Japan gripped by fate of pop group SMAP

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Japan's popular SMAP boy bandImage source, Courtesy of Fuji TV
Image caption,
Well into their 40s, this "boy band" continues to be a mainstay of the entertainment landscape in Japan

Rumours are rife in Japan that one of the country's most well-known and long-lived pop groups, SMAP, might be on the verge of a break up.

Their talent agency has said only that they are in negotiations over their future, but as the BBC's Mariko Oi explains, a split would be a huge shock for Japan.

The Take That or New Kids on the Block of Japan - but bigger

SMAP - which stands for sport, music, assemble, people - formed in 1988 when its six original members were in their teens.

Now in their 40s - and minus one member - they have appeared in movies and soap operas, have dozens of advertising deals and have become ambassadors for Japan abroad.

Masahiro Nakai, Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Shingo Katori and Takuya Kimura have been a constant presence in the media landscape with Japanese fans calling them their idols.

They were the first boy band to not only have multiple hit songs but also parlay that success into comedy and acting with their weekly variety show SMAPxSMAP and numerous other appearances.

Image source, Photo courtesy of Fuji TV
Image caption,
The fate of the weekly variety show if a split is confirmed is unknown

The group's leader, Masahiro Nakai, has been the main newscaster in Japan for several Olympic games. Arguably the most popular and internationally recognised member Takuya Kimura has been voted the sexiest man in Japan for 15 years in a row by one magazine.

Their popularity has even made them ambassadors for diplomatic relations between Japan, China and South Korea. In 2011, they were the first Japanese pop group to visit China in a decade, amid a row between the countries over disputed territory. Their Beijing concert was attended by 40,000 people.

The politics of talent management

Like many pop groups, there has been speculation before that SMAP could be about to split. One of its members, Katsuyuki Mori, left in 1996 - at the height of their popularity - to become a successful motorbike racer.

But the new rumours indicate there is politics at play at the talent agency that manages them.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
They are seen as cultural ambassadors for Japan, meeting with then Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on his trip to Japan

Johnny&Associates dominates the pop and entertainment industry. But reports say SMAP's manager, Michi Iijima, who masterminded their rise since the late 1980s, has fallen out with its founders and is leaving.

All but one of SMAP's members are reported to be considering following her out of the company, which would almost certainly be the end of the group as we know it.

The agency has acknowledged the reports but only said: "It is a fact that negotiation and discussions are being held regarding the matter."

On the other hand, they could be negotiating for more money in order to stay with the firm.

Woah, if true

Although Korean pop (Kpop) has now largely overtaken Jpop in terms of popularity in Asia and beyond, SMAP and others like it are seen as among the first to spark a boy band craze in Asia.

They had developed a huge fan base over their nearly three decades in the industry.

For people in their 30s and younger in Japan, who have grown up with this band, news of a split would be shocking.

But they also have older fans - women who would travel across Japan to all their concerts and give them expensive gifts, seeing them as the ideal sons.

Like other pop acts around the world, some have questioned SMAP's singing and acting skills.

But love them or hate them, many continued to follow their careers even once they had passed their peak in terms of boy band success.