Japanese talent agency Johnny & Associates, engulfed in one of the largest sexual abuse scandals of the post-#MeToo era, said at a press conference in Tokyo Monday it would change its name and split into two companies.
The existing company will be renamed Smile-Up and tasked exclusively with providing compensation to the hundreds of sexual abuse victims of late company founder Johnny Kitagawa, who died in July 2019 at age 87. A new, as yet unnamed entity will be established to manage the talent agency’s current roster of performers. 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 for a reckoning.
An external investigative committee set up by the agency says it had received reports of abuse from 478 of Kitagawa’s victims as of Sept. 30, with 325 of them seeking compensation. Some of the victims who have spoken out publicly have alleged that the abuse occurred over one hundred times and began when they were elementary school-aged.
“We would like to properly create a framework that stands alongside the victims,” Noriyuki Higashiyama, the current president of Johnny & Associates (locally known as just Johnny’s), said at the Tokyo press conference.
But some members of an advocacy group made up of victims — calling itself the “Johnny’s Sexual Assault Victims Association” (JSAVA) — were sharply critical of the plans unveiled Monday.
Shinichi Kimura, a former dancer and singer who has alleged he was assaulted at the age of 18 by Kitagawa in the mid-1990s, said it was inappropriate for Johnny’s to simply create a new entity to house its business.
“Talent should be transferred to a totally different agency and Johnny’s entertainment activities should be discontinued altogether,” Kimura told the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper.
Others have slammed the company’s rebranding effort.
“Naming the company for compensation Smile Up is like asking people to wear white to a funeral. It’s ridiculing the victims,” said a JSAVA member and alleged victim who chose to remain anonymous by using the pseudonym “Izumi.”
Johnny’s first acknowledged and apologized for the enormous abuses committed by Kitagawa at a press conference on Sept. 7. Julie Keiko Fujishima, Kitagawa’s niece and Johnny’s former president, tearfully resigned and was replaced by Higashiyama, who has been employed by the agency since 1979. The company insisted at the time that it would remain a going concern in the Japanese entertainment world and wouldn’t be changing its name, sparking instant backlash.
The incoming 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 wake of the September press briefing. Major Japanese advertisers like Asahi Group Holdings and Nissan said they would no longer use Johnny’s performers in their TV commercials, while national broadcaster NHK promised to not employ the agency’s performers until the company had implemented compensation to past victims.
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 power harassment in his youth. He also acknowledged that the company’s response at the September press conference had been inadequate.
He said: “That was indeed criticized as being inward-looking. We have since considered what a fresh 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, ahead of the K-pop wave that would later conquer the world. A ruthless businessman, he was known for his masterful manipulation of Tokyo’s top media and entertainment conglomerates, leveraging his talent’s star power to command top fees and total obedience over how he and his company were covered. Upon Kitagawa’s death, then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe offered condolences.
For decades, however, talk of Kitagawa using his agency to sexually prey upon the young boys and men in his employ was considered an open secret across the Japanese entertainment world. The earliest known legal claims against Kitagawa date back to 1965, when the parents of four boys attempted 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 abuse both experienced and witnessed. Then, in 1999, a local tabloid published a 10-part series detailing graphic accounts of rape by Kitagawa from a dozen victims. Kitagawa proceeded to sue the publisher for libel and won damages, but the decision was later overturned, with the Tokyo High Court concluding that the abuse allegations were “largely true.” Nonetheless, Japan’s mainstream media maintained near-total silence — even though the allegations involved the man behind some of the country’s very biggest pop stars, including idol groups like 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 started to cautiously cover the scandal.
Several weeks after the airing of the BBC’s documentary, Kauan Okamoto, a former member of Johnny’s trainee program for aspiring pop idols, Johnny’s Jr., joined the early public accusers by giving a press conference at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan detailing further allegations against the deceased media magnate.
Okamoto said he signed with the agency when he was 15 years old in 2012, and that he was subsequently abused by Kitagawa about 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 put up with the abuse, Okamoto said, “In the first place, the boys who could make their debuts at Johnny’s were Mr. Johnny’s favorites. Everybody understood that a word from Mr. Johnny dictates everything.” He also said that he had heard from other Johnny’s Jr. boys, “If you don’t go to [Kitagawa’s] mansion, you won’t become a star.”
In August, a working group from the U.N. Human Rights Council investigated the situation and issued a report concluding that Kitagawa had abused hundreds of boys and that the agency he founded had not taken responsibility for the crimes. Dozens of other victims have since joined Okamoto in coming forward publicly (Johnny’s Sexual Assault Victims Association has published a partial list of accusers, including the time period and age at which the abuse occurred).
Around that same time, a former veteran Johnny’s staffer told local tabloid Shukan Bunshun — the same outlet that Kitagawa sued 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 that he could groom boys on their way to making their [showbiz] debut,” he said.