In announcing Sunday his band's plan to go on an indefinite hiatus, Arashi leader Satoshi Ono became the latest of a number of top Japanese idols to step out of the spotlight in recent years -- whether it is just taking time off, disbanding or retiring -- to seek a different life.
The J-pop culture landscape has been shaken by a number of such departures lately, most notably the December 2016 breakup of SMAP, one of Japan's most enduring and beloved bands, following a rift among its members on whether they should quit their agent Johnny & Associates Inc., the major talent agency to which Arashi also belongs.
(Head office of entertainment agency Johnny & Associates)
It was about half a year after SMAP's disbandment that Ono, 38, began consulting his band mates about his desire to "live freely" and leave the entertainment industry "to see views that I've never seen."
Those joining Johnny & Associates with the aspiration of becoming idols typically start their careers as young teenagers, often as backup dancers for their established seniors.
"(Arashi) members have been chasing their dream since they were in their teens, so I, as one of their seniors who is also a member of an (idol) group, can totally understand the complicated feelings that arise as one progresses into adulthood," said Taichi Kokubun, a member of TOKIO, another popular band managed by Johnny & Associates.
"I think it's not a bad idea to stop and take a breather," the 44-year-old said.
While noting that Arashi's announcement most certainly came as a total surprise to many given the fact that the members are known for getting along well, Edogawa University professor Noboru Saijo said the group's decision was understandable. Arashi means storm in Japanese.
"There is a gap between one's image as an idol and one's actual image as an individual, and as one ages, it becomes more and more difficult to strike a balance between them," said Saijo, an expert in idol theory. "There was probably a shift in the members' consciousness with regard to how to continue being an idol."
Arashi will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its debut in November, with no major scandals or misconduct on its record. While it might not have been smooth sailing for the five-man band in its early years, the members always consulted each other to find a way out.
The breakthrough came in 2005, when the teen romance TV drama "Hana yori dango" starring Arashi member Jun Matsumoto became a big hit.
In the following year, other members also broke new ground, with Sho Sakurai becoming a newscaster on a popular news program and Kazunari Ninomiya starring in the Clint Eastwood film "Letters from Iwo Jima."
The band climbed the stairway to national stardom, emceeing public broadcaster NHK's annual New Year's Eve music extravaganza "Kohaku Utagassen" from 2010 for five years in a row.
A record 52 Arashi titles have topped the weekly hits rankings tallied by Oricon Inc., a major entertainment information provider, since the band's debut in 1999. The group has also ranked top in Oricon News rankings of popular artists a record eight times.
The group's growing popularity, however, was accompanied by the loneliness of being top celebrities, Ono once revealed in an interview in 2011. For example, Ono said some old friends started speaking to him in honorific language, which in Japanese typically conveys social distance or disparity of rank.
With their success spreading beyond music and spanning various genres, including hosting their own prime time variety shows on television, the effort needed to remain at the top became even more taxing.
"I've been contemplating over and over since yesterday with regard to 'I want to live freely,'" Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa tweeted on Monday in an apparent reference to Ono's announcement the previous day. "I wonder what it is like to live freely."
昨日から何度も「自由な生活をしてみたい」について考えてる。自由な生活をしている人ってどんな人なのかな。— Yusaku Maezawa (MZ) 前澤友作 (@yousuck2020) January 27, 2019
自由かどうかは自分次第だな。— Yusaku Maezawa (MZ) 前澤友作 (@yousuck2020) January 28, 2019
今までよく知らなかったけど、嵐ってメンバーもファンもみんな温かいんだね。素敵だなあ。— Yusaku Maezawa (MZ) 前澤友作 (@yousuck2020) January 28, 2019
"I guess whether one is living freely is really up to oneself," Maezawa said in another tweet later in the day, while applauding Arashi members as well as the band's fans for being "warmhearted" and "awesome" in their response.
During Sunday's press conference, a reporter questioned whether Arashi's decision to suspend their activities was "irresponsible." This immediately drew flak from fans and others on social media.
会見から帰宅。— 青木源太（日本テレビアナウンサー） (@Aoki_Genta) January 27, 2019
Genta Aoki, a Nippon Television Network Corp. reporter known for being a great fan of Arashi, tweeted after covering the event himself, "The word 'irresponsible' came up at the press conference. Now that is absolutely incorrect. It's so regrettable and being there where it happened, I felt mortified."
Japanese neuroscientist Kenichiro Mogi also came to Arashi's defense, writing on his official Japanese blog, "By announcing in advance that they are going to continue performing until the end of 2020 (there're still almost two years to go!) and then go on a hiatus, I believe members of Arashi have sufficiently fulfilled the 'responsibility' that this reporter is talking about."
Using The Beatles as an example, Mogi questioned whether the artists' careers would have excelled the way they have had the band continued to perform out of a sense of responsibility.
"What more are you asking for?" wrote Mogi, who often appears on TV and is a celebrity in his own right, urging the reporter himself to stop forcing responsibility on others and live more freely. "Artists shine when they have spiritual freedom. The same goes for everyone else as well those who are not artists."
In western Japan's Hiroshima, 74-year-old Norimoto Urano recalled a visit by Arashi member Matsumoto to a local evacuation shelter about two weeks after the area was hit by disastrous floods and landslides, and said the idol listened patiently to those affected and generously made himself available for photos.
"I think there must have been sacrifices they've made in their private lives," Urano said. "I would like to thank them and say cheers for the good work."
On social media, fans expressed their sadness but largely stayed positive, with many pledging to await Ono's return after his "summer vacation" and others coming up with hilarious memes and predictions of what the band leader will do during his time off.
Under Monday's top trending Japanese hashtag "Ono-kun's summer vacation," Twitter user @ayatuki_0111 posted a doodle imagining a group chat among Arashi members on the LINE messaging app, showing Ono -- known for his love of fishing -- with his catch of the day while traveling around the world and the cheerful responses of the other members.
Among other top stars who have retired recently was Namie Amuro, the music and fashion icon whose final concert tour drew about 800,000 fans before ending her career in September 2018. Tackey & Tsubasa, the Johnny & Associates idol duo featuring Hideaki Takizawa and Tsubasa Imai, also disbanded the same month.
Meanwhile, another popular singer, Kana Nishino, has announced she will suspend all entertainment activities after completing her concerts in February to try out different things aside from music.