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March 2012

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SMAP: World Famous in Japan

[Sushi & beyond: What the Japanese know about Cooking] by Michael Booth
First published in 2009.
Chapter 6: World Famous in Japan
Note: Because the writer is English, thats why the first names were written before the family name. Instead of the Japanese way e.g. Kimura Takuya, it was written as Takuya Kimura.

I am shaking hands with one of the five most famous people in Japan. His name is Takuya Kimura.

No, me neither.

Close by, in the same TV studio, designed in a kind of Disney-baronial style with fake stone walls, pastel colours, extravagant floral displays and stained glass windows, are the four other most famous people in Japan, known to every school child, parent and grandparent from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Their names are Masahiro Nakai, Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Shingo Katori. Ring any bells?

This was the day after the sumo championship. We had only been in Tokyo a few days but once again Emi had somehow known what i wanted to see, even when i didn't really know it myself. I had expressed a vague interest in trying to get o the bottom of Japanese TV food show obsession which, to judge by the sheer volume of programmes about food, cooking, restaurants or food producers, surpasses even that of the British and Americans. According to some estimations, over forty per cent of all Japanese television output can be categorised as 'food TV' - whether is it serious programmes in search of obsure artisanal producers, or the crazy campery of the world famous cook-off, Iron Chef (sadly no longer in production but still repreated). Certainly, my own empirical research during our first few days in Japan had confirmed that, if you turn on the TV, you will come across something to do with food within two or three clicks of the remote.

I had a vague idea that i might like to talk to some programme makers, perhaps on a minor cable channel, and maybe watch a recording or two, but Emi had more ambitious plans for me, which was how i found myself standing in the wings, the only non-crew member in the studio during the recording of Japan's most popular TV show of the last decade.

I had heard neither of SMAP - for 'Sport, Music, Assemble People' - nor its constituent elements: five former [what?!] boy band singers, now in their early thirties, turned TV chat show interviewers, cooking show hosts and movie stars, but they are, without rival, the biggest TV stars in Japan. Over the last dozen years these five young men have conquered every entertainment sphere, whether it was J-Pop (execrable Japanese pop music aimed at- presumably lobotomised - teenage girls) [i guess he doesn't know who makes up the SMAP fandom?], TV or, latterly, their own individual film careers. Along the way they have ammassed unfathomable fortunes, millions of devoted, obsessive fans; and a level of fame that exceeds even that of the Hollywood stars who make sure Bistro SMAP , as their food show is called, is the first stop on their Japanese publicity junkets (recent guests included Matt Damon, Madonna, Cameron Diaz and Nicholas Cage). Bistro SMAP is not just the number one food programme in Japan, as a segment of the band's main variety show, SMAP x SMAP , it is the number one TV show in Japan full stop, with up to thirty million tuning in most weeks - a position it has held on and off for over ten years.  You can't travel for more than a few minutes in Tokyo without seeing the band's faces promoting the unappealing named sugary 'sports' drink Pocari Sweat on the metro; Japan Airlines, on a four-storey billboard beside the Mori Tower, or their latest movies and TV series just about everywhere. 

I always think that domestic-only stars reveal far more about a country's tastes and aspirations than those who go global - just think about Claude Francois or Norman Wisdom. So what does SMAP tell us about Japanese? Most obviously that they like pretty, polite and apparently wholesome young men who conform to just about every boy band stereotype, right down to their hurt puppy faces during ballads and Bronx-pimp moves in the rap bits. But SMAP have done more than just polish their Backstreet Boys moves in their bedroom mirrors. Through Bistro SMAP they have done nothing less than overturn centuries-old conventions about who wears the apron in Japanese households. Thanks to this show, and its seven spin-off cookbooks which, i should add, are the best-selling celebrity cookbooks in the world, these five performers have managed to convince the Japense male that it is OK to cook at home, that there is no shame in a man frying noodles or taking time to slice sashimi and present it just so on a bed of grated daikon. Today more Japanese men than ever cook at home, and the boys from SMAP are one of the main reasons. Indeed, you could argue that they are the most influential people in contemporary Japanese food culture.

So what is the televisual magic that has almost a quarter of the Japanese population glued to their boxes every Monday night at ten? I was about to find out. 

Band member Masahiro, the maitre'd and non-cooking host, enters through the upper floor of the horseshoe-shaped, two storey, faux-bistro set, dressed in black waistcoat, white shirt and black trousers. The rest of the band, wearing Western-style chef's uniforms and toques, take their places in the kitchens below, two per team. I take an instinctive step backwards behind the central camera, and trip over some cables, prompting a look from the stage manager. Shingo, the 'funny one' waiting in the wings, shoots me a quizzical glance - I am the only Westerner in the studio - but then winks and waves as the stage manager starts his countdown. I smile back. Even though I had no idea who he was until fifteen minutes earlier, celeb whore that i am, this contact with Japanese light entertainment royalty makes me unaccountably happy. 

Masahiro introduces this week's guests, a Japanese husband and wife acting couple, who enter through the upstairs door and are shown to their table. Masahiro's opening remarks prompt exaggeratedly loud laughter from the crew. (There is a man standing next to me whose job, it seems, is to laugh as loudly as he can at every comment or gesture.) It turns out that the host is friends with the couple and has visited their house. 'I remeber when we were just getting famous,' he says, 'and we came round your house to watch porn.' Everyone laughs; the wife giigles coquettishly. Following the same routine every week, Masahiro asks the guests what they want to eat. 'We have no menu so you can order anything you like!' They order 'Chinese food with lots of vegetables'. All the ingredients have already been prepared and set out in the kitchens below for the other four SMAP boys to cook. 

More hard-hitting questions - 'Do you love your wife?' - are interspersed with shots of the boys cooking. Off-stage professional chefs prompt them from time to time, but i can exclusively reveal that the SMAP boys really do cook the food and with impressive confidence and skill.

'Well, they have made over 6,500 dishes over the last twelve years,' the show's producer tells me as we chat in the studio canteen after recording has finished, adding that the band themselves create the menus. What do the American and English guests make of it? I ask (the show is very much in the tradition of wacky Japanese TV). 'They love it. Nicholas Cage said the food was better than Wolfgang Puck's. Cameron Diaz has been on twice, she was singing and dancing! Madonna loves Shingo's shabu shabu. When we started none of them could cook, but they wanted to challenge themselves. They'd done singing and dancing , and now they wanted to do cooking. At the beginning they just learned how to wash the rice and cut the cabbage. They weren't trying to impress anyone, they just wanted a challenge but now they are really involved in creating the menus; they love to make new dishes. They have shown the same type of creativity they did with their music. We didn't know it at the time but this was the beginning of a whole new trend of getting boys to cook. There used to be a Japanese proverb about how a man should never enter a kitchen, SMAP changed all that.'

So what is the secret of their success? 'First, they are like the Beatles! They each have distinct characters that everyone can relate to [the boy next door, the class clown, the older brother, the rebel, and the pretty one]. The second and most important thing as far as the show is concerned is the energy of hospitality they show to the guests in the studio. They really want the guests to enjoy it and the audience can sense that. This is the real secret fo the programme. SMAP communicates through food, and that is becoming a bigger and bigger way of communicating around the world.'

Back in the studio, the host takes the guests on a walkabout downstairs in the kitchen, where the other four are busy cooking. More anodyne barter ensures. Returning upstairs, the food - a cream lobster chow mein with pork-bone broth from the Red Team, and fried rice with tofu, beef tongue, shark fin, onion sauce, spinach and lettuce from the Yellows - is brought up for the guests to judge. Everything is pronounced oishii (delicious), but the Yellow Team are this week's winners.

Suddenly, Shingo appears in drag, wearing a short tartan skirt and long wig and sings a song that, apparently, the wife once sang in her days as a young pop star. Everyone laughs hysterically and, I must admit, he is funny, even thoguh i understand nothing of what he is saying. He has touches of Buster Keaton about him, a great face-puller. Masahiro is also charismatic, a wiry ball of energy who reminds me of a young Billy Crystal, bus as for the other three's talents, they seem limited to either smouldering, scowling, or looking blank. 

As usual with TV cookery shows, the minute the cameras stop, the crew descend on the leftovers, and the talent leaves as quickly as possible. All except Tsuyoshi, the boy next door, who sits quietly in a corner finishing a bowl of rice as the crew begin to clean up around him. I approach and introduce myself, and he smiles warmly. 'Great show,' I say. He smiles again. I am not sure he understands English and anyway, i feel guilty about interrupting his meal and leave him be.

I squeeze my way through the hundred or so fans waiting outside the Fuji TV studios that evening and make my way back to the apartment. Lissen, Asger and Emil [his family], who have spent the afternoon playing in Yoyogi Park and visiting temples, are underwhelmed by my new celebrity name drops but i can't help thinking Japan could have worse teen idols than this. Can Busted make shabu shabu? I very much doubt so. 


*i hope i din't have any major typo errors >.< 


AWESOME! Thank you for taking the time to do this. It was an interesting read. He sounds so "Western" LOL...well he had no clue who he was dealing with. Thank you again.

Edited at 2012-03-17 06:49 am (UTC)
U're welcome :D

Yupps. i guess he doesnt understand how it works in Japan.lol.
thank you for sharing <3

hmm, i'd rather confuse to decide did he complement them or not. but it's a interesting read :D

Edited at 2012-03-17 06:55 am (UTC)
U're welcome~ :D

Yeahhh it was confusing. its like he din think they were good (as celebs) but cannot deny there have positive points lol
Thanks for posting this! ^^;;

[the boy next door, the class clown, the older brother, the rebel, and the pretty one] -- I take it that Tsuyopon would the boy next door, Shingo the class clown, Nakai the older bro, Kimura the rebel, and Goro the pretty one? :D

The author's description of Shingo doing his thang made me smile. And his observation likening Nakai to a "young Billy Crystal" is totally on point! xD

(Awwww @ Tsuyopon sitting in a corner finishing his rice bowl!!! I want to hug him so bad!)
U're welcome :D

i was thinking that. or mayb Goro and Kimura roles are e other way round?

Shingo is funnyyyy haha <3 Nakai is awesomeeee.

Tsuyopon is like this ne :D
Thank you for typing this up. He sounds so ... so ... I don't know .. so arrogant at first but it seems our boys have impressed him at the end of the show. Good thing to see behind the scenes of Bistro Smap a bit as well.
Yeahhh. Tho it doesnt seem like he's 100% positive on them. but i guess its better den nothing? haha.

U're welcome :D
Thank you so much for this! :D This is really interesting.

But I was kinda caught off-guard by this XD : Can Busted make shabu shabu?

BAHAHAHA Now I'm quite sure the writer is an English. I love Busted but I highly doubt they can make shabu shabu as well *shot*
U're welcomeeee :D and i agree it's interesting~~~

haha yeah he's English. :D but who's Busted haha
Knowing the happening in Bistro SMAP from a different POV is really interesting, esp. if it came from someone who doesn't know anything about them or the show XD SMAP all the way~

Busted is an English band that's why I kinda concluded the writer is English as well XD Though actually they're pretty different from SMAP. I mean, they're not idols, they don't do variety and stuffs, they don't sing and dance (they do play instruments though), and they're already splitted since 2005, so Idk why the writer used them as an example from his country XDDD
Yupps its really interesting~ SMAP ftw! xD

ahhh i see. i dun noe why but maybe cos they're famous with a big influence? o.O

Thank you so much for sharing this! It's nice to read an honest and objective impression of SMAP. The stuff I've read about SMAP by non-Japanese writers is usually biased and cynical, but this person didn't know SMAP until he met them in person, which could be why his opinion is more untainted.

Also, now I have something to show people who still question if the guys really cook the food on Bistro. \(^o^)/

Edited at 2012-03-17 08:58 am (UTC)


U're welcome :D Yupps an outsider's view on SMAP is quite an interesting read ne~ :D Unbiased too~~~

haha yeahhh. i nv once doubted that it is really their own work tho. at least e present day Bistro :D
Thank you!
U're welcome :D
Thank you very much ! That was interesting !
LOL at shingo being curious and Tsuyopon being his usual self :D
It's funny how the author couldn't get the "smap concept" even after being in their studio and talking to their staff. It can be hard to understand for non-japanese people :)

Edited at 2012-03-17 10:16 am (UTC)
U're welcome :D it's an interesting read ne~

yeahhh but i guess Johnnys concept is quite unique no? in e beginning i wasnt quite familiar with the way J-ent industry works too ~~~
Thank you for typing this out.

I don't know why he wouldn't even understand why food tv is so popular. I mean it's like the #1 thing that people of all ages like, and 99% of the time can't be insultiing. (I said 99% of the time, since I have to factor in religious beliefs.) I'm kind of meh about him. I mean I can tell he did the good old 5 second scan of the guys bio and learned about the show, but he was just soo stuck on "BOY BAND." Also um...well how should I put this? Oh He was so stuck on BOY BAND that he didn't even really find out why people like the danm show and turn in. Really he could've just wrote "Biggest Boy Band in Japan hostes a cooking show and makes great food and people go there to promoto they crap and that's it." I did enjoy the few good things he said about the guys. Even calling Nakai a Bill Crystal type, but he kind of made them out to be asses when he said they quickly left. I guess if he hadn't just went with the 5 second bio scan he might have know they have like a billion other jobs. That kind of worries me, that if I do read the rest of this book, it'll be much of the same. "Oh I went here, but since this is my image of it that's what it is and nothing more."

U're welcome :D

Yeahhh. Everyone likes food. :D

Yeahhh he seems to like comparing them to the usual "boy band" without knowing the concept of such Jpop groups. or maybe Johnnys concept. but i guess i din expect him to anyways lol.

But i guess it shows an unbiased view on SMAP in some sense?

hmmm e book was quite interesting tho :D
(...totally clicked the wrong link O.o sorry)

Thank you for typing this out, it was an interesting read indeed :33

He sounded so breathtakingly condescending here that at first I have no words on how to comment on his writing XD I know that some (most?) Americans have a cynical look on boybands, and can't seem to take them seriously. At least he admitted in the end that there are merits in what SMAP does.

But not before making snide remarks on Boybands! Wacky Japanese TV show! Locally well-known stars as opposed to international ones!

Also, this line made me boggle: s for the other three's talents, they seem limited to either smouldering, scowling, or looking blank.

On another note, I actually remember (and like) this episode, with Go Hiromi and Matsumoto Iyo :33
U're welcome :D glad u enjoyed it ~~~

Yeahhh. he seems to think all "boybands" are the same lol. yeah. i kinda forgave him for the bad stuff he said once he admitted they do have good points. lol.

i doubt Tsuyopon,Captain or Goro-chan actually did tad lol. or mayb jus tad ep? haha.

Oh! Hiromi Go is married? haha i din noe o.O
Ah I think I'm remembering the wrong Hiromi, and not Go Hiromi. This is the Hiromi who's married to Matsumoto Iyo :PP
ahhhh i see :D
Really interesting, so thanks for translating!
Yups it is ne~ U're welcome :D

Waahh, thank you so much for this!
Just like you, I disagreed about some things, but it was interesting!

As a fan, I'm happy that he talked about SMAP *o*
U're welcome :D

Deshou? I forgave him all the bad things he said after he admitted SMAP does have merits~

Me too :D
thanks for sharing and typing out all the chapter! Very interesting. I wish to be invited in the Bistro studio too... :(
U're welcome :D

Me too. It'll be awesome to witness the recording live ne~
very interesting ^^ thanks for sharing ...really interesting thought from someone else view to smap ^^
U're welcome :D

Yupps it's frm an interesting POV~
Thanks so much for taking the time to type all this out. It was really interesting to see a total foreigner's perspective on Japanese variety TV. And it's nice to know that SMAP really does cook the food themselves, I've always wondered. That's kind of amazing, considering the complicated dishes I've seen on the show sometimes. And the guy gets extra points in my book for complimenting Shingo, though he seems to be a little too snarky for someone who seems to know so little about Japanese culture.
No problem ;D Yupps i have to agree about the different perspective on SMAP. It was really interesting to read. haha well, they did have many years of experience i guess. Shingo's quite hard not to like xD yeah. i din really like the way he commented on some points either.
thank you for this... very interesting read... :-)
You're welcome :D it's frm an interesting POV indeed ^^