What Does Today’s Possible Rocket Launch Have to Do With Japanese Pop Music? (I’ll Tell You: Very Little)


Delta II Rocket with SMAPFriday morning, if all goes well, NASA is launching a satellite with the name SMAP. As I write late Thursday night, it’s perched atop a Delta II rocket an hour up the California coast from Santa Barbara. It was supposed to launch this morning, but high-altitude winds got in the way.

Like so many things in NASA world, SMAP is an acronym. It stands for Soil Moisture Active Passive. The satellite is monitoring soil moisture, and it’s using both active and passive methods to do so.

I don’t know any more about the science than a quick perusal of NASA’s website got me, but I do know this: SMAP is a really silly-sounding name.

This is not a new opinion. I would like you to know that this is an opinion I have had more than 15 years to develop. This is not the first thing named SMAP to enter my life.

I lived in Japan for two years, more than 15 years ago. In Japan, it was often hard to tell what was going on. The words that were easiest to read were the things that happened to be written in imported letters and numbers, which meant they weren’t always the most important parts of the signs, but instead things like “Hello Green Every” and “7-11.” Trucks wandered by blaring things I couldn’t understand. Convenience store rice balls came wrapped in confoundingly complex packaging.

By the time I left, I spoke reasonable Japanese – I even bowed when I talked on the phone, just like everybody else – and I unwrapped rice balls with aplomb. But I was still, culturally, lost a lot of the time.

There was one thing I did figure out, though: pop music. In the late 1990s, Japanese TV was populated by glossy boy and girl bands. On the girl side, Speed was reaching the peak of popularity, releasing the squeaky hit “All My True Love” and then, tragically, splitting up; new girl group Morning Musume was just emerging with their single “Love Machine,” about how Japan’s economy was about to make a big comeback, just you wait and see.

On the boy side, the absolute biggest thing going was SMAP. The five singers were the pinnacle of male fashion. They were on billboards, TV shows, record store windows. While I was there, they released their 13th album, Birdman. I can still sing along with the single, “Fly.” Here’s the weirdly dark video:

A couple of weeks ago I was trying to explain the SMAP phenomenon to a friend who works at NASA. That night, nostalgia took me to a cheap Japanese restaurant where I sat alone, across from a flat-screen TV with no sound.

A drama set in a ramen shop wrapped up, followed by a few seconds of black screen – it was a DVD, I realized, to set the mood. Then something familiar came on: SMAP’s own TV variety show. Wikipedia tells me this show is still on the air, but this must have been an episode from the late 90s or early 2000s. They all looked just like I remembered, a time capsule from my early 20s.

In the segment I remember most clearly, Bistro SMAP, two teams of band members compete to make a dish for their celebrity guests. Thanks to the Japanese TV habit of putting excerpts of dialogue on the screen, like zany same-language subtitles, I could tell that on this episode the guests ordered “strange ramen.” The cooking was followed by a completely inexplicable game that involved waving flags, which might have made more sense with sound. The guests tasted both teams’ dishes and pronounced them delicious.

I gazed, delighted, as I slurped my own not-very-good ramen.

As you know if you watched the video above, SMAP did not, strictly speaking, make great music. They are not remarkable singers. It is generic pop. But, for those two years, SMAP and other pop groups were a way I could connect with the world around me. I studied song lyrics. I learned slang from the ubiquitous wacky subtitles. I watched the TV drama starring Kimura Takuya, generally recognized to be the heartthrobbiest member of SMAP, and I knew exactly what melodramatic moment my friends had been crying over the night before, because I’d cried over it, too. My Japanese wasn’t good enough to follow all the dialogue, but I could tell when the girl died and the boy felt sad.

“Celery” was an early SMAP hit. The title comes from a line about things a couple do and don’t have in common, like that one of them either likes or doesn’t like celery.

Celery, the plant, is basically tight, crunchy cell walls wrapped around a lot of water. I believe soil moisture is the kind of thing a celery farmer might care about, don’t you? Thanks, NASA, for bringing a bit of my past back to life.

Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

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