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Japanese talent agency Johnny & Associates, embroiled in one of the biggest sexual abuse scandals of the post-#MeToo era, announced at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday that it would change its name and split into two companies.
The existing company will be renamed Smile-Up and will be tasked solely with compensating the hundreds of sexual abuse victims of the company’s late founder Johnny Kitagawa, who died in July 2019 at the age of 87. A new, as yet unnamed unit will be founded to manage the talent agency’s current list of artists. The company said it would ask its fan club members to come up with a name for the new agency.
The move comes after years of cover-ups and denials by Johnny & Associates and amid increasing pressure in Japan and worldwide for accountability.
An external investigative committee set up by the agency said it had received reports of abuse from 478 Kitagawa victims as of September 30, 325 of whom requested compensation. Some of the victims who have spoken out publicly have claimed that the abuse occurred over a hundred times and began as early as elementary school age.
“We want to create an appropriate framework to support the victims,” said Noriyuki Higashiyama, current president of Johnny & Associates (locally known as Johnny’s), at the press conference in Tokyo.
But some members of a victims’ advocacy group called the Johnny’s Sexual Assault Victims Association (JSAVA) voiced sharp criticism of the plans unveiled on Monday.
Shinichi Kimura, a former dancer and singer who claims he was attacked by Kitagawa in the mid-1990s when he was 18, said it was inappropriate for Johnny’s to simply create a new entity to house its business.
“Talent should be transferred to a completely different agency and Johnny’s entertainment activities should be stopped altogether,” Kimura told the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper.
Others criticized the company’s rebranding efforts.
“Calling the company Smile Up for compensation is like asking people to wear white to a funeral. “It ridicules the victims,” said a JSAVA member and alleged victim who wished to remain anonymous and used the pseudonym “Izumi.”
At a press conference on September 7, Johnny acknowledged and apologized for the first time for the enormous abuses committed by Kitagawa. Julie Keiko Fujishima, Kitagawa’s niece and former president of Johnny, resigned in tears and was replaced by Higashiyama, who has been with the agency since 1979. The company insisted at the time that it would continue to exist in the Japanese entertainment world and not change its name, sparking immediate backlash.
(LR) Yoshihiko Inohara, president of Johnnys’ Island, Noriyuki Higashiyama, actor and new president of Johnny & Associates Inc., Julie Keiko Fujishima, outgoing president of Johnny & Associates Inc., and attorney Hiroshi Kimeda attend a press conference at the Palace Hotel Part Tokyo on September 7, 2023. Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
New President Higashiyama was also accused of sexually abusing young boys during his long tenure at Johnny’s. When asked about the claims in September, he said: “I don’t remember exactly. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t. I have a hard time remembering.”
Public pressure on the company increased significantly after the September press conference. Major Japanese advertisers such as Asahi Group Holdings and Nissan said they would no longer use Johnny’s artists in their television commercials, while national broadcaster NHK promised not to employ the agency’s artists until the company paid compensation for previous victims.
At Monday’s press conference, Higashiyama more clearly denied the sexual abuse allegations against him, but added that he may have committed abuse of power in his youth. He also acknowledged that the company’s response at the September press conference was inadequate.
He said: “This has actually been criticized as being inward-looking. Since then we have thought about what a new beginning would mean.”
Higashiyama said the company would begin compensating victims in November. Once all victims are compensated, Smile Up will be dissolved, he said.
By the time Kitagawa died of a stroke in 2019, he was a national institution in Japan, considered a pioneer of the J-pop boy band entertainment model that swept Asia in the 1980s and 1990s, before the K-pop wave that later swept Japan World. A ruthless businessman, he was known for his masterful manipulation of Tokyo’s top media and entertainment conglomerates, using the star power of his talent to command premium fees and complete obedience to coverage of him and his company. After Kitagawa’s death, then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe expressed his condolences.
For decades, however, talk of Kitagawa using his agency to sexually exploit the boys and men in his employ was an open secret in the Japanese entertainment world. The earliest known legal claims against Kitagawa date back to 1965, when the parents of four boys tried to sue him for sexual advances toward their children. In the late 1980s and 1990s, several books written by former Johnny’s stars were published that included accounts of abuse experienced and witnessed. Then, in 1999, a local tabloid published a 10-part series detailing Kitagawa rapes by a dozen victims. Kitagawa then sued the publisher for libel and won damages, but the decision was later overturned and the Tokyo High Court concluded that the abuse allegations were “largely true.” Yet Japan’s mainstream media remained almost entirely silent – even though the allegations implicated the man behind some of the country’s biggest pop stars, including idol groups such as SMAP, Shonentai, Arashi and Travis Japan.
It wasn’t until the BBC aired an in-depth documentary examining the allegations this March – “Predator: The Secret Scandal of J-Pop” – that victims began to speak out publicly and Japanese media began cautiously reporting on the scandal.
A few weeks after the BBC documentary aired, Kauan Okamoto, a former member of Johnny’s aspiring pop idol trainee program Johnny’s Jr., joined the first public accusers by giving a press conference at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan The late media tycoon presented further allegations against him.
Former Johnny’s Jr. member Kauan Okamoto speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on September 8, 2023. Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
Okamoto said he signed with the agency in 2012 at the age of 15 and was subsequently abused by Kitagawa about 15 to 20 times over the next four years. He also said he saw Kitagawa sexually abuse three of his fellow teenage interns.
According to local press reports, when asked why the boys put up with the abuse, Okamoto replied: “First, the boys who were able to make their debut at Johnny’s were Mr. Johnny’s favorites.” Everyone understood that a word from Mr. Johnny meant everything dictated.” He also said that he heard from other guys at Johnny’s Jr., “If you don’t go [Kitagawa’s] Villa, you won’t become a star.
In August, a U.N. Human Rights Council working group investigated the situation and released a report that concluded that Kitagawa had abused hundreds of boys and that the agency he founded had not accepted responsibility for the crimes. Dozens of other victims have since come forward publicly along with Okamoto (Johnny’s Sexual Assault Victims Association has released a partial list of accusers, including the time period and age at which the abuse occurred).
Around the same time, a former Johnny’s employee, a veteran, told local tabloid Shukan Bunshun – the same outlet that sued Kitagawa in the 1990s – that the situation was “more than just a case of the president having one Idol Empire is a sexual predator.”
“This was a sexual abuser who created an idol empire just to accompany boys on the path to becoming their idol [showbiz] Debut,” he said.