×

Arashi, one of Japan’s longest-running and most popular supergroups, had zero public online footprint until last November: no Twitter, no Spotify, no YouTube, no Instagram, and certainly no TikTok. Online photos were not even allowed; their agency kept a tight grip on all content and required fans to sign up for an official subscription-based Japanese-language fan site to get band updates.

Now, after a 21-year-long career, two huge changes are happening: the five-man boy band is making big moves to break out further in the U.S. and global markets, and then they’re taking a break.

Arashi has bolstered its global social media presence by creating their first accounts, released the behind-the-scenes doc TV series “Arashi’s Diary Voyage” on Netflix and put out their first three English-language singles. The most recent, “Party Starters,” produced by Sam Hollander (Panic at the Disco, Fitz and the Tantrums), dropped last week and follows the ballad “Whenever You Call,” a collaboration with Bruno Mars.

This all comes just months before they’re set to indefinitely pause activities at the end of 2020 because band leader Satoshi Ohno, 39, wants to take a break from the entertainment world he entered at age 13.

Unlike the export-minded Korean pop industry that has produced digitally savvy supergroups like BTS and Blackpink, Japan’s industry has historically focused more exclusively on the local market. And it’s worked: Jun and the other members of Arashi — Sho Sakurai, Satoshi Ohno, Masaki Aiba and Kazunari Ninomiya — have become household names in their native Japan. Since the group’s 1999 debut, they’ve recorded 400 songs, sold over 41 million records and performed for 14 million people, making them one of the most successful groups to emerge from their late former manager Johnny Kitagawa’s powerhouse agency Johnny & Associates, which has dominated the Japanese entertainment world since the 1960s. Their compilation of hit singles “5×20 All the Best!! 1999-2019” was the world’s top selling album last year, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, outranking even Taylor Swift’s “Lover” and BTS’ “Map of the Soul: Persona,” at 3.3 million copies.

“The decision to actually really make a push to bridge the gap between Japan and the rest of the world actually happened completely independently of our decision to go on hiatus,” Jun explained to Variety over Zoom through a translator. “The deadline of the impending hiatus was what really pushed us to keep focused on doing new things, and held our feet to the fire, so to speak, with regards to the challenges we can still undertake.”

He framed the push outward as a way of “giving back to the legacy of our agency’s founder, Johnny Kitagawa,” who died last summer at the age of 87.

“In the wake of Johnny’s passing, our desire as leaders not just of the Japanese entertainment industry but also as leaders within the Johnny’s family was to ask how Arashi could carry his torch forward and be a bridge just as he was between Japan and the U.S,” he says rather emotionally, adding that a lot had changed in how the agency is run since Kitagawa’s death. “We wanted to do something that we’d never done before in our 21 years of existence, and also to inspire the next generation of Johnny’s youths — the other groups in the roster — to carry on and continue to challenge themselves to do more.”

Los Angeles-born Kitagawa brought the American concept of boy bands to Japan at a time when men dancing was not a cultural norm in the country. His agency, with its rigorous training system, went on to launch some of the biggest names in Japanese pop, like SMAP and KAT-TUN, landing 232 number one singles between 1974 and 2010.

But he was also plagued with accounts of harassment and sexual abuse of numerous young recruits. Critics say that the allegations have been ignored by Japanese media due to the powerful influence of his agency in Japan.

When asked what he thought Kitagawa’s legacy really should be, Jun spoke only of the hit-making system the manager had brought to Asia.

“Johnny created so many boy bands in his 60 years of working and left an indelible mark not just on the entertainment industry of Japan, by bringing it up to a global standard, but also on Asian pop culture overall, even outside of Japan, [visible in] the rise of the Asian pop generation,” he says. “What you’re currently seeing now with non-Japanese groups as well all really found its roots in the foundational work that Johnny did back in the 1960s.”

Even though K-pop is exploding globally, Jun says he harbors no hard feelings.

“I feel no sense of the kind of tribalism that some people might imagine, but rather a sense of pride that the architecture that Johnny laid the foundations for decades ago is now finally starting to cross borders. Even if it’s not being done by Johnny, per se, the legacy still continues and is alive and well. You can see the flowers taking root in other cultures and countries,” he says. Laughing, he admitted, “I’ve definitely heard ‘Dynamite’ quite a few times,” referring to the K-pop group BTS’ first entirely English-language single that made them the first Korean group to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. While “Whenever You Call,” the group’s collaboration with Bruno Mars, did not reach those chart peaks, it’s received a warm reception from international fans who appreciate their idols’ new accessibility on YouTube and social channels.

The Arashi members had long been fans of Mars, Jun says, and felt that he is an international figure who would “help bolster the reach of [their] music and translate it for new audiences.” Initial plans to physically record together were dashed by the coronavirus, but they proceeded remotely.

“To be honest, when we first heard the song after Bruno first sent us the demo track, we were a little surprised,” Jun admitted. The band had expected something a “little more upbeat, a little faster,” rather than a “mid-tempo ballad kind of song with an easy listening element,” which they found “a little shocking at first.”

They warmed up to the track because of its lyrics about loyalty and connection, and have come to feel that the message was “prescient” and “perfect” for both long-term fans sad about their upcoming hiatus and people around the world separated during the pandemic. (“I’ll come running whenever you call,” goes the chorus.)

None of the band members are fluent in English. Jun says that though mastering the lyrics was a “struggle,” the texture of the foreign tongue gave them a sense of “freedom.”

“Unlike in Japanese, where every individual sound has to be articulated in order to make sense just as a language, English allows for a lot more flexibility in terms of the way that different words can be extended or shortened in order to fit a particular rhythm, or the way sounds can [blur] from one word into another,” says Jun.

While some are delighted by Arashi’s new online presence, local Japanese fans used to the traditional model of subscription fan sites and exclusive, paid access are not always thrilled.

Jun described the extent of his worries about potential backlash earlier this year when they decided to make previously DVD-only concert footage available to stream for free online for the first time. “When [our live tour] ‘Untitled’ was going to be posted on our YouTube channel, I was sure there would be complaints,” he said in an Instagram story. He was moved to tears when core fans accepted the choice. “From 11 a.m., I was at home alone watching the comments. I couldn’t stop crying for three or four hours.”

He explains that a “constant challenge” for the band has been to “strike a balance between traditional fans used to a certain way of getting close to us and foreign fans who have a completely different set of expectations,” he says.

“We really didn’t want all the people who have supported us through thick and thin for 21 years — and who really want and need, in a sense, the value that more physical goods and the traditional exclusivity provide — to feel left out or disrespected,” he concludes, “especially after all the love and support they’ve offered for so long.”