Japanese talent agency Johnny & Associates, embroiled in one of the biggest sex abuse scandals of the post-#MeToo era, said 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 charged exclusively with providing compensation to the hundreds of sexual abuse victims of late founder Johnny Kitagawa, who passed away in July 2019 at the age of 87. A new, as yet unnamed entity will be created to manage it. the talent agency’s current selection of artists. The company said it will ask its fan club members to come up with the name for the new agency.
The move comes after years of cover-ups and denials by Johnny & Associates and amid mounting pressure within Japan and globally to settle the score.
An external investigative committee set up by the agency said it had received reports of abuse from 478 Kitagawa victims as of September 30, with 325 seeking compensation. Some of the victims who have spoken out publicly have alleged that the abuse occurred more than a hundred times and began when they were in elementary school.
“We would like to create a framework that stands with the victims,” Noriyuki Higashiyama, current president of Johnny & Associates (known locally as Johnny’s), said at the press conference in Tokyo.
But some members of a victims advocacy group – calling itself the “Johnny’s Sexual Assault Victims Association” (JSAVA) – were sharply critical of the plans unveiled on Monday.
Shinichi Kimura, a former dancer and singer who claimed he was assaulted by Kitagawa in the mid-1990s at the age of 18, said it was inappropriate for Johnny’s to simply create a new entity to house his business.
“Talent should be transferred to a completely different agency and Johnny’s entertainment activities should be stopped altogether,” Kimura told the station. Tokyo Shimbun newspaper.
Others have dismissed the company’s rebranding efforts.
“Naming the company to compensate for Smile Up is like asking people to wear white to a funeral. It makes fun of the victims,” said a JSAVA member and alleged victim who chose to remain anonymous using the pseudonym “Izumi.”
Johnny’s acknowledged and apologized for the first time for the enormous wrongs committed by Kitagawa during a press conference on September 7. Julie Keiko Fujishima, Kitagawa’s niece and Johnny’s former president, 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 remain a going concern in the Japanese entertainment world and that it would not change its name, which would immediately lead to backlash.
New President Higashiyama has also faced allegations that he too sexually abused young boys during his long tenure at Johnny’s. When asked about the claims in September, he said: “I don’t remember clearly. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t. I have trouble remembering.”
Public pressure on the company escalated significantly in the aftermath of 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 TV commercials, while national broadcaster NHK pledged not to employ the agency’s artists until the company implemented compensation for victims from the past.
At the press conference on Monday, Higashiyama more directly denied the sexual abuse allegations against him, but added that he may have committed acts of intimidation in his youth. He also acknowledged that the company’s response to the September press conference had been inadequate.
He said: “That was indeed criticized as being inward-looking. Since then we have been thinking about what a new start would entail.”
Higashiyama said the company will begin providing compensation to victims in November. Once all victims have been compensated, Smile Up will be disbanded, he said.
When Kitagawa died of a stroke in 2019, he was a national institution in Japan, credited with pioneering the J-pop boy band model of entertainment that swept Asia in the 1980s and 1990s, before the K-pop wave that later would conquer the world. world. A ruthless businessman, he was known for his masterful manipulation of Tokyo’s major media and entertainment conglomerates, leveraging the star power of his talent to extract high fees and total obedience to the way he and his company operated in were being watched. After Kitagawa’s death, then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe offered his condolences.
However, for decades, talk of Kitagawa using his agency to sexually prey on the young boys and men in his employ was considered 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 making sexual advances toward their children. A number of books written by former Johnny’s stars were later published in the late 1980s and 1990s containing accounts of both experienced and perceived abuse. Then, in 1999, a local tabloid published a ten-part series detailing Kitagawa’s rape of a dozen victims. Kitagawa sued the publisher for defamation and won damages, but the decision was later overturned, with the Tokyo High Court concluding that the abuse allegations were “substantially true.” Nevertheless, Japan’s mainstream media maintained a near-total silence — even though the allegations involved the man behind some of the country’s biggest pop stars, including idol groups like SMAP, Shonentai, Arashi and Travis Japan.
It wasn’t until the BBC broadcast an in-depth documentary investigating the allegations in March – Predator: J-pop’s Secret Scandal – that the victims began to speak out publicly and that the Japanese media began to cover the scandal cautiously.
A few weeks after the BBC documentary aired, Kauan Okamoto, a former member of Johnny’s internship program for aspiring pop idols, Johnny’s Jr., joined the first public prosecutors by giving a press conference at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan, in which further accusations against the late media mogul.
Okamoto said he signed with the agency in 2012 at the age of 15 and was subsequently abused by Kitagawa 15 to 20 times over the next four years. He also said he saw Kitagawa sexually assault three of his fellow teenage trainees.
According to local press reports, when asked why the boys tolerated the abuse, Okamoto said, “First of all, 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 dictates everything.” He also said he heard from other Johnny’s Jr. guys, “If you don’t go to (Kitagawa’s) mansion, you’re not going to be a star.”
In August, a UN Human Rights Council working group investigated the situation and released a report concluding that Kitagawa had abused hundreds of boys and that the organization he founded had failed to take responsibility for the crimes. Dozens of other victims have since joined Okamoto in speaking out publicly (Johnny’s Sexual Assault Victims Association announced). published a partial list of the accusers, including the period and age at which the abuse occurred).
Around the same time, a former veteran Johnny’s staffer told the local tabloid Shukan Bunshun – the same outlet that denounced Kitagawa in the 1990s – that the situation was “more than a case of the president of an idol empire being a sexual predator.”
“This was a sexual abuser who created an idol empire just so he could groom boys on their way to their (showbiz) debut,” he said.