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Brush up on pop idol feuds before the exam

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Last month, Meiji University’s law department announced it would offer a social-psychology course on the boy band Arashi. The syllabus includes lectures about the group’s individual members; its work in TV dramas and advertising; and the “culture of Johnny’s Jimusho,” Arashi’s powerful production company. At the end of the semester there will be a test, in case you thought this was a joke.

Pop culture is a legitimate subject for scholarly study, and considering the impact Johnny & Associates has had on Japanese show business and, by extension, society, the company’s “product” is ripe for academic assessment. However, according to the course description class materials are based primarily on Arashi promotional videos and other visual aids featuring the group, and Johnny’s is notorious for controlling its exclusively male charges’ images. Will the class be able to talk about all aspects of the Johnny’s juggernaut, including controversies that have occasionally surfaced in the tabloid media regarding the way founder and CEO Johnny Kitagawa runs his ship?

If the Meiji course is really going to talk about the influence of Johnny’s on culture, it would be remiss if it didn’t cover how the company has dominated the TV industry for the past two decades. Whoever is putting together the reading material would do well to include articles from last week’s issue of Shukan Bunshun, always Johnny’s Jimusho’s most dogged critic, and the web magazine Real Live about the end of TBS’s long-running morning information program, “Hanamaru Market,” and its replacement “Ippuku,” which was launched March 31. Ever since it began in 1995, the emcee of “Hanamaru” was Hirohide Yakumaru, who until 1990 belonged to Johnny’s as part of the idol trio Shibugakitai. The emcee of “Ippuku” is Taichi Kokubun, who is still managed by Johnny’s as part of the boy band Tokio. Real Live claims that the transition marks a victory for Johnny’s, which set out to “destroy Yakumaru,” but that’s difficult to prove.

A common subject of discussion among Johnny’s watchers is the change in management strategy that occurred in the early ’90s. Before then, Johnny’s operated along the same lines as other idol-oriented talent agencies: work your product ceaselessly until age makes them unattractive to their target teenage demographic and then dismiss them. Almost all Johnny’s acts were retired by the time members reached their mid-20s. In most cases, these acts vanished from show business with little or no trace. Those who soldiered on usually had to put up with several years of being blackballed before finding steady work, a phenomenon that is general throughout show business for acts who leave the production companies that made them. One exception was Hiromi Go, a major solo act in the late ’70s who quit Johnny’s and immediately found work doing the same thing for another agency. His lack of obstacles was a function of Go’s huge popularity and Johnny’s relative lack of pull at the time.

Shibugakitai split in 1989. According to various Internet discussion groups, the three members never had a good relationship, and though they were popular in their day, they were not as viscerally exciting as another Johnny’s trio, Shonentai, which still belongs to Johnny’s though they rarely perform together any more. One member of Shibugakitai, Masahiro Motoki, became a successful actor and is now one of Japan’s most reliable movie stars. Yakumaru remained in the public eye in a more traditional way, by marrying another former idol singer, Hidemi Ishikawa, after he got her pregnant. He struggled for six years because of the unofficial blacklist, and then started getting TV hosting jobs, an area Johnny’s never paid attention to so producers didn’t feel they would offend the agency if they hired Yakumaru as emcee. Eventually, he landed the “Hanamaru” gig and it became a hit. Every other TV network, including NHK’s, came up with a copycat program.

Johnny’s took note, because television music showcases, which is where its acts made their mark, ended when the 1980s did. It must have been obvious to Kitagawa that continued growth would depend on expanding beyond Johnny’s Jimusho’s core music-production business, and Yakumaru proved that ex-idols could make the transition. So Johnny’s started cultivating its new acts—SMAP, Kinki Kids, Tokio—to do more than sing and dance. They were given appealing and distinctive public personas, but it wasn’t enough that they be guests on all the variety shows that were springing up. They had to be hosts, or, at the very least, “special guests,” which means they had to be funny and gregarious.

The Johnny’s member who has had the most success in this regard is SMAP’s Masahiro Nakai, who hosts several weekly variety shows and was touted as the most likely successor for whatever was going to replace Fuji TV’s long-running noontime show “Waratte Ii Tomo” after it went off the air in April, but according to Cyzo magazine Johnny’s made too many conditions and Fuji didn’t want to pay Nakai’s price. Bunshun says Nakai didn’t want the job anyway because he’s already overworked.

In fact, Johnny’s may have been too successful in the emcee trade. Had Nakai taken the Fuji gig he would have been competing with compatriots Kanjani 8, who are regulars on a Nippon TV series in the same time slot. Also, Kokubun’s “Ippuku” runs up against NHK’s highly rated “Asaichi,” which is hosted by Yoshihiko Inohara of V6, another Johnny’s boy band. The ratings for “Ippuku” have been dismal.

The upshot is that Johnny’s acts no longer retire when they turn 25, and now dominate TV. The irony is that Yakumaru pointed the way, but he had to leave the stable first. He was reportedly making up to ¥50 million a year on “Hanamaru,” but now he’s earning much less at TV Tokyo and is supposedly behind on his house payments. If Johnny’s was out to destroy him, they succeeded, but more likely he was just a victim of show biz entropy, a fact of life that Johnny Kitagawa understands all too well.