East Asian popular culture is on the rise, spearheaded by the global phenomenon of the Hallyu wave. K-pop idol music has played a critical part in this: it’s experienced a slow and steady rise since its conception in the 80’s, and its expansion to the international market has been a strategic and intentional one. Today, Korean idols and idol groups are luxury global brand ambassadors, they have photo spreads in the glossy pages of every country’s Vogue – and sometimes they’re even invited to speak at the UN.
Japan has had its own long history of idol groups, predating Korean idols in their modern iteration, but with one major difference: fame for Japanese idols is remarkably domestic.
Some argue it is because the Japanese media executives and marketing strategists are failing to move with the times, or because the J-pop landscape is profitable and self-sufficient enough as is within Japan. But the history of Japanese idol groups itself might be the reason for J-pop staying within the borders, particularly that history surrounding the despotic idol industry titan Johnny Kitagawa.
In 1962, Kitagawa founded the idol management and training company Johnny’s and Associates, and debuted his first idol group, simply called Johnny’s, soon after. Over the next 60 years (Johnny’s later iterations remain an entertainment industry mainstay today) Johnny’s and Associates would crank out hit after hit, star after star.
Armed with the massive success of his Johnnies, as the male idols are called, Kitagawa was able to exert monopolistic control over the male idol entertainment industry, with his influence extending to independent media. It was simple: the public couldn’t get enough of the Johnnies, and if the networks and magazines were on the outs with Kitagawa, they’d be blacklisted from ever working with the idols. They couldn’t risk that loss.
In 1999, the extent of Kitagawa’s media manipulation abilities were demonstrated when the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun broke what should have been a career, not to mention industry, destroying story. Johnny Kitagawa had been sexually abusing his performers, most of whom had entered his company at a very young age. Accusations ranged from power harassment to undressing and bathing trainees to rape. There were credible testimonies and multiple victims.
This should have been a massive story across all news outlets. The founding father of the J-pop idol system as the country knew it was a sexual predator and a pedophile. The Johnny’s empire was how Kitagawa was able to establish proximity to and authority over children who were entirely at his mercy in this heavily competitive industry.
Despite this, the company was able to file a libel lawsuit against the magazine and won an 8.8 million compensation from the magazine, albeit temporarily. In 2003, the Tokyo court reversed the decision due to the overwhelming evidence against Kitagawa and his company. But Kitagawa had such a tight grasp over Japanese news media that even after all of the court proceedings, scandal, and damning evidence, no news outlet published anything about the case.
Not to mention, the only use of the evidence against Kitagawa was to exonerate the Shukan Bunshun of libel charges. In all the following years up until his death in 2019, Kitagawa himself was never charged with any of the crimes detailed in the testimonies.
Kitagawa, though notoriously private and strict when it came to reporters, was brazen in the casual sexualization of his performers. In 1996, an American producer and songwriter had tried to explain to Kitagawa the connotations associated with the English-stylized name of the company’s upcoming group, KinKi Kids.
As told to former Billboard bureau chief and JSRC contributor Steve McClure by the songwriter, “I told him that ‘kinky’ means sexually abnormal in English slang. ‘Oh, that’s great!,’ Johnny said.”
KinKi Kids remains one of the most popular music acts in Japan. They hold the Guiness World Record for most consecutive #1 singles since their debut in 1997. In fact, Kitagawa revolutionized the way music was marketed in Japan, and to this day Johnny’s groups are popular in Japan. It is a tragedy that such a significant part of music history is credited to a predator who never saw accountability in his lifetime, and whose legacy is still not being challenged by the Japanese news media who are still under the Johnny’s and Associates influence.
Kitagawa has been shrouded in self-imposed mystery and rightful controversy, but is also on the receiving end of admiration by those who are fans of Johnny’s idols. However, there is some indication that the Kitagawa’s legacy will be corrected to include the power harassment and sexual abuse for which there are countless testimonies of him committing. Last month, the BBC released a documentary on Johnny Kitagawa called Predator. Filmmakers interviewed those who came forward about the abuse they faced at the company, perpetrated by Kitagawa and enabled by those working under him.
And just this week, Kauan Okamoto, a musician and former member of Johnny’s Jr, also came forward as a victim of sexual assault by Kitagawa. He had been invited to stay at Kitagawa’s home numerous times, and on the evening after his junior high school graduation, Kitagawa allegedly went into Okamoto’s room and performed oral sex on him while Okamoto pretended to be asleep. The next day, Kitagawa gave him 10,000 yen (around 100 dollars) without explanation.
The abuse continued for four years.
It was open knowledge among the Johnny’s Jr members that Kitagawa was a serial predator and pedophile. Okamoto believes that as many as 100 boys who had stayed over at Kitagawa’s home were also sexually assaulted.
Okamoto is not taking legal action, but instead hopes that coming forward publicly might encourage those who have remained anonymous or those who have not come forward at all to do the same.