi Autorace in Saitama Prefecture in this undated photo.
Motorcycle racer Katsuyuki Mori, a former member of SMAP, poses on his bike in his locker room at Kawaguchi Autorace in Saitama Prefecture in this undated photo. | KYODO

However, the pop paradigm shift SMAP helped usher in was the realization that music didn’t have to be central to a group’s existence. It took the ’80s idea of media intertextuality to the extreme, which might have been necessary at a time when idol music wasn’t that popular.

As Temple University professor Fabienne Darling-Wolf writes in her paper “SMAP, Sex and Masculinity: Constructing the Perfect Female Fantasy in Japanese Popular Music,” SMAP’s TV saturation reached a point in 2001 where member Nakai could be seen on air five nights a week.

And it worked. SMAP’s singles and albums started becoming big sellers, elevating the idol outfit to the top of the domestic music industry. SMAP helped turn Johnny’s from a talent agency into the gatekeeper of Japanese entertainment in general. As plenty of academics and industry observers have noted, however, the songs SMAP put out weren’t the sole draw for the mostly female fan base supporting it. They were, as Darling-Wolf wrote, the perfect female fantasy, using a classic boy band model of “something for everyone” to connect with people across the country.

SMAP bucked the trend of pop groups being temporary cultural fixtures and, for better or for worse, became an institution. Anecdotally, I’ve heard SMAP described as being closer to a Japanese Mickey Mouse than anything else — more like a shared cultural icon than a song-and-dance crew.

SMAP’s musical output is actually quite interesting to reflect on. By the 2000s, the newer units under Johnny’s functioned more as brands than bands, with their releases typically following a predictable blueprint.

However, SMAP competed for attention during the sales peak of J-pop. So they tried out a lot of different sounds, incorporating hip-hop, R&B and rock among other styles. Not all of it worked, but it gave SMAP’s ’90s tunes an intriguing element that was seldom present in idol music as the 21st century commenced.

Articles on SMAP that were published in the 1990s paint the group’s multimedia monopolization as a Japanese market quirk. However, the group was actually just two decades ahead of where the music industry shifted to everywhere else. Pop stars these days are typically expected to be omnipresent, whether it be on TV, social media or video games.

Pedestrians in Tokyo watch a January 2016 news report about pop group SMAP on the verge of breaking up.
Pedestrians in Tokyo watch a January 2016 news report about pop group SMAP on the verge of breaking up. | KYODO

The steps Johnny’s took to create SMAP and subsequent units was adopted by Korean music companies to produce male-centric groups that have enjoyed global success. The key difference, however, is that K-pop groups wholeheartedly embraced the internet, while Johnny’s failed to see that it would become another pillar of mainstream media.

Ultimately, SMAP became the first entertainment group in Heisei to connect with fans on a personal level. SMAP became ingrained in people’s everyday lives, which partially explains why so many fans were angry at how it all ultimately ended.

The members have been involved in a number of solo projects since the breakup, embracing social media platforms such as YouTube or Instagram, and even watching their children start to make inroads into the entertainment industry ahead of Japan’s next era.

SMAP, though, was something different altogether. The times might be changing, but fans’ passion for the group isn’t going anywhere soon.


Did you know …

  • Before debuting as SMAP, the group performed as The Skate Boys, singing and dancing while wearing roller skates and sometimes busting out skateboards. This connects to their origins as Hikaru Genji backup dancers, as that Johnny’s outfit also sometimes performed on skates. Other subsequent Johnny’s projects also strapped on skates during performances — it’s one of the many weird quirks of the agency.
  • SMAP’s Takuya Kimura helped ignite a second wave of Japanese interest in para para — a type of dancing using mostly the hands set over high-energy Eurobeat music — starting in the late ’90s thanks to his comedic character, Bucky Kimura. Skits usually saw the suited-up dandy busting out into dance randomly.
  • In 1998, Shingo Katori introduced a new character called Shingo Mama to one of his many variety shows, seeing him dress in drag and pretending to be a mom. This became a massive hit and even inspired a chart-topping single by the character, featuring production and arrangement by Pizzicato Five’s Yasuharu Konishi (who has also written music for SMAP).
  • To promote its 2002 album “Drink! SMAP!” the group teamed up with Kirin to make its own soft drink called … wait for it … Drink SMAP. For brave souls willing to drop some yen, cans of the beverage can still be found online.

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