What do the most popular male celebrity in Japan and a star of Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” have in common?

Aside from being handsome, 35-year-old SMAP heartthrob Takuya Kimura and actor Kazunari Ninomiya, the 25-year-old who played a young soldier in Eastwood’s film, belong to the same male talent agency, Johnny and Associates, named after founder Johnny Hiromu Kitagawa.

These “Johnnies,” who typically start their careers as teenagers and attempt to climb the ladder to stardom, are practically indispensable to the Japanese entertainment industry.

Over the past 40 years, the agency has turned out numerous singing and dancing boy groups, winning the hearts of countless female fans. Despite their omnipresence in the media, however, details on the performers are not so easy to come by, as the agency tightly controls all information.

Following are basic questions and answers on the Johnnies.

What’s the origin of the agency?

Kitagawa, now 77, set up the agency in 1962. According to the book “Johnny Kitagawa no Senryaku to Senjutsu” (“Strategy and Tactics of Johnny Kitagawa”) by journalist Hiroshi Kosuga, Kitagawa was born in Los Angeles to Japanese parents who went to the United States to spread Buddhism. After serving in the U.S. military in the Korean War in 1952, Kitagawa came to Japan, where he worked as an administrative staffer for the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

According to the book, at one point Kitagawa took four boys from a baseball team he had set up to see the film “West Side Story.” Kitagawa has claimed it was this film that gave him the idea of starting a business to produce and promote singing and dancing boy groups.

The first group launched by the agency in 1962 was four teens known as The Johnnies. One of the four, Osami Iino, is currently an actor in the Shiki Theatre Company.

Who are some of the current idols that belong to the agency?

The most well-known group may be SMAP, made up of Kimura, Masahiro Nakai, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Shingo Katori and Goro Inagaki, who debuted around the age of 15. They are now around 35 years old.

Actor Ninomiya is a member of another five-man group, Arashi, who also made their debut around the age of 15. Other groups include TOKIO, Kinki Kids, Tackey and Tsubasa, KAT-TUN, NEWS and Kan Jani 8. The youngest are the 10-member Hey! Say! Jump!, whose average age is 17.

Masahiko Kondo, a 44-year-old former top idol in the 1980s, debuted as a solo artist in his teens and still remains with the agency.

Actor Masahiro Motoki, 43, who played a leading role in the Oscar-winning movie “Okuribito” (“Departures”), is no longer a member, but he made his debut in 1982 with the popular Johnny’s trio Shibugakitai.

How does one join the agency?

Renowned entertainment reporter Masaru Nashimoto says applicants usually send their resume to the Johnny’s fan club, and those who pass the first screening get an interview with agency officials.

Apparently, there is no age limit to apply, but an applicant has to be old enough to take trains and come to lessons alone, Nashimoto added.

What is unique about the business strategy of the agency?

Once they are accepted by the talent agency, the teenagers receive dance and singing training, and begin their careers as background dancers for senior members. At this stage they are usually categorized as “Johnny’s Juniors.”

Typically, the agency forms a group from these junior members, supplying a name and promoting them in magazines and on TV. The group will then move on to release a CD.

It’s not only about singing and dancing, however. Nashimoto said that Johnny’s idols are also expected to act, such as doing comedic sketches on variety shows. Johnny’s members are first and foremost “idols” and not “stars,” Nashimoto said, therefore, the agency tries the boys out in various entertainment genres to discover their particular talents.

Eventually, some members will start working individually while continuing to perform with a group.

Because SMAP members are now in their 30s and well beyond the “idol” stage, Nashimoto argues that Kimura as well as others can transcend that limitation by participating in short comedies and movies or becoming TV presenters.

Why are pictures of Johnny’s idols hard to find, especially on the Web?

According to Nashimoto, it is because the agency exercises strict control of all information.

Photographs of the members are not placed on the agency’s official Web site. Even on an official Web site of a movie or TV drama that Johnny’s members are starring in, their silhouette is posted instead of a photograph.

Is it true there was a lawsuit involving the agency?

In 1999, weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun ran a series of articles on Kitagawa’s supposed sexual exploitation of the boys in the agency. They also wrote that some underage members were allegedly forced to drink and smoke. The agency filed a damages lawsuit against the publisher.

In 2002, the Tokyo District Court ordered the publisher to pay ¥8.8 million in damages to the agency. However, the Tokyo High Court in 2003 reduced the amount of compensation to ¥1.2 million, ruling that the article on sexual harassment was based on fact, while other parts, including the drinking and smoking, were defamatory, according to news reports.

Are Johnny’s idols popular outside Japan?

Yes, they are gaining popularity especially in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where Japanese TV dramas with Johnnies are widely viewed.

Kimura especially stole women’s hearts in Hong Kong when his TV drama “Long Vacation” came out, in pirated VCD form, in 1997, writes Lisa Leung, associate professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

Japanese entertainment magazines are widely available at newsstands in Hong Kong. Some fans even travel all the way to Japan to go to a Johnny’s idols concert, a fan in Hong Kong said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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