Agency Hold on Japanese TV Kept Media Quiet on Kitagawa Abuse Claims

Society Culture

Until a March documentary from the BBC put the international spotlight on sexual abuse by Johnny Kitagawa, Japanese television stations remained generally silent on the topic, fearful of losing access to stars at his powerful agency Johnny and Associates.

Over-Powerful in the Entertainment World

As I write, Johnny and Associates, which represents around 100 male stars as Japan’s largest talent agency, is heading for dissolution. This comes in the wake of a scandal involving sexual abuse by Johnny Kitagawa, its late founder and former president, of boys just entering the industry, known as Johnny’s Juniors.

The company will change its name to Smile-Up. It will focus on providing mental care and financial compensation to, as of October 2, some 325 victims of sexual abuse who are making claims. It will also form a new agency, into which it will transfer performers who wish to be represented.

While Johnny and Associates has overseen decisions about its stars’ work and schedules, found them managers and other staff, and dealt with any scandals, the new agency will only secure work for its performers, who will take on other tasks themselves.

Higashiyama Noriyuki, a former member of the idol group Shōnentai, will head the two new companies. At an October 2 press conference, he said that performers will seek out their own opportunities based on what they themselves want to do.

This change comes following the criticism of the over-powerful Johnny and Associates suppressing the voices of abuse victims and putting excessive pressure on television stations and other media.

At an October 2 press conference, Johnny and Associates President Higashiyama Noriyuki (second from left) announces the company’s name change and planned dissolution after it has completed paying compensation, as well as the formation of a new agency. (© Kazuki Oishi/Sipa USA via Reuters)
At an October 2 press conference, Johnny and Associates President Higashiyama Noriyuki (second from left) announces the company’s name change and planned dissolution after it has completed paying compensation, as well as the formation of a new agency. (© Kazuki Oishi/Sipa USA via Reuters)

Corporate Skepticism About the Changes

Julie Fujishima, the company’s former president and Kitagawa’s niece, will remain as a director after the name change to Smile-Up and will be responsible for victims’ aid and compensation. However, she will play no part in the new agency, where there is a major shake-up in management, including the appointment of former V6 member Inohara Yoshihiko as vice president.

It remains unclear whether there will be fundamental changes to the nature of the organization. Julie Fujishima holds 100% of Smile-Up stock, while the investors and direction of the new company are unknown, and most of its employees will be transferred from Johnny and Associates.

Companies that put a halt to advertising contracts with the agency’s stars after a September press conference, where it showed no plans to change its name or take other action, appear to remain skeptical about the wholesale transformation announced on October 2. Suntory President Niinami Takeshi, who also heads the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, told reporters the following day that the company did not intend to renew its contracts. There are no signs that other companies are doing so either.

It is not surprising that the business world is cautious. If major issues emerge with compensation, leading to a public backlash, Smile-Up and the new company could both collapse.

At the same time, most commercial broadcasters indicated after the September press conference that the stars themselves were not to blame, so they would continue to feature them on their programs. As their business depends on selling advertising slots, they only act as sponsors in their dealings with Johnny and Associates. There is a shared general stance of waiting to see what happens with the organizational reform.

In late September, Fuji Television called on the agency to change its name and split its operations to handle compensation and the management of performers separately. On October 2, it said it would continue to monitor the situation, and other stations are doing the same.

On September 27, NHK announced that it would not newly hire the agency’s stars until sufficient actions were taken to provide compensation and prevent recurrence of abuse, but as it is supported by reception fees, it has to consider its viewers and be cautious.

The Rise of Johnny’s

How did Johnny and Associates get so big in the first place? Many would say that it had a helping hand from television stations—and they would be right.

The agency was founded in 1962, and became affiliated with Watanabe Productions, a major contemporary. Its boy band Johnnys, founded that year, appeared on many television programs. However, Johnnys split in 1967, and when the successor group Four Leaves disbanded in 1978, the agency no longer had any popular performers.

However, the power of television sparked a revival. The TV drama 3-nen B-gumi Kinpachi sensei (Mr. Kinpachi in Class 3B), launched in 1979 with a junior high school setting, featured two agency members—Kondō Masahiko and Tahara Toshihiko—who became a hit with teenage girls.

While Johnny Kitagawa took charge of discovering and training performers, his sister Mary, then vice president of the agency, dealt with TV stations. However, it was not her decision that Kondō and Tahara would appear in Kinpachi, and she had no connections with the drama’s producer, Yanai Mitsuru. The two boys won their parts through auditions.

Kondō’s and Tahara’s popularity gave Mary the opportunity to promote new performers. If a television station wanted them to appear, she made it a condition that younger budding stars from bands like Shōnentai and Shibugakitai also got screen time. This method allowed for the creation of a string of popular groups like Hikaru Genji, SMAP, Tokio, Kinki Kids, V6, and Arashi. Mary also expanded her network in the TV world.

Pressure on TV Stations

Mary’s demands of television stations began to escalate, as the agency expressed wishes about casting and program content. For example, she refused joint performances with competing male idols and opposed the appearance of stars who had left the agency. One former commercial television executive said, “If you showed hesitation about meeting her demands, she’d start talking about pulling out the Johnny’s stars.”

Leading scriptwriter Kuramoto Sō described his experience with the agency’s interference in a recent column. “Apparently, an actress had some trouble with a Johnny’s performer,” he wrote; soon afterward, the agency told the television company, “If you use her, we’ll take all the Johnny’s stars off your station” (Zaikai onrain, September 24).

Mary was high-handed with television production teams, but modest when it came to media executives, with whom she succeeded in building close relationships. One example was her friendship with Nippon Television head Ujiie Seiichirō from 1992 until his death in 2011.

According to a former NTV executive, Ujiie, who moved from the Yomiuri Shimbun, was a serious journalist who had little interest in associating with people from the entertainment world. However, with Mary things were different. Ujiie came to respect her and they met on a near-regular basis. This led to a number of Johnny and Associates performers appearing on the station’s flagship show 24-jikan terebi: Ai wa chikyū o sukuu (24-Hour Television: Love Saves the Earth) from the late 1990s onward.

In 2006, Arashi member Sakurai Shō joined the NTV news program News Zero as a presenter. This was decided at a meeting between Ujiie and Mary, although it was also influenced by Ujiie’s relationship with Sakurai’s father Shun, an official at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which regulated television stations then. Ujiie suggested it to Mary, saying that he could not continue as an idol forever.

Mary built up similarly strong relationships with other leaders at commercial TV stations.

Ratings Above Everything

When the weekly magazine Shūkan Bunshun published a story about Kitagawa’s sexual abuse in 1999, Johnny and Associates claimed it was defamatory and filed a suit for damages against its publisher Bungei Shunjū. However, in 2003 the Tokyo High Court ruled that sexual abuse did take place, and in 2004 the Supreme Court dismissed the agency’s appeal.

During this legal process, in 2002 the Tokyo District Court did not recognize that there was abuse, but ruled that the following statement was true, or there were reasonable grounds to believe it to be true (a point maintained in the High Court decision and confirmed by the Supreme Court).

“If Mary did not like the costars cast in television drama, she would sometimes call the station president directly and demand that they be removed.”

In my own journalistic investigations, I heard from one TV executive that the agency had made phone calls to place pressure on the station’s casting decisions.

“When Mary called, the president could not ignore it, so he would pass her words on to the production team. They themselves would have to listen. The production team would hate getting calls from the president, and they determined from the start to make programs that would not upset Johnny and Associates. This is what we call sontaku [following unspoken wishes]. They were also afraid of Johnny’s saying it would pull out its stars.”

The television world has always prized ratings above everything. Johnny and Associates had numerous performers who were surefire ratings winners, and Mary had her unique skills for controlling others, so the agency had total control over the TV industry. Television stations, which should also be news organizations, paid no attention to Kitagawa’s sexual abuse in their programming, including news shows.

Calls for Further Investigations

Japan’s television stations finally started to wake up after the documentary Predator: The Secret Scandal of J-Pop was aired by the BBC in March. When Johnny and Associates admitted the truth of abuse allegations in September, stations like NHK, NTV, and TBS broadcast programs verifying their relationships with the agency.

NTV stated that as it was using Sakurai and other Johnny’s stars as newscasters, it was sometimes overly cautious in its reporting.

On October 9, NHK reported on its News 7 show about sexual abuse by Johnny Kitagawa within its own premises. In the autumn of 2002, Kitagawa approached a high school student hoping to appear on The Shōnen Club, a BS Premium show featuring Johnny’s Juniors, and took him to the men’s toilets, where he assaulted him in a cubicle.

While some stations have not broadcast programs about their relationship with the agency at all, one cultural commentator on the situation, the reporter Tsuda Daisuke, has called in an Asahi Shimbun article for NHK and major commercial stations to set up internal investigations by third-party committees.

This seems appropriate. In my more than 30 years of reporting on the television industry, when I exposed two programs for deception, I found the stations were frantic to cover up the truth. It is difficult to imagine that they would shed light on all the dark side of this story on their own initiative. If television stations continue as they are, there will be no end to the problem of sexual abuse.

Johnny Kitagawa’s Sexual Abuse: A Timeline

1962 Johnny Kitagawa founds Johnny and Associates within the performing arts school Shingeinō Gakuin.
1963 A male student at Shingeinō Gakuin makes a complaint about indecent behavior by Johnny Kitagawa, leading to Johnny, Mary, and Johnny’s members leaving the school.
1964 Shingeinō Gakuin sues Kitagawa for losses including tuition fees. Court questioning of witnesses includes discussion of sexual abuse, but it is not established as fact. Until 1967, the publications Shūkan Sankei and Josei Jishin feature articles on the court case and suspicions of obscene acts.
1981 Shūkan Gendai publishes an article about suspicions of sexual abuse by Kitagawa.
1988 Former Four Leaves member Kita Kōji writes in a book about being sexually abused by Kitagawa.
October 1999 Shūkan Bunshun begins a series of articles about sexual abuse by Kitagawa.
November 1999 Johnny and Associates sues Bungei Shunjū for defamation at the Tokyo District Court.
January 2000 Based on the Bunshun articles, the New York Times reports on Kitagawa’s sexual abuse.
March 2002 The Tokyo District Court orders Bungei Shunjū to pay ¥8.8 million in damages. The court does not recognize any truth in the claims of sexual abuse, but rules there are reasonable grounds for stating that the mass media feared and was compliant with the agency.
July 2003 In its decision on Bungei Shunjū’s appeal, the Tokyo High Court rules that claims of sexual abuse are true, and reduces damages to ¥1.2 million. Major newspapers report the verdict with small stories, while television stations do not report it at all.
February 2004 The Supreme Court dismisses the agency’s appeal, finalizing the Tokyo High Court ruling.
July 2019 Johnny Kitagawa dies at the age of 87.
August 2021 Mary Kitagawa dies at the age of 93.
March 7 The BBC broadcasts the documentary Predator: The Secret Scandal of J-Pop about Kitagawa’s sexual abuse.
April 12 Okamoto Kauan, a former member of Johnny’s Juniors, holds a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan where he talks about being sexually abused by Kitagawa.
May 14 Johnny and Associates President Julie Fujishima apologizes on video and in writing to victims of abuse, but does not acknowledge the truth of individual accusations.
August 4 A United Nations working group on human rights calls for the Japanese government to assist abuse victims.
August 29 An independent team appointed by Johnny and Associates finds that Kitagawa had been the perpetrator of sexual abuse since the 1950s. It calls for the agency to assist victims and for Julie Fujishima to resign as part of efforts to start afresh through dissolution of the agency. It also identifies media silence as a factor in the spread of abuse.
September 7 At a press conference, Johnny and Associates acknowledges the truth of sexual abuse claims and apologizes, promising to pay more compensation than legally required. Higashiyama Noriyuki is named as president, but Julie Fujishima remains as a director. Major corporations move to cancel advertisements using Johnny’s stars.
September 12 Niinami Takeshi, the head of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives and president of Suntory, says that it is very doubtful whether Johnny and Associates sincerely regrets its actions, and that using its stars in advertising would be to condone child abuse and would draw international condemnation.
September 27 NHK announces that it will not newly request Johnny’s performers for appearances for the time being.
October 2 President Higashiyama Noriyuki announces at a press conference that Johnny and Associates will change its name and be dissolved after compensation is complete, and that a new agency will be formed to represent its performers.

Created by based on the independent report at Johnny and Associates, court materials, and media reports.

(Originally published in Japanese on October 14, 2023. Banner photo: From left, Johnny’s Island President Inohara Yoshihiko, Johnny and Associates President Higashiyama Noriyuki, and former President Julie Fujishima at a press conference in Tokyo on September 7, 2023. © Kazuki Oishi/Sipa USA via Reuters.)

music television sexual abuse Johnny Kitagawa