I’ve been spam tweeting my thoughts on this wonderful interview translated by Shii of the airainbow community though I know her better as behind shojunniji (yes, my bias is showing). The interview was done in September 2012 by Nikkei Entertainment and it touches on topics that the boys are rarely asked (because apparently, mundane things like their current favorite food and the like are far more interesting), but these are topics that are definitely relevant nonetheless.
I’d split my reactions into three main topics:
i. Arashi on what they do
“Such down-to-earth and memorable activities have become a strong weapon of the group.”
Nikkei Entertainment summed up succinctly what sets Arashi apart from other idol groups. Sure, they do what everyone else is doing, like sing, dance and act. But they also engage in activities that have their own mark, like Waku Waku Gakkou and releasing a book that doesn’t showcase them in their pop idol glamour, but is about their own country, Nippon no Arashi. They are idols, but they are also teachers (sensei) and tourism navigators. In other idols, it may have been quite difficult to fathom, especially the “teaching” part but they have done it, filling up large venues without even having to do their usual pop smorgasbord (well, yes, they sing at the end but it’s not the focus of the event).
Even their concerts have their own mark, and I just don’t mean the moving stage but the concept is different each time they hold a tour. And we are increasingly seeing the members getting more involved in aspects of their work, particularly in the lives. Jun has always been the concert master, but Sho and Nino I’m sure have a big say in the song arrangements, Ohno in the choreography and Aiba is fast becoming the merchandise director. Of course it’s still a teamwork so at the end of the day, there’s no distinguishing who did what. They’re a unit after all.
Yet, we all know that there are a lot of people working behind the scenes to make Arashi what it is. From being the low priority in Johnny’s, they have climbed to the top of the ladder through their sheer hard work and determination. One cannot fault these boys for not working hard. I cannot emphasize enough how they put their all into everything they were given back then, even if no one watched and even if the projects were not high-profile as they are now. They just kept on going. About three or four years since their debut, when things were not going their way, they’d hold intense meetings in one of their hotel rooms after concerts, to discuss what they want Arashi to be and the things they want to do. I would have given anything to be a fly on the wall in that room because I want to see the young Arashi, full of dreams and energy, talking about their future. And those meetings and discussions must have shaped them and strengthened their bond, going in one direction as a group.
“We have a lot of work, thankfully, but in the midst of that we also felt something that comes 100% from our ideas had become less and less.” – Sho
That’s the downside of being a big moneymaker because people would want to dip their fingers into the pie and take over how an idol’s career is charted. And to many pop groups and individual idols, it could be a downfall when you let others totally control your brandname because it will cease to be yours and will increasingly become a pop factory product. Just look around us, we see a lot of that. Artists need to have control over their own creative license because it’s their name and career that’s put on the line. And I think that this is what Arashi is trying to avoid. There is nothing wrong with embracing idolhood and letting people help you because no one can do it alone, but it shouldn’t stop them from giving their ideas and ensuring that their identity as a group remains in their work. Perfect example would be Waku Waku Gakkou.
And that’s why I’m proud of them because they don’t let the success overwhelm them by trying to do everything. Perhaps it’s a good thing that they are an “introverted” group, as Jun said, and that brings me to the second point.
ii. Arashi on going overseas
Like many others, I felt disheartened when I read their thoughts about going overseas. But it didn’t really surprise me because it’s been obvious that this is not their priority, otherwise, they would have continued Arashi Around Asia beyond 2008. But the reasons behind this policy is also easy to glean.
- Japan is a huge market already
Let’s face it, Japan is the No. 3 biggest economy in the world (it was overtaken by China last year as No. 2) and this year, it surpassed US as the biggest music market in the world. So why are we still surprised that every artist would want to go to Japan from American singers to Korean pop idols?
The Keio boy, smart as he is, gave the perfect answer as to why:
“…You can’t compare us with K-pop, because preconditions in South Korean and Japanese markets are different.” – Sh0
(More on K-pop in my third point)
Uncle Johnny is a savvy businessman. He has been in this business of creating male pop idols since the late 1960s, he should know what he is doing. And the mere fact that he’s not too keen on pushing Arashi overseas is an indication of where the money is. Let’s face it, it’s still all about business. If it doesn’t make sense for him business-wise, to bring his talents overseas, why would he do it? You ask, why is he sending other Johnnys to perform overseas then? Perhaps because their audience in Japan is not established yet and bringing those talents overseas won’t cost a lot of money, plus they need the extra exposure?
Arashi has 1.5 million members in the Japanese fan club. Despite holding concerts at the 70,000-capacity Kokuritsu for four nights, as well as the big domes around Japan, they won’t be able to accommodate all 1.5 million. I mentioned before that my Japanese aniki/colleague told me that even if I live in Japan and become a member of the FC, it’s still not a guarantee that I can get tickets to the concerts.
So why think of other markets when there is a huge demand back home for them?
- Conditions for Arashi to perform overseas
Granted that there is a demand for them to hold concerts abroad, the boys’ stature in the Japanese entertainment industry will make it more complicated for them to do so. There is a demand, yes, but is it enough to fill a large venue? Arashi concerts cannot simply be staged in any mall or small venues. It’s a big production the scale of Madonna and Beyonce. But imagine if they hold a concert in, say, Singapore Indoor Stadium, and fail to fill up the venue. Local media would jump up at the story that the show was a flop. Sure, they can hold small scale shows but do we want that? Won’t we feel shortchanged that they can hold those breathtaking productions in Japan but can only do minute shows overseas?
Not all of their overseas shows were smooth too. I remember reading that there were glitches in the Shanghai show in 2008 because of government control and that they had to scale down the production. I don’t think the jimusho would want to deal with headaches like that. And I don’t think the boys themselves want their performance to be tempered by outside forces.
So yeah, it’s not just a matter of jumping on a plane and landing in Mongolia to do a concert because there’s a whole lot of logistics and legalities as well as market conditions involved. In the meantime, overseas fans like me just have to suck it.
In the meantime, be assured by what Sho said:
“Every year we consider about it though.”
iii. Arashi vs K-pop
Everyone else’s answers (except for Jun who did not have a quote and it would be interesting to know what he thinks of K-pop since among the five of them, he’s the one deeply involved in behind-the-scene concert production) reveal the philosophy that Arashi has embraced since the beginning. They don’t look at others, whether fellow Japanese idols or K-pop. They only compete with themselves, striving to become better versions of Arashi. It’s all about what they can do for the fans and not what other groups are doing that they want to do themselves. Maybe being “introverted” can also mean “insular” in this aspect. That is good in the sense that they are not looking over their shoulders but instead have their eyes focused ahead of them. Dealing with competition can be bothersome and distract them from what they really want to do.
But. And this is the big but. That introverted view also reflects the Japanese mindset. That is why their economy has been stagnant for decades and companies like Sony have been overtaken by more aggressive and creative businesses. It may be a long shot to analyze Arashi vis-a-vis this mindset but I see no other way. The entertainment business, after all, is very much a part of the real economy. Like Japan’s policymakers, Uncle Johnny has to recognize that there is merit in expanding overseas. Maybe he is creating a demand that’s why the jimusho is making it difficult for non-Japanese fans. But there will come a time that he needs to cater to those demands and he needs to do it fast before he loses the market. If there is Abenomics, there has to be a rethinking of the Johnnynomics.
Finally, as a journalist myself, I do get the logic of the article’s theme, why these questions were asked and why Arashi answered that way. As Japan’s official faces, tourism navigators and national idols, they had to keep in mind the responsibilities attached to those titles. They can’t just mouth words that would jeopardize their position, and who knows, even endorsements. I’m not saying that their answers were carefully scripted to cater to the Japanese audience or to stick to the theme because the interview is obviously typical Arashi (Ohno quipping Mongolia in the middle of it for one). But we have to understand that Arashi has responsibilities to their country first, and shouldn’t we be proud of what they have become to and for Japan?
For a change, I’d like a RAINBOW-colored tea.
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