The Nak Of It: Why Is There No Female Version of SMAP?
One of the biggest things that stuck out to me about the differences between male and female idol groups in Jpop is that they are both set up quite differently. This difference seems to reflect in how long a group lasts, with male idol groups being able to last for literally decades while most female idol groups not having nearly the same longevity or success.
Johnny’s pretty much rule all when it comes to male groups, though there are some notable exceptions like EXILE, WaT, w-inds, and D☆DATE. But even so, most of those groups do not stray far from Johnny’s and their standards. Basically, the members that debut are the constant members of the group unless they leave for various reasons, and even then new members are typically not added to replace them. The only exception that comes to mind is EXILE, but they are also considered to be a performance group so they are not a typical male group to begin with.
On the other side of things, there are two versions of girl groups: those like the male groups – asuch as SPEED, ZONE and Perfume – and the more abundant graduation system groups. The graduation system groups are set to have girls join and leave the group over time so members are typically in flux. The most popular of these types of groups are Morning Musume and AKB48.
If you look at the history of Japanese entertainers, especially female entertainers, there are standards that have helped shape these groups. It used to be that female entertainers, and even female workers in general, quit their job to become a housewife once they got married. Most of the female idols of past decades lived up to that standard.
Yamaguchi Momoe is a good example of an idol quitting to follow what was expected of her in society. She retired to marry at the height of her career and has done nothing to return to the music industry since. On the flip side you have Matsuda Seiko, who continued on after marriage but could be seen as the exception because of her massive popularity.
In fact, I remember when I was getting into Jpop in the late 90s that one of the reasons for Hamasaki Ayumi and Nagase Tomoya not getting married was speculation that Ayu did not want to quit her career. During that time the trend of women quitting their careers for marriage was beginning to end. Some of the most notable trend buckers were Utada Hikaru and Amuro Namie. Amuro even had a child and still came back to continue her career.
You then look at Johnny’s and the story is vastly different. SMAP’s Kimura Takuya married at 29 and remains a vastly popular idol even though he’s a married man with two daughters. He is far from the only one, as there were plenty of Johnny’s before and after him that married while still keeping their idol careers. In fact, the only Johnny’s that looks like he will have trouble with his idol career post-marriage is Akanishi Jin, but that’s because he lost a lot of support from his agency for not clearing the marriage with them before the news got out.
What is interesting about the case of Jin’s and Kuroki Meisa’s marriage is that Meisa looks like she will have no trouble rebounding and continuing on with her career. This is something that a few decades ago probably would not have happened with the attitudes of the time. It also makes it seem possible that a girl group could pull a SMAP and remain an active, popular group for decades. With the number of female groups that have an unchanging roster of members, though, it will not be easy.
The graduation system groups seem to stem from that old fashioned notion of girls giving up their careers once they want to marry, especially when you consider that it is typical to have them join when they are usually too young for that to even be a consideration. Once they start hitting the early twenties, which was the typical age women used to marry, people start wondering when they are going to graduate. I do not think it is much of a surprise that the ones that get speculated to graduate from AKB48 are some of the oldest girls, like Shinoda Mariko and Akimoto Sayaka, and why Maeda Atsuko’s graduation announcement was such as a surprise as she is only twenty.
And while graduating a group to get married is not as common as it used to be, the graduation groups are still popular for the girls as it can be seen as a step in their career. In contrast, a static group would mean that they would more likely be aiming for that group to be a part of their whole career.
Not all hope is lost for a female idol group to find long lasting fame though. As times change so do attitudes which can already be seen with married life no longer being the career ender for female entertainers. In fact some have made it a part of their extended fame like popular ex-Morning Musume member Tsuji Nozomi.
I think right now the greatest hope of the Japanese static female groups to last the years would be Perfume. They have already shown signs of longevity with the simple fact that they still manage to sell well over the years and are media darlings. They also are great personalities for variety programs, and even have their own that they host, which is a must for any group that wants to remain in the public eye. So they would be my choice for the first female version of SMAP. I guess all I have to do now is wait about twenty years to see if I am proven right or wrong.