Evolution of KAT-TUN

by Miranda Ruth Larsen

Johnny’s Entertainment (afterwards JE) is the music powerhouse behind dozens of Japan’s top male idol groups, dominating the music charts and saturating all corners of the Japanese mediascape from talk shows to beer ads in train stations. Boy band KAT-TUN debuted under JE in 2006 with market conditions ripe for success. However, things didn’t turn out as expected. In ten years KAT-TUN has lost three members due to scandal, contractual disputes, and “personal” reasons.


Getting Down to Business!

Japan remains the world’s second largest CD market after the United States, emphasizing the importance of physical media. JE is largely responsible for this, since fans purchase multiple copies (sometimes in multiple editions, with limited covers) in order to gain access to benefits such as collector’s items. Regular releases of CDs limited to certain retailers such as Tower Records provide additional benefits, spurring multiple purchases.

JE also operates official Johnny’s Entertainment Shops which sell a variety of concert goods, CDs, DVDs, and coveted “shop photos” of groups and individual members. JE idols are usually spokesmen for various advertising campaigns, and more successful groups host TV programs and JE-affiliated music shows. JE idols frequently act in Japanese television dramas and films.

Through this model, JE has consistently maintained high sales and a high degree of market saturation, guaranteeing circulation through a transmedia empire designed for wide exposure and constant relevance.

The Start of KAT-TUN

KAT-TUN, consisting of Kamenashi Kazuya, Akanishi Jin, Taguchi Junnosuke, Tanaka Koki, Ueda Tastuya, and Nakamaru Yuichi, was formed in 2001 and officially debuted on March 22, 2006. During the five years between their formation and official debut, the group performed the regular task of “Johnny’s Jrs.”, similar to Korean trainees – mostly providing back-up dancing for senior groups on tour and during television performances. However, due to their popularity, they also held their own concerts. By the time KAT-TUN formally debuted they were already familiar faces to fans of JE, ensuring wide support when their single Real Face was released in 2006 (Johnny & Associates, 2016).

Real Face was a massive success, topping the Oricon charts (the Japanese equivalent to the Billboard charts) and propelling KAT-TUN past records previously held by their esteemed senior group Arashi. Constantly busy with tours and TV appearances, the young group seemed poised to take JE to a new level of achievement. Yet troubles began early.

Shortly after the release of their second single, Signal, JE announced that Akanishi would improve his English through studying abroad in the United States. Some fans felt this was unfair, leaving KAT-TUN minus one member so soon after their official debut, though the group continued with their activities even in Akanishi’s absence.

As one of the most popular members, his sudden disappearance changed the dynamic of KAT-TUNs onscreen performances.

Speculation that Akanishi was treating his time in the United States more like vacation than intense language study added fuel to the fire and rumors of a break-up consistently sprung up in online fan commentary.

Akanishi returned to the fold in spring of 2007, and KAT-TUN continued their string of hits with Keep the Faith, Lips, Dont U Ever Stop, and White XMas (Johnny & Associates, 2016). The group performed for four consecutive days at the Tokyo Dome, breaking a record for Japanese artists. With the group reassembled, fans – and JE – seemed relieved. Despite JE’s debut of another group, Hey!Say!JUMP, KAT-TUN remained the darling of JE’s newer idols.

The Breaks for KAT-TUN

In 2010, KAT-TUN announced they would begin a world tour while Akanishi performed as a solo artist in the United States. The accompanying album for the world tour, No More Pain, contains no solo track from Akanishi unlike the other members. This despite his participation in some of the other tracks before his journey overseas. A month after No More Pain’s summer release, JE announced Akanishi’s official departure to concentrate on his solo career.

While the signs had been pointing to such a move, the shock in the Japanese music industry and the fan community was palpable.

The 3/11 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami shortly followed this, disrupting plans for the group’s five year anniversary celebrations. While the members participated in various initiatives through JE to raise money and awareness, the industry attempted to reorganize itself in the wake of the severe national disaster. One of KAT-TUN’s regular Johnny’s Jr. support units, Kis-My-Ft2, even delayed their official debut as a group. Continuing their strong run of tie-ins, KAT-TUN released Birth, an accompanying song for Kamenashi’s newest TV drama. Relying on this often-used tactic, KAT-TUN even helped cross-promote other JE idols; a following single Fumetsu No Scrum was for Kanjani8 member Yasuda Shota’s TV drama.

JEs marketing tactics now seemed intertwined with a sense of JE togetherness, and a responsibility to provide entertainment to a nation still reeling from drastic change and damage.

Again, as things began to settle, change hit KAT-TUN and JE hard. Tanaka was removed from KAT-TUN and JE in 2013 for contract violation. While Akanishi’s previous departure had been fairly scandalous, his image was somewhat redeemed through his dedication to a solo career and his establishment of a family. The initial rift between Akanishi and JE was often framed under creative differences. Tanaka’s contract, on the other hand, was terminated the same day nude photos of him surfaced in a tabloid magazine, allegedly sent by Tanaka to a fan. Coupled with other contract violations, JE quickly severed ties with Tanaka, attempting to maintain KAT-TUN’s (and overall, JE’s) image.

Despite the loss of both Akanishi and Tanaka, KAT-TUN remained active, following the consistent JE pattern of single releases, album releases, tours, and the promotional circuit. While the gossip about the previous scandals frequently became an issue, the KAT-TUN machine continued forward, even with increasing competition from younger JE groups. Their 2014 album come here again put them at the top of the charts, unsurprisingly featuring a hit single tied to a member’s drama, this time Nakamaru.

In November of 2015 Taguchi made the sudden announcement he would leave KAT-TUN to focus on his personal life; unlike Akanishi and Tanaka, he announced no plans to continue his life in the entertainment industry. As one of KAT-TUN’s most beloved members and a regular in drama series and TV hosting duties, this announcement seemed completely out of left field. JE fans offered puzzled theories as to why Taguchi would choose to leave KAT-TUN the following spring, and as usual, gossip abounds.

In ten years KAT-TUN has lost three members due to scandal, contractual disputes, and “personal” reasons. JE has continued to push forward new groups every year, the market now crowded with label-mate competitors like Kis-My-Ft2 and SexyZone.

Even with the departure of three members, KAT-TUN remains a sales powerhouse; every one of their twenty-four singles has debuted at number one on the Oricon charts.

This immense amount of revenue adds to KAT-TUN’s recognizability as spokesmen in advertising (Nintendo, Suzuki, Panasonic, Kirin), TV hosts and guests (Shonen Club, Cartoon KAT-TUN), and actors (Akanishi and Kamenashi in Gokusen 2, Ueda in Boys on the Run, etc).

Life after KAT-TUN offers separate challenges that continue to affect the group’s image under JE. Akanishi continued to struggle with JE in terms of marketing and access while under contract as a solo artist, including facing penalties from the company after revealing his marriage to pregnant actress Kuroki Meisa in 2012. Widely recognized in the media as a shotgun wedding by anyone doing basic mathematics, the “moral” scandal put Akanishi under a “freeze” by JE that limited his earning potential. After recently severing ties with the label, he established his own record company and has gone on to release multiple albums and performed, perhaps none-too-subtly, on his Jindependence tour in Japan. Tanaka, on the other hand, quickly shifted gears after his dismissal from JE. While his role in KAT-TUN was default rapper, he changed genres and formed the indie rock band INKT within the same year of his contract termination.

What we can learn from the saga of KAT-TUN

More than a mere chronicle of ten years in JE history, KAT-TUN’s journey offers insight into the changing nature of Japanese media and the fan practices that keep it running. Between 2006 and 2016 the landscape of media in Japan shifted, especially for the original plan of market domination JE undoubtedly envisioned for KAT-TUN.

JE wasnt prepared for two things in particular: the rise of a similar market in the female idol factory of AKB48 and its affiliates, and the increasing popularity of male Korean idols in the Japanese market.

AKB48 debuted the same month as KAT-TUN, but the business model expanded at a wildly rapid rate and sister groups were formed on a regular basis in other Japanese cities and abroad in China and Indonesia. This immediately created a gigantic market shift. AKB48’s popularity meant a sudden influx of rival groups competing for stage space – quite literally. The CD market was another issue, with AKB48’s “idols you can meet” philosophy coupled with fan participation in elections for singers for each single competing with JE’s normally impressive sales tallies and sense of distance between fan and idol due to the idol’s popularity. While a typical KAT-TUN fan regularly purchased photos of members at a Johnny’s Shop as a form of connection, early AKB48 fans could see their idols perform daily, shake hands with them, and take pictures with them.

Male K-pop idols provided more direct competition for JE since KAT-TUN’s debut in 2006. More K-pop singers began rounds of promotional events and tours in Japan, offering better chances of attending concerts and getting time with idols. K-pop singers often refashion already successful Korean language hits into Japanese language versions, stress their desire to learn Japanese and demonstrate their enjoyment of their time in Japan, and are often far more accessible in terms of fan engagement and obtaining tickets to shows. K-pop singers also adapt their marketing strategies to Japan, often including meet-and-greet opportunities and other benefits based on the type and quantity of purchased CDs. While fan club membership is still important, fans have easier access to most male K-pop idols because of the intensity of the promotion schedule and the marketing tactics.

The geographic closeness also means dedicated Japanese fans can see Korean singers perform in Korea if the timing and financial situation is right, offering another venue for enjoying their music.

JE has also routinely failed to address the international popularity of its idols, especially KAT-TUN. JE continues a business model focused almost exclusively on Japanese consumers and the physicality of the CD market. Ignoring the gigantic fan communities in Asia aside from KAT-TUN’s 2010 World Tour – where ‘World’ simply meant ‘Korea and Taiwan’ – it is unsurprising that JE seems to lag with the times. In this closed system, KAT-TUN remains fairly powerful domestically and possesses numerous fans overseas, but outreach to them is low and JE loses out on revenue and fan loyalty in the process.

KAT-TUN’s debut roughly overlaps with the ‘advent’ of Web 2.0, making it seem quite outdated that JE content is unavailable outside of Japan via iTunes or other digital distribution systems. While CD purchases through certain authorized retailers that ship abroad contribute to Oricon rankings, and therefore offer overseas fans a way to support their idols and obtain goods officially, the system operates in a constant conflict of priorities.

JE idols dont maintain social media web presences on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, or Japanese sites like Mixi and Ameblo.

Forced to provide updates through the blog section of JE’s website, the personal touch that forges transcultural connections in the digital age is frequently missing. Rather than adopting the K-pop model of looking globally for more fans, revenue, and recognition, JE seems content with their idols dominating the system at home, even when their position within that system is threatened.

This has inadvertently contributed to many of JE’s targeted issues, such as the ‘illegal’ distribution of fan club information and the reselling of official goods. With a system predicated on access within Japan, fans naturally networked to better distribute coveted items. In not creating an overseas market themselves, JE left a vacuum that creative and resourceful fans utilized to make their own market. This even applies domestically, where Japanese fans residing in locations outlying the major performance venues of Tokyo and Osaka rely on secondhand services to obtain JE items, especially concert goods.

KAT-TUN faces a domestic mediascape now riddled with competing female mega groups and K-pop idols that are more linked-in technologically and have the capacity to regularly address, interact with, and cater to global audiences. JE’s domestic game is floundering even with senior groups; SMAP recently caused a scandal with a suspected breakup nullified by an awkward press conference and national apology, and Arashi’s concerts are so swamped with fan club members attending repeatedly that rumors of facial recognition software to deter repeaters abounds (Osaki 2016, Kay 2015). How JE plans to function in a media environment wildly different than the guaranteed success of Real Face in 2006 remains to be seen.

KAT-TUN’s future as a three-man group is uncertain, though the remaining three members remain the least damaged by gossip about their reputations and off-camera lives. Over the span of ten years, the members of KAT-TUN have faced the extreme highs and lows of the Japanese media system. Frequently falling under scrutiny and surviving bad press, they remain a cornerstone of the industry with potential both in Japan and far beyond its borders. Perhaps their case will change JE’s attitude towards fans and marketing – or perhaps things will remain business as usual.

Works Cited

Johnny & Associates. “KAT-TUN – Discography.” 2016. < http://www.johnnys-net.jp/page?id=bio&artist=14>

Kay. “Facial Recognition May Be Used at Arashi Concerts.” Japan Today, Dec 2015.     <http://www.japantoday.com/category/entertainment/view/facial-recognition-tech-may-be-used-at-arashi-concerts>

Osaki, Tomohiro. “SMAP May Split as Boy Band Bolts from Management Feud.”     The Japan Times, Jan. 2016. <http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2016/01/13/entertainment-news/smap-breakup-imminent-four-look-bolt-johnny-associates-internal-feud/>

Miranda Ruth Larsen is a PhD student at the University of Tokyo. Her research focuses on  the transcultural appeals of masculinities in Japanese and Korean popular music. She became a KAT-TUN fan a few months before their official debut.

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