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Breakup of beloved band SMAP highlights the state of J-pop

SMAP performs at Beijing Concert Hall on Sept. 16, 2011, in Beijing. It was the band's first performance outside Japan.   © Getty Images

SINGAPORE The recent announcement of the breakup of SMAP, Japan's most enduring boy band and a beloved cultural icon, is highlighting the declining state of J-pop. The industry has been hurt by the rise of K-pop from South Korea, as well as by the failure of the Japanese entertainment companies to adapt to changing times.

On Aug. 14, the news that SMAP was breaking up after nearly three decades sent fans in Japan and the rest of Asia into a tizzy. SMAP's management company, Johnny & Associates, said the five-member group -- whose hits include the 2.7-million seller "The One and Only Flower in the World," and the million-seller "Yozora no Mukou" -- will call it quits at the end of the year.

Nur'ain Abdullah, a Singaporean engineer in her mid-20s, said she started checking Twitter every few minutes on the evening of Aug. 13, when rumors about the demise of the band were already trending. "I am completely devastated," she said, noting how she became an avid student of the Japanese language after discovering SMAP.

On China's Weibo social network, one post reporting the news was shared over 5,000 times within a few days. Hong Kong superstar Kelly Chen told the Sing Tao Daily that SMAP's TV shows and songs ought "to be treated as classics."

For many J-pop fans in Asia who grew up in the 1990s, SMAP was their first taste of Japanese entertainment. The group rose to fame in the late 1990s, thanks to overseas broadcasts of popular TV dramas featuring its members. "Part of the collective memory of our generation is gone," said 41-year-old Taiwan resident Janet Hsieh.

With sales of their singles and albums exceeding 35 million units in Japan alone and their TV programs attracting high viewership, SMAP's breakup comes at a high cost. Kansai University Professor Emeritus Katsuhiro Miyamoto estimates the economic loss from SMAP's disbandment to be 63.6 billion yen ($634 million) per year.

POWER STRUGGLE Not only are fans disappointed, they are also disillusioned over the way the breakup was handled.

It seems to have started with a power struggle inside J&A, one of Japan's most influential talent agencies. In January, SMAP was reportedly on the verge of disbanding after the group's manager, Michi Iijima -- who was embroiled in a lengthy conflict with J&A's founding family -- attempted to leave J&A with the band members in tow. The group later went on TV to apologize for the mess and assure the world that they were not in fact breaking up. But the appearance had a staged feel to it, with the members' black suits and glum expressions leading some viewers to question whether they were acting of their own volition.

"These incidents made overseas fans understand how much control agencies have over their pop stars," said Rob Schwartz, Asia bureau chief of Billboard Magazine.

Since Japan's biggest talent companies hold sway over TV casting decisions, any conflict with agency bosses can hurt a performer's career. "In the past, when big stars have tried to leave their agency, the industry would band together and blacklist them," Schwartz said.

If SMAP had successfully left J&A in January, "it would have been earthshaking for the Japanese music industry," he added. "If SMAP can leave J&A, then it's easier for anyone to leave J&A."

DRIVING FANS AWAY Although J-pop groups have loyal followings across Asia, Japan's agencies have not been very adept at cultivating those fans. Now, the SMAP mess could drive some international fans away.

J&A, in particular, has stuck to its own way of doing business, much to the chagrin of overseas devotees. Generally, fans outside Japan cannot book tickets to its concerts online, and its fan clubs only allow people with valid Japanese addresses to register. Artists' use of social media is prohibited, giving overseas fans little opportunity to interact with their favorites online. J&A artists seldom perform abroad -- in stark contrast to South Korean groups like Big Bang, which perform frequently in East and Southeast Asian countries.

K-pop moved fast to attract global audiences to compensate for South Korea's small domestic market. A music video of the K-pop song "Gangnam Style" released in 2012 recorded more than 2.6 billion views on YouTube. Thanks to the K-pop boom in Asia, South Korean record label S.M. Entertainment -- whose artists include Super Junior and EXO -- posted revenue of 325.4 billion won ($291 million) in 2015, up 13% year on year and 35% higher than in 2012.

Facing a declining domestic birthrate and sluggish CD sales, some J-pop entertainers have begun to look abroad. Artists such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Perfume have gone on world tours. This past June, female idol group Team Syachihoko performed in Taiwan for the first time, with members greeting fans in Mandarin. For good measure, Syachihoko returned to the island in August to keep new fans hooked. "I like Japan and I love Japanese idols," said Stanley Shu, a 33-year-old fan. "They are more kawaii (cute) than Korean idols."

Still, in Southeast Asian cities, K-pop is far more prevalent. Walk around any mall in Bangkok and you are bound to see a South Korean cosmetics store plastered with faces of K-pop stars, and K-pop playing in the background. By contrast, J-pop CDs can be hard to find in stores.

Yet J-pop does have its charms. "Fans of J-pop tend to value the narrative surrounding their favorite idols over their performance skills," said Kazumi Nagaike, a professor at Oita University and an expert on Japanese pop culture.

Narratives that include failure and perseverance can inspire fans to stick by their idols -- if all goes according to plan. "Perhaps J&A was writing out a narrative that SMAP members' ties would be stronger than ever, after their crisis" earlier in the year, Nagaike suggested.

Of course, some fans may still be hoping for an epilogue to the tale of SMAP -- one in which their idols make a surprise comeback.

Kenji Kawase in Hong Kong, Debby Wu and Kensaku Ihara in Taipei, Ken Moriyasu in Tokyo, and Mariko Tai in Beijing contributed to this story.

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