Yesterday BBC News posted an explosive article on the secret world of Japan’s male idol industry, detailing the abuse some members of the famous Johnny & Associates talent agency were forced to take if they wanted to become one of Japan’s top idols. The expose about Johnny’s idols was interesting for several reasons, in part because it can tell us a lot about the limitations of the free press in modern Japan.
What Did the Article Say About Johnny Kitagawa?
The article outlined the absolute awe that Johnny Kitagawa, founder of the legendary Johnny & Associates talent agency, is regarded with in Japan. Johnny is responsible for founding virtually all of the top boy bands in Japan, from Hikaru Genji to SMAP to TOKIO to V6 to KinKi Kids to Arashi…pretty much any Japanese male idol group that matters. It’s as if one man could produce a band as important as BTS is to South Korea, but do it repeatedly over the course of his life. Johnny Kitagawa is in the Guinness Book for these achievements.
What are the top scandals in the Japanese media? Read my blog post here!
But despite the genius Johnny Kitagawa had for spotting potential in young tarento — a catch-all term for any singer, actor or comedian appearing on television — the man had a dark side, which was making sexual advances on his underage idols. It was an open secret that if you wanted to be a big star with Johnny’s & Associates, you might need to endure the attentions of Johnny Kitagawa himself. “[The other boys] all told me, ‘You have to put up with it or you won’t succeed,'” one unnamed boy is quoted as saying, in the BBC article.
When allegations were made, first by former Four Leaves member Koji Kita and later by others, it must have caused a huge media frenzy, as news agencies rushed to report on the downfall of Japan’s most famous music producer, right? Wrong, unfortunately. Negative coverage by any major news outlet was kept to a bare minimum.
Japan’s media world — called mass-komi, from “mass communications” — is controlled by several large players, with The Yomiuri Group, TV Asahi Network, and Tokyo Broadcasting System owning the major newspapers and TV networks. Because of the importance of Johnny’s idols to their bottom line, media companies have been unwilling to report any negative news about the company, to avoid losing access to the top stars.
Johnny’s Created the Modern Asian Boy Band
Johnny Kitagawa was born in 1931 in Los Angeles and bounced between Japan and California several times. After the war, he worked for the U.S. military doing various jobs thanks to his bilingualism, and learned the mechanics of managing live stage events. One day he was walking through Yoyogi Park in Tokyo when he encountered some attractive boys playing baseball. He recruited them into his first male idol band, modeling them after The Monkees. Over the decades he perfected his management skills, setting up a system called “Johnny’s Junior” to train up-and-coming idols in song and dance until they were ready for their debut.
But while hundreds flocked to Johnny’s “pretty boy factory” with dreams of becoming the next Hikaru Genji, many of them were required to endure oral sex and worse by Johnny Kitagawa, according to reports. I think I need some eye bleach.
What Can The BBC Article Tell Us About Media Self-Censorship in Japan?
On the one hand, Japan has a robust news media world, with newspapers, magazines and TV reporters covering the important topics of the day for Japanese consumers. I’ve often been impressed at news programs I’ve watched in which difficult topics were discussed earnestly, such as whether Japan’s special military relationship with the U.S. was right for Japan, or whether the country should ever consider acquiring nuclear weapons. There’s one show I like especially: Asa Made Nama Terebi, which locks Japanese politicians from various political parties in a room and has them debate important topics until morning.
As in the U.S., political bias in the media is a thing. Everyone knows that Yomiuri-associated news sources will be supportive of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democrat Party, while Asahi TV will be opposed to their policies.
There are some topics that are too hot for any media to report on. Here are some examples:
- Topics related to the Imperial Family are highly sensitive and subject to media self-censorship.
- News related to influential religious organizations are a touchy subject, too. Any reporting that the evangelical Sokka Gakkai Buddhist religion is affiliated with the Komeito political party will bring a swift response from powerful people. When former Prime Minister Abe was assassinated by a youth bitter about his mother’s fortune being swindled by the Unification
CultChurch founded by Sun Myung Moon, it took several days for the media to refer to the church directly, rather than as “a certain religious organization.”
- When Japan’s nuclear power industry was brought to its knees by the earthquake and tsunami of 3.11.11, there was a popular movement against nuclear power by Japanese citizens. But to their chagrin, the protesters found news reporting of their demonstrations in Japanese media to be sparse, presumably due to nervousness by the government and/or the nuclear power industry.
- Google Maps once added a cool feature that let you view historical maps overlaid on modern ones. Suddenly people could see where the eta (untouchables) lived during the Edo Period, and where their descends might still be living. This is a very taboo topic in Japanese society, and the media did not know how to report on this subject.
This tendency to self-censor on various topics causes frustration among Japanese citizens, who regularly mock the media with the label mass-gomi, or “Mass Garbage.” Japanese citizens often turn to translated versions of Western news sources like MSNBC and Yahoo News to read proper coverage.
How is Twitter Reacting to the Reporting on the Johnny’s Scandal?
I loaded Twitter to see if the BBC article had caused Johnny & Associates to become a trending keyword among Japanese users…but no dice. Most of the tweets I saw were puff pieces by Oricon News reporting on what variety shows would feature famous Johnny’s idols this week. But I saw a few reactions to the article:
— 橘田いずみロンドンに居ます！ (@izugyoza) March 7, 2023
This “voice actress and gyoza specialist” (two of my dream jobs) is eager to see if Japan’s news media will react to the BBC report…but there was nothing on the morning news programs or in the newspaper today.
— May_Roma めいろま 谷本真由美 (@May_Roma) March 7, 2023
BBC Reporter: Japanese investigative journalist: “Why wasn’t this reported in Japan?”
Japanese investigative journalist: “Because the Japanese media has profited in many ways from Johnny’s. I have been despairing for 23 years.”
— 立花孝志 ＮＨＫ党 党首 (@tachibanat) March 7, 2023
This is Takashi Tachibana, a Japanese politician in The Party to Protect The People Against NHK, who says, “Don’t pay subscription fees to NHK, which used talent from Johnny’s & Associates in the Kohaku Uta Gassen and other events, despite knowing about Johnny Kitagawa’s sexual violence!”
Thanks for reading this post about the scandal related to Johnny’s idols and Johnny Kitagawa. Do you have any thoughts on this issue? Is there anything so totally batshit in your country? Let us know in the comments below!
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