Even ARASHI can’t always get what they want.

Needless to say, a lot happened in 2020, from the upheaval of daily life to street fights over face masks to the retirement of Japan’s Prime Minister, and all of it seemed to come at us so fast that it was really hard to keep up with. In fact, just the other day a conversation reminded me that last year was gearing up to be something really big for the pop group ARASHI.

The year 2019 seems to feel like ancient history now but that was when the group, then in their 20th year of performing, announced that they would break up, or in their words, “go on an indefinite hiatus.” From there they really kickstarted a lot of projects that they wanted to accomplish before the end.

In addition to a sold-out 50-venue tour across Japan, ARASHI had the distinct honor of performing for the newly enthroned Emperor and Empress of Japan at a nationally televised ceremony. If all that weren’t enough, that year was also capped off by them having the best selling album in the world, beating out heavyweights like Taylor Swift and BTS.

Their plans for 2020 were also ambitious, including performances at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, a resurrection of their all-request concert ARAFES at the newly built National Stadium in Tokyo, lots of tie-in work with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and a show at the Los Angeles Forum in November which was a personal dream of group leader (in many people’s hearts) Jun Matsumoto.

However, by April of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic got into full swing in Japan, these projects began to evaporate one by one, and before they knew it, ARASHI was reading The Three Little Pigs to kids online.

▼ About the same time the Olympics were to be held, ARASHI instead released their Sweets Club online series, where they sample candy from around the world

While reading picture books and eating candy to entertain kids stuck at home are very touching gestures to help out families across Japan who suddenly found themselves stuck at home, ARASHI would probably be the first to admit that wasn’t how they envisioned their last year together playing out.

As close as it was to the source of the pandemic, the Beijing show was the first to go. After that, the postponement of the Olympics to a date after their scheduled hiatus wiped out much of their work there. There never was a forced lockdown in Japan, which meant ARASHI could have gone ahead with ARAFES as a full-fledged concert if they really wanted, but instead they compromised on doing the show in an empty National Stadium, making them the first musical act to ever perform there.

Their last-ever concert on 31 December also had to be done without a live audience due to COVID-19 restrictions. It was a bittersweet end, but in a way it might have worked out better because people from all over Japan were able to watch it together.

This begs the question, why didn’t they just postpone the hiatus? After all, it was self-imposed and no one would have stopped them if they wanted to continue being a group a little while longer. 

When I said “the year of ARASHI” in the title, I didn’t mean it was going to be an especially successful year for them, rather it seemed like the projects they had planned were more for their own self-satisfaction.

In other words, they worked hard in 2019 in an effort to show appreciation for their fans before the end. The final year was going to be one of experimentation so they could walk away without regrets. One of those experiments was attempting to branch out to the U.S.A.

▼ The Netflix Documentary ARASHI’s Diary: Voyage chronicles their U.S. ambitions

In addition to seeking the aid of American producers to remix their songs, ARASHI also began to go online. That might not sound so amazing, but their management company Johnny & Associates has a reputation of being notoriously protective of their acts, heavily restricting use of their images online and use of social media.

While that helps to keep the musicians’ reputations intact, as any fan of a Johnny’s group member who lives outside of Japan will tell you, it sometimes makes it incredibly hard to follow them overseas. So, in order to reach a wider audience, ARASHI suddenly appeared on all social media platforms and streaming music services in November of 2019.

▼ Their Americanized single “Turn It Up” was released around the same time as their new YouTube channel

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic prevented them from fully venturing into the American market, but for a group with so many feathers in their cap already, it’s hardly the end of the world. After all, when you perform live in front of the freaking Emperor, everything else is just icing on the cake and ultimately took a backseat to each member’s individual desires.

And so, with ARASHI having ridden off into the sunset as a group and split up to peruse their own independent ambitions and art projects, this leaves a huge opening in the Johnny & Associates roster for the “next big thing.”

Although ARASHI was certainly the biggest Johnny’s act to break through the social media barrier, they weren’t the first. The company has actually been experimenting with online content since as far back as the turn of the century, presumably with the anticipation of raising an act that could thrive in an online environment.

▼ 7 MEN Samurai is an up-and-coming group who have been thriving with their online content, such as this video where two members face their fears of chicks and develop a new fear of alpacas

So even though ARASHI’s final year was mostly online due to COVID-19 and their own ambitions, it might incidentally be the harbinger of a future with a much more accessible and online Johnny’s universe.

Top image: YouTube/ARASHI
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