[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, that's 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 percent of all Japanese television output can be categorised as 'food TV' - whether is it serious programmes in search of obscure artisanal producers, or the crazy campery of the world famous cook-off, Iron Chef (sadly no longer in production but still repeated). 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 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) TV or, latterly, their own individual film careers. Along the way they have amassed 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 has 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 Japanese 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 remember when we were just getting famous,' he says, 'and we came round your house to watch porn.' Everyone laughs; the wife giggles 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 the 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 a 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 though 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 begins 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, 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.