TOKYO—It was an open secret to people in the Japanese media for two decades. Japanese Pop Titan Johnny Kitagawa was sexually assaulting male performers—so called ‘idols’—under his talent agency, Johnny & Associates. Especially the trainees and the new talents—young boys not even in their teens.
There’s no doubt that he was a legend in the music world. He has the Guinness World Record for the most No. 1 singles produced by an individual, 232, but the allegations against him were horrifying. John Hiromu Kitagawa (known affectionately in Japan as just “Johnny”) was reportedly abusing children as young as 11, often repeatedly, and for years. He reportedly used his position at the head of his company to intimidate, coerce, and force up to 100 boys to submit to acts ranging from massage to penetrative rape. He continued to do this until his death in 2019.
When he died, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent his condolences and obituaries in the Japanese media glossed over his history of sexually assaulting young boys even though some of the allegations had been made public and proven in court. The nation mourned.
Then this March, the BBC released a documentary: Predator: The Secret Scandal of J-Pop— and the ghosts of the past were unleashed.
Despite the furor, the explosive documentary is currently unavailable to watch in Japan.
A BBC insider told The Daily Beast that no company in Japan was prepared to make it available on their streaming platform. “It is a huge shame that we had to stop offering the film in Japan. As you can imagine, there was no media platform willing to offer the film,” the source said.
As a result, BBC sources told The Daily Beast that they are preparing a Japanese-subtitled version of the show to host on the BBC News Japan YouTube account where it can be seen by anyone.
[Update: the documentary became available on YouTube on June 17]
The show was originally broadcast in Japanese on the little-watched BBC News Japan on March 18 and 19. It was then briefly available on streaming services including Hulu and Prime but only for subscribers who also had BBC Japan accounts. After 22 days it was withdrawn and—despite huge clamor—it has not been available since, just as the story of Kitagawa’s abuse has finally begun to crack through into Japan’s mainstream media.
Even before the documentary was shown in Japan, it became huge news on Japanese social media, where claims from the English broadcast were translated and widely shared.
A YouTube explainer video, “A series of child abuse cases by Japan’s largest entertainment agency,” referencing the film and lambasting Japan’s television broadcasters, has since clocked up 5.5 million views and counting while the show itself remains unavailable.
The Truth Was Out There
Except for a few brave weekly magazines, tabloids, and daredevil journalists, the Japanese media was deathly afraid of Kitagawa when he was alive. And even now, they are spooked by his ghost.
And maybe they are afraid that someone will point out how they not only avoided the subject of his predations but in doing so enabled him.
The entertainment company he founded was, and is, extremely powerful. The first magazine to write anything about the serial abuse, Shukan Bunshun, in 1999 was slapped with a massive lawsuit demanding nearly $1 million in damages. The threat of being sued might have deterred any other Japanese journalists from covering the story for years. Yet, in 2003, when the Tokyo High Court ruled that the allegations of sexual abuse printed in Shukan Bunshun were substantially true, it should have been the top news.
The verdict was ignored across the board—reportedly only the low-brow tabloid Tokyo Sports had the temerity to cover it.
Both the court findings and the aftermath confirmed Bunshun’s claim that the Japanese press was afraid of Johnny & Associates and shamelessly obedient to them. Effectively, the Tokyo High Court recognized in official legal documents that Japan’s mainstream media were a bunch of cowards.
It’s Johnny’s World
The year Bunshun won the court case, Johnny & Associates still ruled the airwaves. Their popular groups like SMAP, Arashi, and KinKi Kids dominated Japanese TV. There were members on variety shows, samurai dramas, cooking programs—it was Johnny’s world.
The performers under the agency, often called “Johnnys” (an ambiguously possessive moniker by no coincidence) have become some of the biggest stars in Japan. Piss off Johnny, and good luck getting that exclusive with the latest up-and-coming teen heartthrob. You won’t have young male idols to spice up your variety show. Your ratings will plummet, your magazines will collect dust on the shelves.
And so a calculation was made: Better to leave the story alone despite the horror of the claims.
Survivor accounts are fairly consistent, Kitagawa would slink into the room and—in complete silence—start with an unwelcome massage which often escalated into forced sexual acts. He then slipped them a 10,000 yen bill ($100) the next morning.
One survivor recalled thinking, as he received the money, “That must be all I’m worth.”
‘Everyone Trod Lightly’
A few survivors have written books about their experiences, which were mostly ignored by the Japanese media. One former pop idol in training wrote that he was able to endure the sexual assaults in return for a chance at stardom, but quit when Kitagawa demanded he inject himself with female hormones. The hormones were supposed to keep the boy young, short, and supple. Kitagawa allegedly preferred his boys to be prepubescent if not in age, at least in appearance.
The first former Johnny’s member to blow the lid on the whole sordid business was Junya Hiromoto, who joined the agency at the age of 13. His 1996 book, All About Johnny’s: The House Of Boy Love describes the way things worked at the talent agency with brutal frankness. He details the experiences of a close friend:
“From that day on, he began to undergo all of [Kitagawa’s] ‘rituals.’ From caressing to kissing, to giving and receiving anal and fellatio. After many months he became a member of a group and is still active. [He knew] if he performed these deeds, he would debut, and if he refused, no matter how hard he tried, he would end up as nothing more than a trainee. That was the foremost in his mind, carved there, swirling around.”
Despite the book’s publication, no one dared discuss Kitagawa’s history of sexual assault. No one dared to ask a current or former member about it at an interview. A culture writer for the Yomiuri Shimbun told The Daily Beast, “You had to basically leave them alone and you might get a chance to interview them later about their upcoming tour. Everyone trod lightly.”
In fact, when a member of Johnny’s most popular boy band, SMAP, was arrested for public indecency in 2009, some of the media did not attach the suffix “suspect” to his name in their articles out of respect, despite the custom which is standard in all crime reporting here.
Yasushi Hashida, another victim, at a press conference said, “I’ve been trying to respond to as many interview requests as possible… in many instances, reporters have apologized to me quite profusely that they were unable to cover this matter in the past. In my mind what’s done is done. What’s important is to not repeat the past and to not engage in any more tacit agreements.”
Predator, reported by Mobeen Azhar and directed by Megumi Inman, was released on BBC 2 in the U.K. on March 7. The original English version (and a Chinese-subtitled version) are available free of charge online. But conspicuously, a Japanese-language version is nowhere to be found.
The subtitled documentary was broadcast on BBC World News Japan between the 18 and 19 of March. And for a brief time—22 days—it was available on select streaming sites like Amazon Prime and Hulu but only if viewers were also registered with the BBC channel on top of their paid membership to the streaming service.
The few Japanese streaming companies that did show the documentary were extremely reluctant to do so, according to local media reports. Due to existing contracts between the BBC and Hulu, Hulu Japan streamed the show but parent company Nippon Television “was in a panic,” according to the evening newspaper, Nikkan Gendai, they did not show it, or mention it on their own flagship network.
The BBC source said they are working on a way to distribute Predator in Japan themselves. “We are now sorting out the paperwork to make the film available on [the] BBC News Japan YouTube account with [Japanese] subtitles, so everyone can watch it.”
Another source told The Daily Beast that the subtitled version that the BBC would like to make available may also come with extra materials, including interviews with experts, that were not part of the original release.
The Daily Beast has reached out to Hulu Japan, Amazon Prime Japan, Netflix Asia, Netflix Japan, WOWOW, FOD, and U-NEXT for comment.
Netflix Japan has previously expressed hopes to feature stories that “have never been seen from here before.” Indeed, they have done some daring programming in recent years including The Journalist, a drama series based on real-life journalist Isoko Mochizuki, who investigated Prime Minister Abe’s political corruption.
However, there are some real-life scandals that they seem reluctant to touch. A Netflix staffer told The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, “When you consider how much of the acting and talent pool here includes those who were under Johnny, airing that documentary is likely to have adverse repercussions on developing original programming in the future.”
Even though it was difficult to see, the documentary being broadcast in Japan by the BBC should have been enough to prompt mainstream newspapers and television networks to cover the allegations. But the flagship TV networks such as NHK were largely silent despite the bombshell nature of the documentary within the Japanese media industry. NHK finally mentioned the program on April 13, a month after the documentary aired, after a victim came forward in a press conference held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. They were the first TV station to do so. The next day Nippon TV followed in their footsteps.
Denial Is a Family Business
Despite the media stonewalling, the documentary has clearly made waves in Japan.
Since the documentary aired, several former Johnny’s talents have come forward as victims of Johnny Kitagawa’s sexual abuse, adding to the attention around the case. Kauan Okamoto, a Brazilian-Japanese entertainer and former Johnny’s Jr. member, spoke at length at a Tokyo press conference on April 12 about the abuse he endured at the hands of Kitagawa. He estimated that as many as one hundred talents have been victimized.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking development is that two months after the initial Japanese broadcast of the documentary, Johnny’s and Associates distributed a so-called apology video.
It was a minute-long video issued to the media on a Sunday and not a press conference where there would have been questions they didn’t want to answer.
This was one of the most high profile developments of the Johnny’s scandal in Japan. Even the most mainstream, old school Japanese news outlets covered the content and background of the apology, including those who had stayed silent and complicit for years.
In the video, Julie Keiko Fujishima, the current president of the company (and niece of the late Kitagawa) offered her apologies for the “social turmoil” caused by the scandal, rather than years of systematic abuse. She acknowledged Okamoto’s allegations but denied any knowledge about the sexual abuse.
When asked for his thoughts about this claim of ignorance at a Tokyo press conference held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on May 26, survivor Yasushi Hashida said gingerly but simply, “I do not believe it.”
The survivors featured in the documentary and those who have come forward more recently have expressed that they still hold the company in high regard. They hope that by taking responsibility and accepting the appropriate recourse for accountability, the company will be able to move forward as a successful talent agency. Whether this is out of respect and goodwill for the company itself or for the sake of their fellow entertainers currently at the company is unclear.
Regardless, the future of Johnny & Associates lies in the response of Fujishima. Some who would prefer to see the scandal swept under the rug say it’s fortunate that Johnny died; unfortunately he isn’t alive to be held accountable for his actions. The entertainers have been gracious enough, more than perhaps they should be, to reiterate their gratitude toward the company. They even give credit to Kitagawa, their abuser, for the role he played in jump starting their careers, even if it came at an unimaginable cost.
Current leadership would do well to do the bare minimum to return their good faith: to fully acknowledge and validate the allegations, be prepared to pay damages in whatever form they take, document what happened and finally—apologize. A real one, this time.
As for the Japanese mainstream media, while some reporters have apologized to the victims in private, their employers have made their allegiances clear. Burying Predator is just the latest coverup. Like Johnny & Associates, they need to make a long overdue public apology—if they can find the courage.
Henry Rogers also contributed to this report.