SMAP: The Story of Everything

I’ve been avoiding this particular piece for as long as I’ve been writing ReDotPop. Not because it isn’t interesting, but because it is so daunting. Label this column the “story of everything” and you would not be far off. The story is SMAP, the many-member, multi-decade, maxi-exposure, mega-group, with a finger in almost every popular pie: TV, advertising, talk radio, books, CDs, Internet, and concerts.

In fact, to talk about SMAP is to engage ReDotPop at every turn. Or better, to enter the world of ReDotPop is to bump smack dab into SMAP. Without fail. No way to avoid them, even if you tried. Between the hit songs, daily guest TV and radio appearances, their very own weekly TV show, product endorsements, concerts and home pages, these five sort-of singers who kind-of dance and on occasion can half-way think and if you catch them on a good day can possibly even speak by themselves, are irrevocable woven into the fabric of ReDotPop.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to venture that SMAP is a cultural institution, a cottage industry, and a magical commodity that works tirelessly to beget more commodities. Thanks to a powerful, well-connected talent agency with a shrewd marketing strategy, the five SMAPsters are like tentacles extending to every corner and into every crevasse of Japanese society. They are splattered across the cultural screen: on this TV show, in that movie, endorsing those products — at last count 525 commercials crafted in the last eight years.

And their social position keeps expanding. Their last smash single moved in excess of two million units. That song became the unofficial voice of peace in a Japan deeply divided over support for America’s war in Iraq; it also became the official theme song for prime time TV broadcasts of the recently concluded world swimming championships in Barcelona. Just this past weekend, at my son’s under-12 soccer tournament in relatively backwater Miyagi, the song was invoked as the anthem for the closing ceremonies.

I’ll have more to say about that song in a few paragraphs. But for now, let’s do some background. To start, just what is SMAP? The name is actually an acronym for “Sports Music Assemble People”; a sound-good, mean-little handle that is so tres, tres Japanese, but one that is no longer invoked in its elongated, convoluted glory. Today the appellation would surely qualify for a trivial pursuit card, as few, if any, Japanese could now recall what it stands for.

SMAP began in 1988 with six members — a number pared to five when Mori Katsuyuki quit in 1996 to pursue a career in auto racing. Now in its 15th year, the group has churned out 21 albums, many of which are simply numbered (albeit incorrectly). This profusion has placed SMAP smack atop J-Pop. That’s akin to King Kong squatting at the pinnacle of the Empire State Building. Or better” Godzilla clearing space by toppling the colossal Tokyo Tower. Imagine the Backstreet Boys in a world void of Boyzone and N’SYNC, with a presence beyond the narrow confines of a particular era, medium or sound, and maybe you can appreciate SMAP’s cultural power. It’s not unlike the Hulk pounding on the pavement and, sympathetically, sending a stream of cars careening one over the other like so many dominos in a row. When it comes to male pop today, whatever is not actually SMAP is SMAP imitation: pretty boys, fresh and angular, stylish but unpretentious, perky yet shy.

The inability to blink without spying SMAP is by design. This is an innovation of sorts introduced, well, probably first by the Beatles with their feature length movies, Saturday cartoon series, food items, comics, lapel buttons, posters, solo projects, Lennon and McCartney song books, “unauthorized” biographies and the like. With the Beatles, though, great tension attended the solo ventures. Not so, with SMAP. From the first they were conceived as a team of detachable parts — each member capable of, encouraged to and assisted in pursuing disparate, distinct careers. SMAP became a unified corporation of individual franchises, veritable commodifiable islands, no different than Okinawa, Oahu, or Mont Saint Michel.

SMAP became a particular province of ReDotPop, with distinguishable parcels, that consumers visited during their sojourn to a larger, more inclusive locale. And this became the marketing model for many groups since. A gaggle of groups — Tokio, V6, Kinki Kids, and Arashi — now mimic SMAP’s model: regular group performances, supplemented by a slew of individual placements in “golden hour” TV dramas, commercials, quiz shows, movies, radio broadcasts, fashion magazines, and the like. In SMAP’s case, this has produced a rather intricate scheme of cultural enfolding.

Thus via SMAP, we spy Nakai-kun (Nakai Masahiro), the official SMAP leader (by virtue of being the oldest in a Confucian based, age-regarding society) popping up to offer “commentary” on the baseball Giant’s TV broadcasts. He is the most boisterous fan of Japan’s most visible, most revered, most successful sports franchise.

Shingo (Katori Shingo), in cell phone ads, reprising his role as “Shingo Mama” — the cross-dressing homemaker-for-hire who, in a now-defunct TV show, contracted with real moms to steal into their homes at 6am and prepare breakfast for a bewildered hubby and kids, enabling mom to sleep in.

Kusanagi-kun (Kusanagi Tsyoshi), the milquetoast, blend-in-the-background singer usually providing the swing vote for the most popular culinary option in the long-running, weekly “golden hour” hit “Which?! Cooking Show“.

Moody Goro (Inagaki Goro), plastered across all the daily “wide shows” and the subject of tongue-wagging over last year’s foolish attempt to run over and then flee from a meter maid who was in the process of slapping a ticket on his illegally-parked luxury car. That lapse of judgment cost him a reprimand from his management company, Johnnie’s Jimusho, and a sixth month suspension from SMAP’s stadium-filling national concert tour.

And, of course, Kimutaku (short for Kimura Takuya), every office lady’s heartthrob, the SMAPster who’s literally everywhere! Kimutaku is the centerpiece of Tokyo Beauty Clinic ad campaigns — once the province of supermodels such as Naomi Campbell — not to mention promos for canned coffee, horse racing, diet and energy drinks, whiskey, personal computers, charge cards, airlines, telephones, and Levi’s. The list goes on. In fact, it is not unusual to flip the station in an effort to escape one Kimutaku product plug and encounter him hawking some other good or service elsewhere.

Some of these communications are even rather memorable. People are still gushing (so to speak) about the whiskey ad that had Kimutaku gyrating in his hotel room to the tune of “I’m Your Venus” with a soda water dispenser the size of a scuba diving tank extending from his crotch, disgorging foam. Ah yes, the burdens of being a sex puppy: forced to cavort publicly with various figurative devices attached to your bod.

The punch line of that particular ad was that the curvaceous woman dancing inside his overhead TV screen ended up sopping wet — a possible nod to Kimutaku’s life beyond the frame, in which he impregnated a former teeny bopping chanteuse. For that real-world misadventure, as well as countless others, Kimutaku became the lightening rod for wide show attention, eliciting all sorts of free (and contradictory) public advice on the subject. For the record, following a lengthy period of indecision (and likely in consultation with his management company), Kimutaku agreed to wed. Which, of course, elicited another round of wide-show frenzy.

In that way, public interest in SMAP never ceases; probably because the group is ensconced in every sector of society. SMAP easily crosses from music to sport, economy to society. It’s almost as if Japan depends on SMAP to keep itself moving forward. And given what a feel-bad period life on this side of the red dot has stumbled into, it wouldn’t be a surprise if SMAP tore a page from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book and elected to run for office. Given the anemic, murky, enervated contemporary political ecology, it would be no great surprise to imagine one of the beloved SMAPsters throwing his hat into the electoral circus within the next 10 years.

What a good way to move another two million units of some contrived good of irrelevant connection; condoms perhaps (signifier of due diligence and responsibility?); or maybe leather belts (tough, but stylish); or possibly soap (you know, euphemism for clean politics). The point being that the ancillary marketing of product has become SMAP’s modus operendi, if not corporate ideology. This is best exemplified by album number 20, the cover of which featured (and served as advertisement for) a SMAP beverage (a special bitter-sweet brew concocted simply to cash in on the free advertising that comes with display of an album cover). The initial production run of drink SMAP was eight million cans, with reports that three quarters sold the first day, alone. And before the drink album, of course, there was “SMAP vest” (number 18) — with the matching vêtement retailed in department stores nationwide. Only recently there was the cookbook (Absolutely Possible!! Recipes) — the sixth such publication generated from the “Bistro SMAP” cooking segment on the boys’ popular prime time TV show, SMAPXSMAP.

So when it comes to cooking up a politician, SMAP ought to have it wired. What’s a politician other than just another trendy commodity to be packaged and sold?

Of course, the decision to run for office would likely not be made without the input from the big boss, in this case Hiromu “Johnny” Kitagawa, the star-maker whose money and connections have propelled SMAP into the ReDotPop stratospere. Kitagawa is founder of Johnny’s Jimusho, the Tokyo-based production company launched in 1962. His first act was a singing group called “Johnny’s” (as in the thing belonging to Johnny). This venture established the parameters within which the company would operate: handsome boys (in this case four) who could sing and dance. The money Johnny’s brought Kitagawa was immediately used to seed a stream of popular acts: Four Leaves, Go Hiromi, Johnnie’s Junior Special (JJS), Kawasaki Maya, Tahara Toshihiko, Kondo Masahiko, not to mention the enormously popular groups of today: Tokio, V6, Kinki Kids, and Arashi. All these names are meaningful to ReDotPoppers — top sellers, major league idols, fresh voices and faces plastered daily all over TV, radio, magazines, and the Internet.

Is there some meaning in the fact that Jimusho’s acts are all comprised of young men? While Kitagawa has consistently fended off the query by asserting that male stars are simply easier to handle than female idols. Perhaps, some argue, Johnny intends “handling” in a different way: as in anatomical parts; as in his fingers clutching and manipulating the boys’ skin. A couple of tell-all books (one from a former Four Leaves member) allege as much: a sexual harassment lawsuit against Johnny is pending; and it has been said that SMAPster Goro was severely shaken by Kitagawa’s constant attentions.

In general, though, the mass media has lacked alacrity in pursuing this dirt. Unlike the numerous political scandals (some of which amount to little more than misuse of petty funds), the media has played hands-off about Johnny’s hands-on funky business. Is this, as some authors allege, because no one dares destroy the goose that lays Japan’s golden eggs? Or is it because hard-luck Japan is in desperate need of a winner today, and when it comes to winners, all things being relative, the sector most able to deliver is ReDotPop? Indeed, entertainment is the sphere that can keep Japan smiling through all the pain; it is the one means by which Japanese can sugar coat the real-world stench.

Well, certainly, for its part, Johnny’s Jimusho is doing its sugar coating best. Consider SMAP’s current tour. Dubbed “MIJ” (short for “Made In Japan”), the theme boils down to the exhortation: “look around you, Taro and Hanako Nippon-sama (akin to Mr. And Ms. Japan). See all the achievements and achievers with Japanese citizenship who are worthy of praise. Now, we ask you: are we world-shakers? You betcha! If you don’t believe us, then let us count the ways . . . “

Actually, the official text reads something close to this:

“For SMAP’s twentieth album . . . the theme is one of challenge and achievement. Japanese are performing at a world level: in Italian soccer (two players are in the top league, Serie A); in American baseball one player (Hideo Nomo) reached the 100 victory mark in his major league career, another (Hideki Matsui) might challenge for the home run crown; in animated motion pictures there was an academy award (for Miyazaki Hayao); name brand (international) fashions collaborate with Japanese artists and designers; and a Nobel prize was awarded (to two Japanese) in science. While Japan appears not to be so ‘genki’ (lively) spiritually, in fact by looking at its history, one can appreciate that Japan is now living through (and contributing to the creation of an) ‘incredible period’. One in which we can take pride in and even boast about. When we look at such news, shouldn’t this pick us up? Get us moving? Let’s fight (from here on)! And to help us along the way, we should remember this theme: Made in Japan!”

What’s most interesting about this spiel is that it employs many of the words and concepts from the mega-hit mentioned at the outset: the song that has become an unofficial anthem for peace and political idealism here in Japan. That tune is called “sekai ni hitotsu dake no hana” which basically means: “in the world, there is only one flower (like you)”. If you are curious, you can hear it here.

Sekai” is set up as a first-person narrative. The singer speaks of walking by a flower shop and noticing the many type of flowers inside. This recognition prompts him to think aloud:

people pick them based on their tastes / all are pretty / but in the shop, which one is number one / is not something they fight about / in the middle of the bucket, each proudly / puffs out their chest / as for us humans / why do we want to compare? / each individual differs / in that group (of flowers) do all wish to be number one?

In the world beyond the song, the land outside ReDotPop, this is an important point. For that world is increasingly competitive, even cold, brutal, and heartless. For decades the standard mythology has been that Japan is a society predicated on the group and characterized by collective action. Whether or not that ever was true, today, seemingly, Japan is increasingly focused on individual — even selfish — action. This is a social problem, many say, and one that is fueling the daily headlines.

As for the SMAPsters, they croon their solution in the following refrain:

yes, we are / only one flower in the world /each person carries various seeds / if you try your best to make that flower bloom, it’s good

In short, SMAP turns individuality into a virtue. But not one in which we lord our talents over the other guy. Rather than competition, we are told, we must strive to nurture and recognize the special quality inside each person. To underscore this point the singer proceeds to explain how hard it is for some flowers to grow. Yet, no matter how tough it is for them to come to full flower, when they finally do, they are all beautiful — each and every one.

The singer quickly segues into a second theme, social connectivity, that he will tie together with the first by song’s end. He tells his listeners of a customer who exits the shop holding a bouquet full of various types of flowers. And as their paths cross, the proud possessor turns a satisfied smile the narrator’s way. To which the narrator gushes:

The name I do not know / (of) the person from who I received a smile that day /… (but) a flower bloomed in a spot that no one noticed

It is a gift of kindness (and approval) from another. And, in such a way, the seed of community may have germinated. There is an important nutrient in such flowering, SMAP asserts, is the following idea. Their closing chorus swells:

(whether) a small flower or a big flower / no two are the same It is not necessary to be “Number One” /… even if you didn’t know (it), originally, you were only one (of a kind)

sekai ni hitotsu dake no hana” offers what some might assert is a very Japanese take on individual existence. It is a view, though, that has struck a popular chord. It works for kid’s soccer (where scores of little boys head home at the end of tournaments sans trophies and ribbons); it works for world swimming championships (where only three people out of hundreds of competitors come away with a medal in each event); and it may even work for war (where thousands of unfortunates lose limbs, worldly possessions, and even the lives of loved ones). Most of all “sekai‘s” philosophy works in the Japan of today: a cold, hard place.

Today’s Japan is a world where people use cars as tools to express their frustration, cutting one another off left and right, even chasing down offending motorists, boxing them to a stop, and then dragging them from their cars, pummeling them in the middle of the road. It is a world where young teenage girls are stolen from the streets and imprisoned as human toys for sexual predators. And a world where tots are murdered execution style by contract killers because the parents had the misfortune to cross a psycho loan shark.

This is the Japan of today and increasingly so, unfortunately. And SMAP and their positive words and optimistic songs seek to shed a little brightness on that world, add a dab of coloration, spread some kindness, and engineer a hopeful flowering. And it is conceivable that such a refrain might even form the foundation of the political campaign for one particularly ambitious SMAPster in some not-too-distant future.

Japan has been prepared for it by SMAP’s 15 year, multi-media barrage. The Japanese may even hunger for it. Of course, the lad that takes up the challenge might have to work a bit on his statecraft. Consider this: six months ago when the boys were shepherded onto a popular late night news show to plug “sekai ni hitotsu dake no hana” the station framed the entire segment as an anti-war document — replete with a stirring montage of Iraqi refugees, dead bodies, urban devastation, and American occupationiers. During this depiction the five singers were asked to describe what the song meant to them. When it came time for Kimutaku to speak, the SMAPster who has been voted “sexiest Japanese male” six years running replied: “Um… well when we recorded it . . . um . . . I don’t know . . . I guess I thought . . . well, it was a pretty tune.”

Which leads me to conclude that if SMAP really is the story of everything — that is, the key not only to understanding all things ReDotPop, but everything about the way Japan is organized and operates — then we all might wish to wonder whether this world of ours really is on safe ground. On the other hand, that’s what we all worried about when we heard candidate “Dubya” try to name the leaders of a handful of foreign countries, including America’s neighbor to the south. Remember the hullabaloo when he couldn’t recall? And, hey: that ignorance didn’t end up getting us into too much trouble . . . right?