TOKYO • For nearly three decades, millions of Japanese have clamoured for their every album, lined up with breathless anticipation for their concerts and gathered on Monday nights for their hit television show.
Now, the nation is awash with anguish over word that Smap - Japan's longest-running boy band, if it can still be called that with its youngest member pushing 40 - are splitting up.
In announcing the band's dissolution, the talent agency that manages the group, Johnny & Associates, said it would continue to represent each of the group's members as solo acts.
The news has dominated newspaper headlines and TV talk shows since their announcement this month. Even the mayor of Tokyo and two members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet have weighed in. One said he was worried about the effect on the Japanese economy, the world's third-largest.
"We will not let them stop!" a grieving fan wrote in one of more than a dozen petitions on change.org pleading with the ageing heart-throbs to remain together. "If we let them disband, it means Japan is finished."
Just recently, the emperor talked about the abdication.I wonder if Smap are more untouchable than the imperial family? They should at least have a news conference or even a recorded video, and directly talk to fans.
CULTURAL CRITIC AND COLUMNIST AKIO NAKAMORI, referring to a televised address in which Emperor Akihito expressed his desire to retire
To understand the bedlam unfolding here, think of the breaking up of The Beatles, the airing of the final episode of comedy series Seinfeld and the "conscious uncoupling" of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin all rolled into one - the end of an era on the Japanese cultural landscape.
Smap's most famous saccharine single, The One And Only Flower In The World, is regularly taught in Japan's schools. But they are not just a wildly popular band whose albums have sold more than 35 million copies, making them one of the most successful musical acts in Japanese history.
For two decades, the band's five members - Masahiro Nakai, 44; Takuya Kimura, 43; Goro Inagaki, 42; Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, 42; and Shingo Katori, 39 - have also hosted one of Japan's top-rated TV shows Smap X Smap, a familyfriendly variety show in which they cook for celebrity guests, compete in games, perform comedic skits and, of course, sing. Each has starred on his own in numerous TV series, movies and commercials. Frontman Nakai has been a newscaster for several Olympic Games.
The group, whose members started out as teenagers performing on skateboards and now range in age from 39 to 44, managed to not only broaden their audience beyond adolescent girls, but also hold on to them over the years. Many of their most ardent fans are women who grew up with them.
Smap, an acronym for Sports Music Assemble People, also have legions of fans in China, South Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia.
In 2011, they performed in Tokyo for then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, then gave a rare concert in Beijing - which may have helped ease tensions after a Chinese trawler collided with Japanese coastguard ships in disputed waters of the East China Sea.
Much of the drama and commentary surrounding Smap's break-up has been tied to suspicions among fans and industry analysts of skulduggery by Johnny & Associates.
Founded by Mr Johnny Kitagawa, now one of the most powerful figures in the Japanese entertainment industry, the agency recruits boys and puts them through a rigorous training programme of singing and dancing. They start out as backup performers before the agency assembles them into new bands that it promotes and tightly controls, leveraging on the success of its other acts.
That business model, pioneered in Asia to dizzying success by Mr Kitagawa with Smap and other groups, has since been replicated by talent agencies in China and South Korea, many of which have been accused of signing children to "slave contracts" that require them to surrender half or more of all profits for as long as a decade.
According to Japanese news reports, Smap decided to call it quits after four of the members tried to leave the agency, which is said to control their appearances on TV and in movies, as well as merchandising rights to their images.
The agency said it had proposed a temporary break, but "some members" wanted a permanent split.
Smap seemed on the verge of disbanding in January as rumours swirled of infighting. But in a rare live appearance on their TV show, the singers, wearing sombre black suits, announced that they were staying together and apologised for having caused their fans distress.
The public apology was viewed in nearly seven million households and even Mr Abe was moved to comment, telling a parliamentary committee that "the group will remain intact in response to many fans' wishes, which is good". He has yet to address the break-up.
Each of the band's members has issued a written statement, but so far only two have spoken in public about the split, apologising on their weekly radio shows for surprising fans with the announcement.
Writing in Josei Seven, a weekly magazine, cultural critic and columnist Akio Nakamori asked if the performers were being muzzled.
"Just recently, the emperor talked about the abdication," he wrote, referring to the televised address in which Emperor Akihito expressed his desire to retire.
"It was such an unusual thing. He decided to talk to the people. I wonder if Smap are more untouchable than the imperial family? They should at least have a news conference or even a recorded video, and directly talk to fans."
Given Smap's popularity in Asia, Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, Mr Hiroshige Seko, said he was concerned that the break-up might undermine the country's Cool Japan campaign, aimed at exporting Japanese culture to foreign countries.
But there are signs that Smap are already being replaced by their successors.
At a store run by Johnny & Associates in Tokyo's Harajuku neighbourhood last week, fans were seen buying professional photo cards of their favourite singers, but there were no Smap cards on sale. A check on an official fan club in the Shibuya district, also operated by the agency, revealed videos only of other Japanese boy bands playing on a screen.
A wall was covered with current promotional posters for multiple boy bands. There was just one for Smap, from 2012.
NEW YORK TIMES