Television personality Masahiro Nakai made an appearance as a “surprise guest” on the March 10 installment of Nippon TV’s law-related variety show, “Gyoretsu no Dekiru Horitsu Sodanjo” (“Line-up Law Office”). Earlier, guest Koji Kato had related an anecdote featuring Shingo Katori, Nakai’s former associate in the idol group SMAP, which disbanded in 2016. Nakai liked the story, referring to Katori affectionately as “Shingo-chan.”

It was hardly a big deal but, according to the online news blog Cyzo Woman, the exchange shocked a number of media people. SMAP called it quits when three of its five members, including Katori, decided to leave the company that created them, Johnny & Associates, one of Japan’s most powerful talent agencies. Nakai remained. Industry practice says that when someone quits an agency for any reason, they are informally blackballed by media entities, which means their name shouldn’t be mentioned on the air.

Cyzo Woman wanted to know why this form of institutionalized snubbing was not in force at Nippon TV that day. A reporter for a sports tabloid said that Kato is the host of Nippon TV’s morning show “Sukkiri,” and that, in November 2017, he complained about his employer’s treatment of the SMAP members who left Johnny’s. They had appeared at an awards ceremony covered by “Sukkiri,” but the clip with their image contained no indication of who they were in the form of text superimposed on the screen. It was almost as if they didn’t exist. The writer of the Cyzo Woman article suggested that Nippon TV might have regretted this decision, the implication being that when Katori’s name came up naturally in conversation on “Gyoretsu no Dekiru Horitsu Sodanjo,” the producers opted not to edit it out.

A person who works in an advertising company also implied that Johnny’s itself had nothing to do with the matter. It was simply Nippon TV exercising sontaku, the not-so-peculiar Japanese habit of “conjecturing” another party’s displeasure about a matter and preemptively ensuring that the matter doesn’t turn into a problem. However, the advertising employee told Cyzo Woman that the Fair Trade Commission is investigating Johnny’s for possible antitrust violations in its handling of former talent, and so all TV stations, not just Nippon TV, are now being careful about how they refer to the three former SMAP members.

However, the Cyzo article discusses the matter almost exclusively within the realm of television. The three Johnny’s defectors — Katori, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Goro Inagaki, who have formed a new group called Atarashii Chizu (New Map) — have done well for themselves since leaving the company. Collectively and individually they attract attention on social media, act in movies and appear in advertisements. Katori has made a name for himself as a contemporary artist. In fact, Kusanagi still has a regular TV job as a narrator on NHK’s travelogue, “Buratamori.”

The changing situation at Johnny’s also reflects the fact that the agency’s aging founder, Johnny Kitagawa, has been transferring power to new people, but there is also a growing desire among Japanese talent in general to steer their own careers. Granted, SMAP was one of the biggest acts in the history of Japanese showbiz, thus making it possible for Atarashii Chizu to buck the system without committing career suicide. However, their departure paved the way for Johnny’s other popular boy band, Arashi, to announce their own pending hiatus, although what’s notable about Arashi’s decision is that it was sparked by leader Satoshi Ohno, who suggests that rather than being free of Johnny’s he wants out of show business altogether.

Now that the gates are open, will there be a stampede? Earlier this month, the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun reported that 34-year-old Ryo Nishikido was pondering a split from another Johnny’s act, Kanjani Eight. It isn’t clear whether only Nishikido is leaving or Kanjani Eight will dissolve, but television insiders told tabloid Nikkan Gendai Digital that TV producers who work with the group are planning for the day when they are no more.

Kanjani Eight has already lost one member in a similar fashion. Subaru Shibutani left the group last year and launched a website on Feb. 28. Apparently, Shibutani had been frustrated as an idol and dreamed of making it as a legitimate musician. He has cited another former Johnny’s charge, Jin Akanishi, as inspiration.

In 2014, after studying English in Los Angeles, Akanishi left the company to launch a solo career, and it has been largely successful. He launched his own record label and collaborates with Universal Music. In fact, several former Johnny’s idols have recording contracts with major labels, including Atarashii Chizu. What most don’t have is work on TV, which is still considered vital for celebrity affirmation. Producers of TV drama series depend on Johnny’s because it’s assumed their charges attract maximum viewership.

That’s an important consideration for Nishikido, who doesn’t seem interested in a music career. He’s also an actor, and if he leaves Johnny’s it might be difficult to get acting gigs on TV dramas such as Fuji TV’s highly rated police procedural, “Trace,” which ended on March 18. However, movies and theater shouldn’t be a problem. Kusanagi is now attracting attention as a deadbeat father in the film “Makuko.” In the weekly magazine Aera, he admitted that when he quit Johnny’s he was afraid of not being able to find work, so he was relieved when the role was offered to him.

In a follow-up to its initial scoop, Shukan Bunshun said that Johnny’s had spread the word that media shouldn’t report on Nishikido’s rumored split from Kanjani Eight, implying it was fake news. For a few days, most media held back on the story, but then another weekly, Shukan Josei, broke the embargo and other weeklies and tabloids followed suit. As Hiroyuki Shinoda remarked in a roundup of weekly magazine stories in the Tokyo Shimbun on March 17, thanks to the internet, Johnny’s cannot control coverage of its operations as effectively as it used to.

That may be true but eventually, it seems, even idols get tired of being told what to do.

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