Sayonara Smap

The J-pop band will break up at the end of the year after almost three decades. Fans in Singapore share how the iconic group have made an impact on their lives

There are popular boybands and then there are popular boybands whose rumoured break-up would lead their country's leader to express concern.

When talk spread in Japan at the start of this year that its most popular band, Smap, was going to call it quits after three decades, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe weighed in, saying: "The group will remain intact in response to many fans' wishes, which is good."

The country's relief, it turns out, is short-lived. Last week, Smap's agency, Johnny & Associates, announced that the quintet will split up at the end of the year.

Over almost three decades, fans in Japan and the region had watched Takuya Kimura, Masahiro Nakai, Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Shingo Katori grow from teenyboppers to mature idols - now aged between 39 and 43.

Since forming in 1988, the J-pop titans have churned out chart-topping hits such as Lion Heart and The Only Flower In The World, which led them to make top-rating TV shows individually and as a group.

We would learn their dance steps and sing their songs. Smap exposed me to the beautiful language and I wanted to learn it.

SINGER CARRIE YEO of home-grown duo The Freshman, who was hooked on Smap's music. She majored in Japanese studies at the National University of Singapore

Marking their 25th anniversary since their debut album Smap 001 in 1991, the band have released more than 50 singles and 20 albums.They have reportedly sold more than 35 million singles and albums.

As they were the most prominent face of Japanese pop culture when it broke out in the region in the 1990s, Smap's break-up certainly marks the end of an era.

The split has dominated newspaper headlines and television talk shows in Japan and anguished fans have started numerous petitions asking the band to stay together.

They owe their immense popularity across Asia to serendipitous timing - they rode the crest of the golden wave of J-pop in the 1990s and early 2000s, before the Korean pop invasion, says Mr Lim Sek, a Singapore music industry veteran.

  • Career highlights

    1988: Japanese starmaker Johnny & Associates forms sextet Smap, which stands for "Sports Music Assemble People". The members are Masahiro Nakai, Takuya Kimura, Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Shingo Katori and Katsuyuki Mori.

    1991 : The band release their first studio album, Smap 001. It reportedly did not crack the Top 10 on the Oricon music chart, paling in comparison to their subsequent chart-topping streak.

    1996: They launch the variety show, Smap X Smap, which is still running. The highly rated show is a regular pitstop for A-list international celebrities such as Lady Gaga and the late Michael Jackson. Mori quits the band to become a motorcycle racer.

    2003: The band release the chart-topping single, The Only Flower In The World, said to be their best-selling single, with more than two million copies sold to date.

    2004: Kimura stars in acclaimed Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai's 2046, alongside Asian heavyweights such as Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Zhang Ziyi.

    2011: The band stage their first overseas concert in China's capital, serenading an audience of 40,000 at Beijing's Workers' Stadium. Proof of their pulling power is shown in Japan's SoftBank Mobile commercial featuring the lads at Marina Bay Sands, turning the hotel into a hot spot among Japanese tourists.

    January 2016: Thirteen years after its launch, The Only Flower In The World tops the Japanese Oricon's Daily Single chart again, amid rumours of the group's break-up. The song's return to the top of the pops is the result of the buying spree by worried fans, in a bid to show the band their support. On Jan 18, Smap appear on live TV to put to rest rumours of their disbandment.

    Aug 14, 2016: Smap's agency announces that the band will split on Dec 31. "Some members have expressed their wish to disband, rather than to suspend" Smap's schedule as a group, a statement said. "It was a very difficult decision, but we have judged it will be difficult to continue activities as a group, although it was not a unanimous choice."

    The media and fans speculate that the real reason is internal politics within the agency.

    Gwendolyn Ng

Singer Carrie Yeo, 34, of home-grown duo The Freshman, was among those caught up in the J-wave back then. She was hooked on Smap's music after her schoolmates introduced it to her.

One thing led to another and she started watching J-dramas too. Eventually, she choose to major in Japanese studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Recalling fond memories of her fangirl days, she says: "Our clique would watch Smap's concert at a friend's home.

"We would learn their dance steps and sing their songs. Smap exposed me to the beautiful language and I wanted to learn it."

Other fans are drawn to Smap's goofy appeal. Diversifying into variety shows was a means of survival for Smap, as they were hit by sluggish CD sales and fewer opportunities for publicity with the cancellation of music shows.

The move into comedy turned out to be a blessing in disguise for them. Funny antics are a staple at their concerts and on their long-running variety TV show, Smap X Smap, which started in 1996 and has been touted as Fuji TV's champion show.

Copywriter Jessie Ng, 29, has witnessed Smap's humour live at concerts in Japan, where she taught English for four years till last year.

"They are funny and quite self-deprecating. Even now that they are in their 40s, they still do a lot of skits. They try to do whatever is trending in Japan."

Videos of Nakai parodying K-pop girl group Girls' Generation have gone viral. He transformed into a balding old man who wore outfits similar to the leggy K-popsters while executing similar dance moves with zest.

Long-time fan Sky Chan, 28, who has just finished her English Language teaching stint in Japan, says: "I like that they are not perfect idols, which makes them human and easy to relate to.

"I was really sad to hear the news of their disbandment, but it did not come as a huge shock. After the commotion in January, Smap have been on the bench with minimal group activities and no new releases. Fans knew this day would eventually come, but we did not expect it to be this soon."

Mr Lim attributes Smap's enduring popularity to the idols' unabashedly pop music and omnipresence in the industry.

"They are not limited to one platform. They act in movies, TV series and have their own TV programme. It becomes really in-your-face. I think that is the formula of their success," says Mr Lim, 56, who is chief executive of entertainment company Music and Movement.

The men's highly successful solo activities in different entertainment genres have helped each member develop his unique appeal and grow his personal fanbase, says Dr Yuen Shu Min of NUS' department of Japanese studies. "When the group come together, their fanbase becomes even larger."

For instance, band leader Nakai is a regular face on TV, hosting variety programmes such as Nakai's Window, Momm! and The World's Astonishing News.

Dreamboat Kimura stole the hearts of female fans worldwide with his leading-man roles in popular dramas such as Love Generation (1997) and Hero ( 2001).

Home-grown singer Tay Kewei, 33, fell for the heart-throb when she set eyes on his pianist character in romance drama Long Vacation (1996).

The drama's catchy theme song, La La La Love Song, was stuck in her head. Tay learnt to play the song on the piano and has included a rendition of it on her upcoming EP, Chi.

"I'm a fan of his face and his acting," she says. "In those days, J-dramas were the in-thing. I watched mainly his dramas, where he always had an interesting occupation, such as a pilot, hairdresser or lawyer. The drama was career-centric and it was always interesting."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 21, 2016, with the headline 'Sayonara Smap'. Subscribe