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The history of mega Japan pop group Arashi and what will follow their legacy

The Johnny & Associates headquarters building is seen in Tokyo. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- As the hugely popular Japanese boy band Arashi will be taking a break from their activities at the end of this year, the Mainichi Shimbun looked into what the five members accomplished over the last 21 years and what will follow their legacy.

    Arashi, which literally means storm in Japanese, was formed aiming to "cause a storm across the world" on Sept. 15, 1999 on a cruise ship off Hawaii. Its members are Masaki Aiba, 38, Jun Matsumoto, 37, Kazunari Ninomiya, 37, Satoshi Ohno, 40, and Sho Sakurai, 38. They released their first single "ARASHI" and debuted under entertainment agency Johnny & Associates Inc. on Nov. 3 that same year.

    Arashi held their first concert in April 2000, their first tour across Asia in 2006 and their first tour at Japan's five major stadiums in 2008 -- steadily building their career. The band's greatest hits album sold over a million copies in 2009, and the five members were appointed as emcees of the men's "white" team at the year-end "Kohaku Uta Gassen" music show in 2010.

    After the disbanding of the famous J-pop band SMAP, which had debuted earlier than Arashi under the same agency, at the end of 2016, Arashi held an established position as the country's top boy idol group, both in terms of their accomplishments as well as popularity.

    Noboru Saijo, professor at Edogawa University and an expert on the history of popular public entertainment and idol theories told the Mainichi, "From the conversations the five members engage in during variety shows on TV and in other appearances, you get a sense of their kindness and friendship. They can be funny even without telling harsh jokes. Their actions warm our hearts and feel comforting." He says that Arashi's popularity is based on how approachable they are.

    What makes Arashi different is partially due to their wide range of supporters; not just usual idol fans in their 10s and 20s but those in other generations. This has been achieved through their appearances in primetime television programs when the viewership age is relatively high. In a ranking of male celebrities who have been used in commercials by the highest number of firms, which Nihon Monitor announced on Dec. 2, Sakurai ranked in first followed by four other Arashi members -- further proving that the band is a nationally famous idol group, beloved by people of all ages.

    Music critic Issei Tomisawa explained, "It appears that many potential music pieces are collected, then the best one is chosen for Arashi to perform. That's why all their music is such a high quality." The band has released 58 singles, three more than the total released by SMAP. Tomisawa added, "They may even be better at singing and dancing than SMAP. I have the impression that they are enhancing the strong points of the pop groups that preceded them."

    At the height of their popularity in January 2019, Arashi announced their plans to halt group activities at the end of 2020. Leader Ohno suggested they call it a day for Arashi for a while, and allow each member to follow their own dreams. After much discussion among members and with the talent agency from around June 2017, Arashi came to a decision to take a break as a group, based on their strong understanding that their band activities must consist of all five members.

    Ohno revealed during a talk on Arashi's announcement that he "would like to live freely for once, without any restraints." Saijo explained that Ohno was nearing his 40s at the time and said, "It's only natural for him to have a new outlook on life."

    Up until boy band Hikaru Genji, which was active from the late 1980s to early 1990s, idols usually ended their activities in their 20s. However, after SMAP, such stars began engaging in a wider range of activities such as emcees and actors, and they tended to stay as idols over a longer period of time.

    Johnny Kitagawa, who established Johnny & Associates passed away at age 87 in July 2019, about half a year after Arashi announced the group would suspend its activities. After the charismatic entertainment mogul, loved like a father, died, four famous idols have left the agency, and another star has already announced he is leaving next spring.

    It is believed that they are taking such action due to the widening range of creative platforms, such as video streaming services and social media -- instead of just TV programs. Yuya Tegoshi, 33, who has left the agency, has over 1.6 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. Tomohisa Yamashita, 35, who had been starring in a drama series for international streaming during his time with the agency is said to have left Johnny & Associates after receiving an offer for a foreign production.

    The agency, now led by Johnny's niece, Julie Keiko Fujishima, isn't just standing around though. Arashi set up official accounts on social media including Twitter and Facebook in November 2019, and simultaneously began distributing songs via online streaming.

    Arashi star Matsumoto described his resolution for setting up the social media accounts during a press conference by stating, "We would like to perform with a sense of speed that can only be felt in real time, and think of projects that take advantage of social media." He stressed the importance of Arashi's digitalization, saying, "There are challenges we can take on because our activities have a deadline. We consider giving back the experiences we have gained to Johnny & Associates as a way to repay (the agency)."

    Last month, Arashi held its "Arafes" concert, which had been postponed due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, in front of no fans at the Japan National Stadium in Tokyo, and streamed the recorded event online for a fee. The band will livestream its final concert on Dec. 31, a day before going on an extended break. They are like a representation of the agency, which has no choice but to make efforts toward digitalization.

    "Up until now, Johnny & Associates had conducted an inward business aimed toward members of fan clubs, but concerts cannot be held amid the coronavirus crisis, and maybe the traditional sales method isn't working anymore," said Tomisawa, who believes that the agency is now at a turning point for change. The competition between J-pop and K-pop idols, like BTS and SEVENTEEV, is also intensifying.

    Tomisawa explained, "Nothing beats a real-life concert, and the audience will eventually get bored of performances that are simply streamed online. Producers will have to include programs that are unique to online streaming platforms with a stance similar to that of making a music program on TV."

    As Arashi, reigning at the top of Johnny & Associates idols, takes a break from their activities, it's a chance for young stars like members of King & Prince and Snow Man to rise instead. Junior boy bands are required to further evolve the path that Arashi paved before them.

    (Japanese original by Noboru Hirose, Cultural News Department)

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