What the saga of a boyband’s break-up (and patch-up) tells us about Japan

The boyband SMAP has been an important social binder in a nation that prides itself on its sense of community and homogeneity.

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In the early days of the new year, Japan has been gripped by a sense of crisis among young and old alike. At issue is not the alarming plunge in the Nikkei stock index, nor the nuclear test by volatile North Korea, but reports that SMAP, Japan’s iconic boyband, may be about to break up. Such is the trauma that every twist of the saga makes national news; a grassroots campaign to save the band caused mayhem at record stores; and even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe weighed in on the drama during parliamentary question time.

To call SMAP a boyband is a bit rich, given that its five members – fixtures of Japanese living rooms for a quarter-century – are now middle-aged men mostly in their 40s. Yet this is precisely the key to what makes the band – and the national reaction to its break-up crisis – such a telling tale of Japan and its sense of self.

The point about SMAP is not that they’re any good (in fact they’re terrible), or strikingly original (they are decidedly anodyne), or even particularly good-looking (only one member stands out as a conventional heart-throb.) SMAP have become one of Japan’s unofficial “living national treasures” by virtue of the fact that they are always around – comforting, cheerful, a little goofy, and, above all, profoundly likable. Multi-tasking (if not multi-talented) they sing, dance, appear in soap operas, plug everything from cars to curry in TV commercials, and even don chef hats and cook on their own variety show.

SMAP have been an important social binder in a nation that prides itself on its sense of community and homogeneity. The role means that they are as likely to have fans among grandmothers and five-year-old kids, as among the teens and twenty-somethings who drive pop music fandom. Japan has an astonishing wealth of musical, dramatic, cinematic and artistic talents – and for SMAP, part of the job description is not to be part of them.

With more talent, in fact, they’d be less successful (because their popularity would be based on what they do, instead of who they are.) As actors they are mediocre at best. In singing, the voice of SMAP’s leader, Masahiro Nakai, is such a national joke that he currently appears in a commercial gleefully parodying his own out-of-tune vocals. This is part of SMAP’s appeal. By being able to laugh at themselves, these aging boy idols make Japanese people feel a little better about themselves.

And they also reduce the distance between stars and ordinary people, important in a culture that likes to see itself as egalitarian. If SMAP were more drop-dead gorgeous, dazzling on the dance floor, or could sing like Marvin Gaye, they’d have far less staying power and universal appeal.

SMAP’s warm bath popularity is also a testament to a prodigious – and many say insidious – media machine. Namely, they are part of an entertainment behemoth called Johnny’s, a talent management agency that has launched countless Japanese boybands into super-stardom. The founder, Johnny Kitagawa, has been accused of sexually abusing boys who are part of his stable (the Guardian and New York Times wrote stories about the scandal in 2000) and the allegations had zero impact on the power, sales or reputation of the company or its singers.

If anything, Johnny’s is as powerful as it has ever been. That was seen in the bizarre denouement of the SMAP break-up scandal. A few days ago, SMAP made a special live appearance, announced hours in advance, on their weekly taped variety show – dressed in sombre suits as if they were public officials rather than pop stars. Apologising to Japan for causing distress, they announced they would continue “to once again make you smile” – which, translated, means stay together. Critically, the four band members reportedly planning to bolt from Johnny’s admitted on national television that they had formally apologized to Kitagawa – evidence of his outsized power.

This announcement of their non-break-up scored an astonishing 30 per cent TV viewership, the same as for national football team matches or the traditional “Kohaku” New Year’s Eve song concert – both national rituals. Not only young girls, but hardened salarymen and bartenders, were shown on TV broadcasts hanging on every word of the men labelled “eternal stars” by commentators. Some viewers were in tears when they realised SMAP were here to stay. The next day in Parliament, Prime Minister Abe told the nation how glad he was that SMAP listened to the “hopes and wishes” of fans by remaining a part of Japan’s cultural landscape.