Japanese boy band abuse scandal rocks entertainment industry

In a news conference intended to address the sex abuse scandal rocking Japan’s entertainment industry, the 56-year-old former boy band member in charge of the country’s most powerful talent agency was asked if he had ever harassed young male entertainers.

“I may have done it or I may not have done it,” said Noriyuki Higashiyama, the new president of Johnny & Associates, this month. “I’m trying to trace my memory, but I really can’t remember many things.”

His response, which followed the agency’s delay in acknowledging the sexual abuse perpetrated by its founder Johnny Kitagawa, was the final straw for some of the agency’s corporate clients.

Kitagawa, who died in 2019 and was famous for pioneering the Asian boy band genre, was long alleged to have abused young male performers. Several of Kitagawa’s estimated 100 or more victims broke their silence in a BBC documentary this year, triggering crisis at the company.

The scandal has drawn parallels to the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal in the UK and the #MeToo movement ignited by the alleged abuse of actresses and other women by former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

In Japan, some of the country’s largest corporations and many of its listed media groups have come under intense pressure for working with the agency despite the rumours of abuse that date back decades. The Financial Times is owned by the Nikkei media group.

“We were passive until now, and corporates have to reflect on that,” Takeshi Niinami, chief executive of drinks group Suntory and chair of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives business lobby, told the FT.

“Now we have to raise our voice,” he said, adding that using individual performers at the agency for advertisements would be tantamount to condoning child abuse.

Suntory is among dozens of Japanese companies including Japan Airlines, Nissan, Kirin and Shiseido that have announced they will not work with performers from Johnny & Associates in their advertisements until the agency does more to address the allegations and prevent future abuse.

Last week, the agency, which is 100 per cent owned by Julie Fujishima, Kitagawa’s niece and formerly the agency’s president, said it would pay financial compensation to the alleged victims. It also promised to appoint an external chief compliance officer and strengthen harassment training for its performers.

In a statement, Asahi Group, the brewer which had used several Johnny performers in their TV adverts, said it was “impossible” to continue its association with the agency.

“The sexual assault incidents brought to light by the investigation, along with the noticeable absence of adequate victims’ support and the lack of significant organisational reforms . . . are wholly unacceptable,” it added.

Another senior executive at a Japanese company which had cut off its ties with the agency added: “I don’t think anybody knew exactly what was happening, but there were rumours . . . There was no upside to keeping the relationship.”

Mainstream Japanese media has also come under fire for ignoring the allegations despite biographies by former entertainers published in the 1980s, an in-depth magazine article in 1999 and a related civil case that reached Japan’s Supreme Court in 2004.

In a 71-page report released at the end of August and commissioned by Johnny & Associates, a panel of external experts concluded that the media’s silence had helped to deepen the cover-up at the agency, ultimately increasing the number of alleged victims. According to hearings conducted by the panel, allegations of sexual abuse by Kitagawa first emerged in the 1950s, when he was still in his 20s.

While Japanese broadcasting companies have apologised for failing to look into Kitagawa’s conduct, they are still struggling to cut their ties with the agency due to their heavy reliance on its performers for variety shows and TV dramas.

Even after his death, Kitagawa’s company has remained the most prolific generator of stars and hits in Japan, including Takuya Kimura, a former member of boy band Smap, and Kazunari Ninomiya, an actor known for his role in Clint Eastwood’s film Letters from Iwo Jima.

Other talent agencies may benefit from the distancing from Johnny & Associates.

But the focus on the now deceased Kitagawa — as opposed to the industry — means few expect a wider public reckoning of sexual harassment and abuse.

“It’s true that things cannot be the same, but I think it will be difficult to assume that this would lead to fundamental change,” said Mamoru Nishiyama, a marketing expert and associate professor at J.F. Oberlin University. 

“If all the allegations were to be investigated and cleaned up . . . it could lead to a reset of many of the people in today’s entertainment industry.”

Johnny & Associates did not immediately respond to request for comment.

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