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Johnny Kitagawa: Power, Abuse, and the Japanese Media Omerta

Will the death of Johnny Kitagawa lead to a change of attitude by the Japanese media to the powerful Johnny & Associates talent agency that he formed?

Public broadcaster NHK and others this week reported a warning to the company from the Fair Trade Commission over alleged pressure from Johnny’s on TV stations to keep members of the boy band SMAP off air following the band’s breakup. The agency denied the allegations and said that it had not received an administrative punishment, but added that it would be “careful not to cause future misunderstandings.”

When Kitagawa died on July 9, age 87, the Japanese media treated it as major news. President of Johnny’s, Kitagawa was a power on the Japanese entertainment scene for more than 40 years, launching a succession of boy bands. His acts, including Tanokin Trio, SMAP, Arashi, Kinki Kids and KAT-TUN, not only generated hit records, but became ubiquitous on TV as everything from sports show commentators and variety show emcees to the faces of ad campaigns. They also starred in countless TV dramas and films, drawing legions of loyal fans. Collectively, they made Kitagawa one of the richest men in Japanese show business.

The media covered all this and more about Kitagawa, who was born in Los Angeles in 1931 as John Hiromu Kitagawa. Starting in the 1960s, he brought American influences into Japanese show business, including the concept of singing-and-dancing male pop groups.

What the mass media elided, however, were allegations that Kitagawa sexually abused the young male talents in his employ. The first to make such charges, in graphically explicit diaries published in 1988, was a former member of the Four Leaves, a group that Kitagawa launched in 1968 and was his first to achieve chart-topping success. Another former Johnny’s talent made similar claims in a 1996 tell-all book, saying he had witnessed Kitagawa forcing a boy to engage in sex in an agency dormitory.

The culmination, however, was a 1999 series of articles in the weekly tabloid Shukan Bunshun that described sexual abuse of ten teenaged male talents. A Parliamentary hearing examined the claims, but Kitagawa denied everything and sued the magazine. In 2002 a court handed down a judgment in Kitagawa’s favor, levying $81,500 in damages. Shukan Bunshun appealed and in 2003 the Tokyo High Court ruled that the sexual abuse charges had validity, based on court testimony by two former Johnny’s talents, but not claims that the agency had supplied alcohol and tobacco to minors. Damages were slashed to $11,000.

David McNeill, who profiled Kitagawa for Newsweek Japan at the time, noted in a recent Facebook post: “In the U.S. or Europe, a ruling that the founder of an organization in charge over the years of thousands of young boys was a serial abuser might have been headline news. In Japan, the ruling barely caused a blip on the media radar.”

That media omerta has mostly continued even after Kitagawa’s death. Instead of reviewing the allegations, media stories have focused on messages of regrets and thanks from present-day Johnny’s stars or the “Johnny’s family funeral” on July 12 attended by 150 agency talents, as well as Kitagawa’s niece Mary, who long served as agency VP. (Kitagawa never married and had no children.) Others bewailed him with the sort of panegyrics reserved for departed members of the Imperial family.

Exceptions do exist, however. Litera, a website covering the media, published an article on July 11 detailing the court case, including testimony that Kitagawa had sexually abused two former talents as minors. One testified that his seniors had told him: “If you let Johnny do things to you, he will give you good jobs. If you don’t, you’ll never make your (show business) debut.”

But what is the mass media’s excuse? One is the still-formidable power of the Johnny’s agency, which tightly controls access to its talents, even forbidding the use of their headshots on websites. (Kitagawa himself stayed firmly in the background, avoiding photographers and rarely accepting interview requests.)

A media outlet, such as Shukan Bunshun, that incurs the agency’s wrath can be shut out indefinitely, an unthinkable fate for many, especially the TV networks that have long relied on Johnny’s talents to boost ratings.

“Now that Kitagawa has died the mass media, which has long been held captive by the ‘Johnny taboo,’ should again investigate the truth of (Kitagawa’s) sexual and power harassment,” the Litera piece concludes. A silence of decades is not easily broken, but the FTC might help.

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