National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Working the politics of an idol marriage

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Last week the media obsessed over that story about the 17-year-old girl who was sued by a talent agency for violating the terms of her contract, which stipulated that while she worked for them as a member of an idol singing group she could not be involved in any romantic relationships.

When she was 15 it became known to the agency that she spent a night in a hotel with a male fan. The group subsequently disbanded and the agency sued the girl. The judge who heard the case sided with the company, saying that this is the way show business works: Devotees of certain figures will withhold their support and, by extension, money if those figures are deemed unapproachable as objects of desire. The girl’s actions harmed the agency’s profitability. Beyond the question of what sort of private life this judge leads was the undiscussed issue of whether the man who spent the night with the girl, a minor at the time, committed a felony.

Over on the other side of that line called “success” was a similar story that received different treatment from the tabloid press. Taichi Kokubun is a 41-year-old man and member of Tokio, one of the biggest idol groups in Japan, and his announcement earlier this month that he had married a 38-year-old former television director brought up similar questions about how he was affecting the earning power of Johnny’s & Associates, the agency that made him a star. Johnny’s did not sue and no one expected them to, but the media still handled the story delicately.

Kokubun isn’t the first Johnny’s idol to get married, but according to Nippon TV’s afternoon news show “Joho Live Miyaneya,” he may be the first to make a point of announcing the fact with a formal press conference. Actually, another Johnny’s idol, Yoshihiko Inohara of the boy band V6, held a joint press conference with actress Asaka Seto when they broke the news about their marriage in 2007, but in that case both parties were — and still are — in the public eye. Kokubun’s wife, whose name has not been formally revealed, is a former employee of TV network TBS who met Kokubun in 2008 in the course of her work. When a celebrity marries a civilian, the protocol is different, since the implication is that the union is about emotional attraction rather than professional calculation, and during the press conference Kokubun stressed that it was “love at first sight.”

That may be the case, but women’s magazine Shukan Josei thinks that the press conference itself pointed to professional calculation on Kokubun’s part. In 2010, Inohara landed a hosting job with NHK’s morning information series “Asaichi,” whose ratings improved after he came on board. The feeling is that Inohara’s new status as a family man boosted his image among housewives, the target audience for “Asaichi.” Inohara has been so successful, in fact, that he was hired to replace the late Kinya Aikawa as emcee of the long-running TV Tokyo series “Admatic Tengoku” last spring.

As one TV producer told the magazine, some years ago Johnny’s had to own up to the fact that many of its most popular charges, all males who joined the agency when they were pre-teens, were entering middle age. The idea was to groom some of them to become TV hosts before reaching their “expiration dates” as idols. Since Johnny’s position in the industry is so powerful, it wasn’t difficult to find such work. Inohara isn’t even the most successful. Masahiro Nakai, 43 and the “leader” of Johnny’s No. 1 group SMAP, hosts several popular shows.

Kokubun, who plays keyboards for Tokio, was one of the first Johnny’s idols to get a high-profile announcing job for the TV broadcasts of the London and Sochi Olympics. However, an employee of Fuji TV, which broadcast the games, told Shukan Josei that the producers weren’t happy with his work. He didn’t seem to have much knowledge about sports and demonstrated no imagination as an interviewer.

Then Kokubun became the main host of the TBS morning show “Hakunetsu Live Vivit,” which is on at the same time as “Asaichi” and manages a 3 percent share to Inohara’s 10. The feeling is that by openly announcing his marriage, Kokubun might be able to tap into Inohara’s base, though he seems to be missing the point. Inohara may have initially helped his sales value by marrying, but he sustained it through dedication and intelligence. Though Kokubun is a likable guy, he’s also a bit of a bore and, as he himself admitted during the press conference, not much of a talker.

But that’s not what the press is interested in. They want to know what Johnny Kitagawa, the imperious CEO of Johnny and Associates, thinks of Kokubun’s marriage. An article in Shukan Bunshun stated that usually when Johnny’s idols announce they want to wed, their managers sit them down and give them facts and figures showing how their popularity “might decline” as a result and then ask them to think about it. Many change their mind, which isn’t to say they break up with their significant others. It’s well known that Shingo Katori, the youngest member of SMAP, has been in a live-in relationship for a number of years. He obviously doesn’t feel the need to get married, but Kokubun’s wife may want children, which becomes increasingly difficult as she ages, and having kids out of wedlock is still taboo for celebrities.

A reporter on “Miyaneya” said that Kokubun’s move could trigger a “rush” of Johnny’s idols to the altar, and he was practically salivating at the prospect of a big name, such as Nakai, announcing impending nuptials. Earlier this year, the SMAP leader was out of action for a while after he had a growth removed from his throat. Nakai’s father died of esophageal cancer and before the operation the busy idol smoked two packs a day. Shukan Josei speculated he is likely to relapse unless he has a reason to quit, like a family. So in this case, Johnny’s might actually want him to get married, because in the end it’s all about protecting the investment.

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