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Johnny Kitagawa: J-pop founder who faced decades of sexual abuse allegations

Few photos exist of Johnny Kitagawa, but his face remains ever present in Japan (Picture: Alamy)
Few photos exist of Johnny Kitagawa, but his face remains ever present in Japan (Picture: Alamy)

A new BBC documentary will premiere tonight (March 7) detailing the sexual abuse committed against many young boys by Johnny Kitagawa, the founder of J-pop.

Predator: The Secret Scandal Of J-Pop follows journalist Mobeen Azhar in Japan as he investigates Kitagawa’s history of abuse, speaking with former trainees under the late talent manager’s care about their experiences at his agency, Johnny & Associates, known colloquially as Johnny’s.

“When I first started looking at this story in 2019, it struck me that this seemed to be an open secret or a footnote in Japanese pop culture history,” Azhar told Rolling Stone UK. “That seemed really strange to me – we’re used to hearing these stories where there’s whispers and rumours, but perhaps not when there’s been libel action, and it’s been upheld in court that someone was having sex with minors as part of their company.”

Kitagawa founded the company in 1962, creating the genre of J-pop and idol culture in Japan. With Johnny & Associates, he pioneered the idol trainee system that is still used in J-pop, K-pop and beyond, coaching young boys to become singers, dancers and actors. Throughout his career, he launched superstar boybands, including Arashi, SMAP, KAT-TUN, Hey! Say! JUMP, and many more.

When the Johnny’s founder died in 2019, his death made national headlines. A tribute concert featuring more than 150 of his artists was held at Tokyo Dome, the biggest concert venue in Japan, while the country’s then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a message of condolence. Even in death, Kitagawa’s presence can be seen and felt across Japan, with his artists and idols’ faces on billboards, merchandise and more at every corner.

But behind the nationwide adulation, Kitagawa’s life was also at the centre of extensive sexual abuse allegations.

“He transcends the boybands in a lot of ways,” Azhar said. “You cannot underestimate the very extreme status and very high status that Johnny Kitagawa inhabits within Japanese culture, and that’s why it’s very difficult for a whole section of society – including a lot of the fans – to acknowledge that he was a predator and a paedophile and that he exploited many of the young boys within his company.”

In 1988, Koji Kita – a former member of the boyband Four Leaves – published claims that Kitagawa had made sexual advances on the young boys under contract Johnny’s in his book, To Hikaru Genji. Nearly a decade later, Junya Hiramoto, another former Johnny’s junior – the name for those in the trainee system – alleged he had witnessed Kitagawa force another boy into sexual intercourse. Further allegations were published in the magazine Shukan Bunshun in 1999, detailing the accounts of a dozen juniors who had witnessed or experienced sexual abuse by Kitagawa.

Kitagawa sued Shukan Bunshun for libel, and in 2002, it was ruled that the magazine had defamed him. However, a year later, the Tokyo High Court partially reversed that decision following an appeal by the publication, only ruling claims that Kitagawa had allowed his trainees to drink alcohol and smoke constituted defamation. Although the accounts of sexual abuse were deemed trustworthy and accurate, there was little-to-no coverage of the case within Japanese media, and the country’s authorities did not open a criminal case against Kitagawa.

Azhar cites the culture of politeness in Japan and not wanting to rock the boat as one factor in the victims’ stories not being treated with the gravity they might be elsewhere. The prejudice within Japanese society regarding sexuality is also “hugely relevant”, he said.

“There’s a massive amount of prejudice about any sexual orientation that veers from heteronormative or cisgender,” he explained. “As a result of that, there’s this idea that whether you’re gay or you experienced sex with an older man who abused you, that’s seen as very similar territory, and I think that’s really grotesquely unhealthy.”

Change will be necessary to bring justice to the survivors and victims of Kitagawa’s alleged crimes. In the documentary, Azhar repeatedly attempts to interview somebody at Johnny’s, only to be shut down each time. At the end of the film, the agency finally shares a statement that claims it is “working to establish highly transparent organisational structures” that will be announced this year. Azhar is not convinced that it will follow through on its vague assurances.

“In no way does the statement from Johnny & Associates engage [with the accounts of abuse] in a meaningful way, so I don’t think they’re planning on changing anything,” he said. “If they are, that isn’t reflected in those statements. You have to acknowledge that [current CEO] Julie Fujishima is Johnny Kitagawa’s niece, and so, I personally think it is entirely morally bankrupt that there are people that continue to benefit from the exploitation of these men financially.

“The only way society moves on is when there’s a critical mass of people who are angry enough or outraged to say, ‘Enough is enough’. If that conversation within Japan, which has now started to take off, continues, then I think the company will be forced to take action, and things will change.”

Although Predator: The Secret Scandal Of J-Pop will only air for the first time tonight, it is already making an impact in Japan. When the BBC released some information about the documentary last week, a conversation around Kitagawa and his abuse was sparked – one which Azhar hopes will continue and contribute to change.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight, but I do think that process of change is happening very, very slowly,” he said. “When we started making this film, everyone [in Japan] said to us over and over again, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this, don’t bother – no one’s gonna speak to you’. But since the news about this documentary broke in Japan, it’s gone viral, and a whole bunch of people have reached out to me and said, ‘I’ve had similar experiences [with Kitagawa] I can talk to you about’.

“The fact we’re now in a place where there is truly a national conversation about it can only be a really good and progressive thing.”

Predator: The Secret Scandal of J-Pop airs tonight at 9PM on BBC Two.