Entertainment News

Johnny Kitagawa: The mogul who defined and controlled Japan's entertainment industry

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Few in the history of Japan’s entertainment industry have wielded more power than talent manager Johnny Kitagawa.

Kitagawa primarily flexed this influence through Johnny & Associates Inc., an agency he founded in 1962 that would go on to become one of the most powerful entertainment companies in the country.

He created massively successful pop groups such as SMAP, Arashi and Kat-tun, among others, outfits that carried cultural significance beyond song and dance. He used his standing in the industry as a way to shield his artists from scrutiny and scandal, and his own influence on the media went so far as to protect him when allegations of child abuse and sexual exploitation were raised against him by former performers.

Kitagawa, who died of a stroke Tuesday night at 87, lorded over pop culture, shaping nearly everything about it that’s known today — both good and bad. He embodied an old-school approach to entertainment and, by 2019, many of his strategies have become global standards.

Numbers alone underline Kitagawa’s legacy. The groups he created and managed have lived at the top of the Oricon singles and album charts since the late 1980s, with many releases moving hundreds of thousands of units each time. Guinness World Records recognized Kitagawa as being the producer behind the most No. 1 singles in world history in 2011.

Johnny’s groups, however, have been far more omnipresent than sales alone can convey. They have frequently appeared on TV shows and in magazines, and individual performers haven’t been restricted to music but groomed to also be actors and television personalities. Kitagawa’s artists are more brands than bands, highlighted best by the media monopoly held by SMAP in the ’90s and Arashi in the 2000s.

“I’m not very interested in records,” Kitagawa told Billboard Magazine in a rare interview in 1996. “Once you release a record, you have to sell that record. You have to push one song only. You can’t think of anything else. It’s not good for the artist.”

The idea of “idols” being performers who are capable of dipping into all forms of media has existed since the ’70s, but Johnny’s groups turned it into the norm, and the practice persists today.

From his start in the 1960s, Kitagawa realized that music was just a part of something bigger. He identified attractive men and asked them to dance while singing — a radical idea at the time. Kitagawa had a defined vision of what made a great entertainer, and it was an idea he stuck with, despite not experiencing much success until the 1980s.

Once the world started paying attention to his vision, however, he didn’t let go. Johnny & Associates developed a dedicated system to create idols that included years of training in dancing, singing and acting.

This formula produced J-pop’s most successful male groups, outfits who connected with a fan base primarily consisting of young women who could project their own desires onto the performers. Genuine musical quality was a secondary concern, if even that. Kitagawa wasn’t interested in artistry, but entertainment.

He also understood that it was important to control the media. The popularity of Johnny’s idols meant TV shows, magazines and other entertainment platforms wanted to use them in order to attract their fans. Kitagawa realized he held the power in this relationship, and the agency wouldn’t let its groups go on shows that featured competing boy bands or appear in the pages of any publication that was critical of his performers.

This included Shukan Bunshun, which published a series detailing allegations of abuse and sexual assault by Kitagawa made by several members of his agency in 1999. Apart from the weekly, no Japanese media covered the scandal or eventual court case, and Kitagawa was never formally charged on the basis of the allegations.

Johnny & Associates controls every aspect of its business, including portrait rights, and Kitagawa shunned realms where control wasn’t possible — such as the internet, which the agency’s acts largely eschewed until recently.

Kitagawa understood pop perfectly, and the global music industry of 2019 features plenty of the same ideas he pushed to the forefront in Japan. His training system inspired Korean companies in the 1990s — Lee Soo-man, founder of SM Entertainment, has said he was inspired by it — and years of fine tuning has helped turn the industry into an international force.

Media outlets still crave access and artists around the planet now know they hold the power in this regard — though, critically, performers have more say. Boy bands continue to charm millions with all-around talent, with music being just one small part of the overall package.

Even after his death was announced, Kitagawa’s control came across on morning shows in Japan, which focused exclusively on his business acumen and even featured Johnny’s performers who had been regulars on these shows rhapsodizing about him, giving the programs the feel of a memorial service.

The world where Kitagawa could control everything, however, has gone, and Japanese netizens mocked the funeral-like atmosphere of the morning shows on Tuesday.

“Why do they only act this way for Johnny?” one incensed user wrote on the 2chan web forum.

Many also focused on the accusations of sexual assault and child abuse. These issues, long overlooked by traditional media in Japan, are now central to the conversation in the wake of the entertainment mogul’s death. Kitagawa’s control of the entertainment industry defines his legacy, but the rest now looks as if it’s out of his hands.