SMAPSMAP (Sports Music Assemble People) are a kind of Japanese version of the Monkees. Besides being the country's most popular boy-band (and J-Pop's best selling group ever), they also present their own variety shows, make commercials and frequently appear in trendy TV dramas. As members of the ubiquitous Johnny's Jimusho (Johnny & Associates) talent agency, they have a lot of clout behind them but still have lasted longer than most people expected. Even rumours of systematic rapes of his young charges by guru Johnny Kitagawa couldn't dent the group's marketability.

"Leader" Nakai Masahiro, Kimura Takuya (Kimutaku for short), Katori Shingo, Kusanagi Tsuyoshi, Inagaki Goro, and former member Mori Katsuyuki started out as skateboarding back-ups to popular group Hikaru Genji in 1988. The turn of the decade saw the end of the so-called 'idol groups' but clever marketing by their agency ensured that the members of SMAP were everywhere - TV shows, concerts, musicals, commercials, radio. Kimutaku in particular became the poster boy for his generation and could demand huge fees for commercial appearances. Singles such as 'Gambarimasho', 'Celery', 'Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana' have been huge sellers. Even the departure of Mori in 1995 to pursue a less-then-successful career as a motorcycle racer couldn't stop the SMAP juggernaut. Thanks largely to their popularity, Johnny's Jimusho has become easily the most successful agency in Japan, with earnings of almost 3 billion yen in 1995.

Ironically there was talk of SMAP breaking away from Johnny's until Inagaki Goro got himself arrested for turning a simple parking violation into an attempted hit and run in August 2001. The incident happened when Inagaki noticed a policewoman standing in front of his car, illegally parked in the youth culture center of Shibuya on a Friday night. Inagaki tried to drive away and hit the policewoman in the process. She was only slightly hurt but more serious damage had been done to Inagaki's career and SMAP's future. One immediate casualty was a 200 million yen drama series starring Inagaki that had been set to air just weeks later. As is the case when a TV star is arrested, all Inagaki's commercial tie-ins were also cancelled. Ratings for the popular SMAPxSMAP show hit an all-time low when the scheduled show was replaced with a rerun.

Kimura Takuya - often voted the sexiest man in Japan (not to mention Taiwan etc), Kimutaku has gained my grudging respect as an actor. He has undoubted charisma and screen presence, particularly compared to the standards set by most 'daikon yakusha' (ham actors) on TV. Fueled by his popularity, dramas like Beautiful Life, Long Vacation, Nemureru Mori (A Sleeping Forest) and Hero have topped the ratings. His marriage to popular singer Kudo Shizuka became one of the biggest news stories of 2000 as did the birth of their daughter Kokomi the next year.

(By the way, a friend once met Kimura at a party and found him very friendly and talkative, more than could be said for the stunning model he was with at the time. I guess you can't always judge people by the company they keep.)

Katori Shingo - forever cast as the baby of SMAP, Shingo-kun has had one of the most varied careers of all the group members. From nude magazine photo shoots to a variety of cross-dressing TV roles - witness the huge popularity of Shingo Mama and her 'O-ha Rock' - he seems to be fighting any attempts to categorize him while at the same time sending a lot of ambiguous signals about his sexual orientation. He also starred in HR, Japan's first ever real sitcom, though still a pretty sad bit of television.

Nakai Masahiro - every group has a leader and Nakai-kun is SMAP's. It doesn't really mean anything except when someone has to be designated to stand up for the group. Nakai has acknowledged publicly that he can't sing and his talents clearly lie in the more general entertainment field. He regularly hosts variety shows and is one of TV's most visible Yomiuri Giants fans.

Kusanagi Tsuyoshi - With his skinny frame, drawn face and somewhat shy and awkward demeanor, Tsuyoshi-kun looks a little out of place in the lineup. He is also the Korean face of SMAP. Well, kind of. He has an alter ego character called Chonan Kan, which is the Korean reading of his name. With garish makeup and speaking a very respectable Hangul, he has been something of a rarity - a bridge between Korean and Japanese pop culture.

Inagaki Goro - like Kimutaku, Goro-chan doesn't appear solo that often on the variety circuit and you're more likely to see him in a TV drama series. He maintains the most "cultivated" image of the five members.


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