1 Johnny & Associates: Japanese Pop Idol Producer Faces a Changing World

Tim Craig and Lauren Jubelt

In the autumn of 2015, Johnny Kitagawa wandered into Johnny’s Family Club in the Shibuya Ward of Tokyo. The mainly female customers inside didn’t give him a second glance, save for possibly wondering what a little old man was doing inside a pop idol shop. Although Kitagawa was a music legend in Japan and head of the country’s largest talent agency, Johnny & Associates—“Johnny’s” for short—not many people knew his face and he liked it that way. He could observe and listen to fans of Johnny’s groups up close as they browsed the memorabilia inside the store. Kitagawa had no desire to be famous himself. He simply wanted to produce male idol groups and control his company’s performers and business activities from behind the scenes.

As he wandered around the shop, Kitagawa paid more attention to the demographics of the shop’s customers. What surprised him most was the number of foreigners. Had his company and its entertainment acts really become that popular overseas? Some of his performers had mentioned the growing number of foreign fans attending concerts and events, but it still surprised him to see so many non-Japanese in the shop. “Well,” he thought, “we’ve recently made our website and performers’ blogs available in English, Chinese, and Korean, as well as Japanese. Maybe that’s behind the increase in international fans.” Thinking about Japan’s shrinking music market, he wondered if his company should reach out more to international fans and expand more aggressively into foreign markets. He walked out of the shop, deep in thought about the possibilities and challenges of globalization.[1]

History of Johnny’s

Johnny & Associates, known simply as “Johnny’s” in Japan, was founded in 1962 by Johnny Kitagawa, who was born in Los Angeles in 1931, the son of a Buddhist missionary. After the war Kitagawa came to Japan as an interpreter with the US military where, while living in a dormitory, he formed a baseball team of young Japanese boys, which he named “Johnny’s.” Fascinated by the American musical movie West Side Story, Kitagawa took his whole baseball team to see it. His young baseball players loved the movie and wanted to perform it, so they all returned to the movie theatre to watch West Side Story again and learned the parts in shifts. They practiced singing and dancing and quickly gained a following, becoming the first boy group of what would become Japan’s largest talent agency.[2]

The first Johnny & Associates boy band to gain national success was Four Leaves, which debuted in 1967. Hiromi Gō debuted in 1973 and became a major star, but later left Johnny’s for Sony Music Entertainment. The 1980s were when Johnny’s really took off, producing a steady stream of hit groups and songs that three decades later showed no signs of slowing down. Kitagawa held Guinness World Records in three categories: most #1 singles, most concerts, and most #1 acts produced by an individual.[3] (See Exhibit 1 for a list of major Johnny’s recording artists.)

Talent Production and Management

Over nearly half a century, Kitagawa had developed and refined a system for producing and managing entertainment talent that was remarkably successful, and that had been widely imitated by talent agencies in other Asian countries.[4]

Creating and Managing Idol Groups

Johnny’s was known for elaborate performances that were performed not by true professionals, but by amateurs. Boys entered Johnny’s at an early age—anywhere from 8 to 16—as trainees called “Johnny’s Juniors.” They were selected via audition and given lessons in singing, dancing, gymnastics, and acting. To gain experience, Juniors back-danced for established Johnny’s groups. The Juniors also had their own twice-a-month TV show, “Shōnen Club” (Boys Club), which was a combination of music program and talk show. Through this exposure, fans learned who the Juniors were and came to have their favorites. Johnny’s management paid attention to who and what fans liked, and created more exposure for the more popular trainees. Promising Juniors were then picked out and put into groups. After a group gained experience, and sometimes underwent a member change to get the right combination, it formally “debuted.”

Even at the age of 84, Johnny Kitagawa remained closely involved in the selection of talent and the creation and management of Johnny’s groups. According to Joey Carbone, an American composer who had written many hit J-pop songs, Kitagawa’s genius was his ability to spot future stars by imagining what they might look like a few years later. Carbone said that Kitagawa was “more creative than his artists. His creativity is to put these acts together.”[5] Kento Nakajima, an 18-year-old member of Johnny’s group Sexy Zone, stated:

What’s incredible about Johnny-san is that he keeps his eyes on each and every member of Johnny’s Juniors and picks the right ones who can really make it big.[6]

Regarding his knack for evaluating talent, Kitagawa said: “I’m not God. It’s not whether a boy has good looks that I keep in mind but his willingness to try new challenges.”[7]

Kitagawa also chose all the boy groups’ names, attended rehearsals and shows, and played a hands-on role in producing and fine-tuning his agency’s acts. He explained:

I sit in the theatre lobby and listen to the audience reactions, and nobody notices me. I don’t need to ask for an opinion. I can get it all myself. I can hear all the people’s reactions for myself. That’s really interesting. And that keeps me motivated as a creator. I have never once thought that show biz was dull. That’s why I’m still doing it.[8]

He would quickly make changes to a show based on what he heard. “You need to fix the problem straightaway. The crew responds to changes fast, and I’m very grateful to them.”[9]

Lachie Rutherford, CEO of Warner Music Japan, said of Kitagawa:

Johnny-san has a very strong vision which colors everything he does. He focuses on what he’s interested in and what he’s great at. And that is this mixture of pop music and Broadway, this mixture of choreography and music. There’s a lot of different elements in it, but it’s all part of one very creative vision by one very talented guy.[10]

Once a Johnny’s group debuted, its chances of success were high, for several reasons. First, the exposure given to Johnny’s Juniors and the incorporation of fan feedback into group formation meant that a new Johnny’s group already had a built-in fan base at the time of its debut. The fan base was further strengthened by another Kitagawa innovation: the fan club. In 2013, Johnny’s Family Club had over 2.5 million members to support the 500 entertainers that belong to the agency.[11]

On the music side, Johnny’s artists benefited from the stable of talented songwriters, studio musicians, and music producers employed by the agency. These resources gave groups the flexibility to develop a style of music that best suited their image, interests, and vocal strengths.[12] The songs that five-member groups SMAP and Arashi sang and danced to could be described as standard Japanese pop music—lightweight but catchy songs with positive lyrics. Tokio was a rock band whose members played their own instruments. Tegomass was a vocal duo (an offshoot of NEWS) with an easy-listening, light rock sound. KAT-TUN and Kis-my-ft2 had an edgier, rock-like feel to their music. Kanjani8 was a group from Osaka that performed comedy skits during concerts, had more “fun” songs, and also played their own instruments. Each group had its own particular appeal that attracted different fans, and many Japanese were fans of multiple Johnny’s groups.

To broaden the popularity of its artists and create revenue streams beyond music, Johnny’s followed a strategy of placing its artists not just on music programs, but also on variety and comedy shows, and in TV dramas, movies, and commercials.[13] This extended their appeal beyond their looks or their songs, as both fans and ordinary Japanese got to know each individual’s personality and other talents. And because personality, general talent, and “interestingness” were among the reasons they were selected to be Johnny’s artists in the first place, the more that fans, television viewers, and moviegoers got to know them through this exposure, the more they liked them.

To maintain their clean image and prevent scandals, Johnny’s artists, like other Japanese idols, were subject to tight control. The agency did not permit them to have social media accounts, and they were not allowed to give signatures or have their pictures taken except at Johnny’s-sponsored events. At one time, Johnny’s boys could not dye their hair or have their ears pierced. But by the mid-2000s, in keeping with the times, they could be seen with “multiple piercings in their ears, wear[ing] jewelry and clothing styled after rap stars and rockers, … and hair ranging in color from gold to black and worn in styles anywhere between short and spiky to shoulder length locks.”[14] They were allowed to have girlfriends, but it was said that this was discouraged, in order to support the fiction that they were “available.”

Finally, there was the clout of Johnny Kitagawa himself, who was “revered and feared in equal parts” by the Japanese music industry.[15] Japanese TV networks and magazine publishers needed access to star talent in order to create content that would attract audiences, which they could sell to advertisers. Because of this, management companies like Johnny’s that controlled access to talent were in a strong bargaining position vis-à-vis the media. Kitagawa did not hesitate to leverage this power to make sure his company’s entertainers got the media placements he wanted. This included requiring television networks to use new or less-popular Johnny’s talent on their programs in return for access to his big stars. Japan’s five major television networks all depended heavily on Johnny’s artists in their programming, and any network that displeased Kitagawa, for example by featuring rival agencies’ boy bands, risked having its access to Johnny’s artists cut off.[16] This created a virtuous cycle for Johnny & Associates: the more media access Johnny’s artists received, the more their popularity increased, and the greater their popularity, the greater Kitagawa’s power with the media.

All of these elements of the Johnny’s approach to talent management contributed to the success and longevity of Johnny’s groups. The weekly variety show SMAP x SMAP, which featured the five members of SMAP doing comedy skits, chatting with special guests, cooking, and performing songs, had been on the air since 1996 and was consistently watched by 20-plus percent of Japanese TV viewers.[17] In 2014, Tokio had celebrated twenty years since their debut, Arashi fifteen years, and Kanjani8 ten years, and all were as popular as ever.

Money Flows

Like most of Japan’s artist management companies, Johnny & Associates was privately held and had no reason to reveal information about its earnings. But there was no doubt that Johnny’s was profitable.

Johnny’s was said to be worth 100 billion yen (~US$1 billion).[18] Earnings for the year 2014 from SMAP alone (Johnny’s top group since the 1990s) were estimated to total approximately 22 billion yen (~US$220 million), broken down as follows:

  • fan club revenue: 990,000 members x 4,000 yen annual membership fee = ~4 billion yen (~$40 million)
  • concert revenue: 1 million attendees x 9,500 yen average ticket price = ~9.5 billion yen
  • music revenues: 2 CD singles, 1 CD album, 1 live DVD = ~2.3 billion yen
  • appearances in TV commercials, TV dramas and variety shows: ~6 billion yen[19]

Most of the revenue produced by SMAP’s activities, and those of other Johnny’s groups, went to the agency. The individual salaries of SMAP’s members for 2014 were estimated as follows: Masahiro Nakai, 500 million yen (~$5 million); Takuya Kimura, 300 million yen; Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Shingo Katori, between 100 and 200 million yen; Goro Inagaki, less than 100 million yen.[20] The members of Arashi, younger than SMAP but equally popular, earned significantly less: between 20 and 28 million yen ($200,000–$280,000) in 2012, a year in which they hosted NHK’s New Years Eve Kōhaku Uta Gassen (Red and White Song Battle) for the third consecutive year, had chart-topping CDs and DVDs, and appeared in hundreds of television shows, movies, TV commercials, and live concerts.[21]

In addition to fees for its artists’ appearances in television programs, movies, and print media, and live concert revenue, Johnny’s earned significant revenue in the form of copyright royalties. As Johnny’s coordinated song-writing and recorded its artists’ music in-house, the company held the master recording rights and publishing rights for its artists’ songs. Holding the master recording rights meant that record companies had to license the master tapes from Johnny’s in order to mass-produce the music. Holding the publishing rights allowed Johnny’s to collect royalties for the duplication of CDs, performance royalties for public use of a song, and synchronization license income for media use of a song.[22]

Johnny’s music was distributed through several record companies, including Avex, Warner Music Japan, Imperial Records, and Pony Canyon, as well as through two Johnny’s-owned labels, Johnny’s Entertainment and J Storm.

Looking Ahead

A Changing World

Johnny’s had dominated Japan’s pop music industry for almost fifty years, and its groups continued to be extremely popular, and profitable. But the music business was changing, and whether what had worked so well in the past would continue to work in the future was an open question. Kitagawa knew that his company could not stand still in a changing world. And although he remained firmly in control of his talent agency and actively involved in its operations, at the age of 84 he also knew that the time was approaching when leadership of Johnny & Associates and responsibility for the careers of its artists would pass to someone else.

Some of Johnny’s practices seemed to be out of step with the times. The company had long employed what one observer called an “anti-PR strategy.”[23] Pictures of Johnny’s artists were almost never published, except on official merchandise. Johnny’s artists were removed from press conferences that were to be broadcast online, and on magazine covers they appeared only in outline or silhouette form.[24] And the company did not use social media to promote its artists. SMAP, for example, did not have a YouTube channel and none of its members had Twitter accounts or Facebook pages. SMAP’s only official web presence was a text-only page in Japanese, found under the “artists” menu on the Johnny’s website.[25] Johnny’s had even gone so far as to delete all promotional videos for its artists’ songs from YouTube.[26] These policies had allowed Johnny’s to shape and tightly control its artists’ images, and ensured that revenue from Johnny’s events and merchandise went to the agency and not to outside parties. But did they make sense in an internet-connected world where information flowed freely and rival talent agencies were actively using new media to promote their artists and digital distribution channels to sell their music?

International Markets

International markets were a largely untapped opportunity, but presented challenges as well. Operating in the world’s second largest music market, Johnny’s and other Japanese talent agencies had felt little need to expand overseas—particularly to Western countries, which had plenty of music stars of their own and where music industry practices and cultural preferences differed significantly from those in Japan. Although Japanese video games and anime were popular worldwide, Japanese pop music was not. Some Japanese pop music stars had strong followings in Asia, particularly in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but few Westerners had ever heard of the artists that topped Japan’s record charts week after week. In the United States, the world’s largest music market, consumers could purchase a variety of international music on iTunes—from Korean “K-pop” to Bollywood movie soundtracks to South African rap. But to buy the latest single from SMAP or Arashi, they had to order CDs from Japan.[27]

The track record of Japanese music stars who had tried to make it in the US was miserable. Kyū Sakamoto’s “Ue wo muite arukō” (Look up while walking), retitled “Sukiyaki” (a word unrelated to the lyrics but familiar to Americans), was a novelty hit in 1963, topping the US charts for three weeks.[28] But this was a pop classic with a beautiful melody that transcended language differences. English-language albums by Japanese superstars Pink Lady, Dreams Come True, Seiko Matsuda, and Hikaru Utada had gone nowhere in the US. This lack of success, combined with fear of alienating the home audience if their stars spent too much time overseas, had fed Japanese agencies’ reluctance to target Western markets.

Korean artists had done better internationally. With a smaller domestic market to rely on—South Korea’s population was 50 million, 40% the size of Japan’s—Korean artists and their management companies targeted foreign markets from the start, not as an afterthought. Korea’s major artist management companies, SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment, had partnered with overseas talent companies and established foreign subsidiaries to create channels and exposure in other countries for their entertainers.[29] They embraced YouTube and social media as means to build awareness of their performers and their music. And they “tried harder.” Korean diva BoA, girl groups Kara, Girls Generation, and Wonder Girls, and boy groups Big Bang, Toho Shinki, and 2PM, were well-known and popular in Japan, where they toured, appeared on TV (speaking Japanese), and released Japanese-language versions of their songs for the Japanese market.[30] One observer wrote: “When I ask young people in China why Hanryu [Korean wave] idols are so popular there, I always get the simple reply: ‘Because they come here.’”[31]

Korean pop music artists differed in some ways from Japan idols. Their look and image were “sexy” rather than “cute.” They were “complete” artists whose acts were close to perfect, not “unfinished” amateurs that fans followed and cheered for as they got better. Yvonne Yuen, Vice-president of Marketing for Universal Music’s Southeast Asian office, explained: “Every time they go out onstage, every time they perform a song, it’s got to be perfect, the way it was meant to be.”[32] Their music also had a more Western—hip hop and R&B influenced—sound, a result of working with Western music producers. And they were hungrier. A member of Japanese idol group Morning Musume commented: “South Korean idols have a stronger desire than Japanese idols to make their groups eternal, I think. A Hanryu star’s passion for global success is stronger. That’s something Japanese idols don’t care about enough.”[33]

Thanks to the more global appeal of their music and aggressive worldwide marketing, Korean pop music was extremely popular in Asia and had even made inroads in the West, where Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was a huge hit—the music video of the song was the first YouTube video to exceed one billion views[34]—and artists like Big Bang, Girls’ Generation, and 2ne1 sold out large venues in major cities.[35] This had contributed significantly to the South Korean economy and helped build a positive image of the country around the world.

Johnny’s, by contrast, had paid relatively little attention to foreign markets. Several Johnny’s groups had toured Asia, but apart from Arashi putting on occasional concerts in Hawaii and a short promotional trip by Tegomass to Sweden, Johnny’s artists did not perform in the West. Beginning in 2013, the Johnny’s website was made available in four languages besides Japanese: English, Korean, and two dialects of Chinese.

Succession Struggle

The question of who would take over leadership of Johnny & Associates when Johnny Kitagawa stepped down was unresolved; Kitagawa had not named a successor. It was rumored that there were two leading candidates. One was Kitagawa’s niece and J-Storm president Julie Fujishima, who was said to be “campaigning hard for the position.”[36] Fujishima headed one of two rival “factions” within Johnny’s, and managed the groups TOKIO, Arashi, V6, Kanjani8, Kat-Tun, NEWS, and Hey! Say! JUMP. (The other faction was led by Michi Iijima, who managed SMAP, Kis-My-Ft2, Sexy Zone, and A.B.C-Z.) The other candidate was Johnny’s artist Hideaki Takizawa of the duo Tackey and Tsubasa. Takizawa had cut back on performing in recent years in order to work with Johnny’s Juniors, and was given credit for the “golden age of Juniors,” which had produced Arashi, Kanjani8, and other Johnny’s groups that became popular in the 2000s. Of the competition to lead Johnny & Associates into the future, one observer commented, “Takizawa has the drive and passion, … but Fujishima has influence.”[37]

If Kitagawa himself had decided when he would step down and who would take over, he was keeping it to himself. For now, his hands were still on the controls and he had work to do: overseeing planning and production of his agency’s acts for New Year’s Eve’s Kōhaku Uta Gassen, Japanese television’s most prestigious music program. Six groups and one solo artist from Johnny’s were included in the 2015 Kōhaku lineup, and V6 member “Inocchi” (Yoshihiko Inohara) was captain of the White (men’s) team. The master of Japanese show business remained as determined as ever to deliver the level of entertainment that fans of all ages expected from Johnny’s artists and that kept them coming back for more.

Fast Forward: SMAP, Digitalization, Restless Idols, and the Passing of an Industry Giant

SMAP Breaks Up—Nation in Shock!

SMAP breakup headlines
SMAP Breakup Headlines.

Discord within Johnny & Associates broke into the open on January 12, 2016, when Nikkan Sports newspaper reported that SMAP, arguably Johnny’s most loved idol group, was about to break up. This was shocking news, and the story dominated newspaper, magazine, and television reporting until its apparent denouement a week later.

The cause of the threatened split was a feud within Johnny’s between Vice President Mary Kitagawa, Johnny Kitagawa’s older sister, who was said to be the financial mastermind behind the talent agency, and SMAP manager Michi Iijima. Iijima was given a great deal of credit for SMAP’s success. Formed in 1988, SMAP struggled in its first two or three years, until Iijma took over as manager. She steered the group to stardom, and in the process rewrote some of the rules by which Johnny’s managed its artists. Up until that time, the agency had prohibited its singers from appearing on TV variety shows or accepting any roles in TV dramas unless they were leading parts. Seeing that a large part of SMAP’s potential appeal lay in their natural ability at talking and interacting in comedy sketches, Iijima began booking them on variety shows. And she accepted an offer for SMAP member Takuya Kimura, known as “Kimutaku,” to play a supporting role in the 1993 Fuji Television drama Asunaro Hakusho. She even had Kimutaku pose semi-nude for a sex-themed issue of the women’s beauty and fashion magazine anan, breaking another Johnny’s taboo. As SMAP’s popularity rose, so did Iijima’s stature, both within Johnny’s, where Johnny Kitagawa fully appreciated her ability as a producer, and in Japan’s broader show business world. As the person in control of the schedule of Japan’s top male idol group, Iijima held considerable negotiating power vis-a-vis the television networks, radio programs, and magazines that vied for a piece of SMAP.[38]

This eventually led to tension within Johnny’s management, and it was reported in the Japanese media that two factions had formed, one led by Julie Fujishima, Mary Kitagawa’s daughter and Johnny Kitagawa’s niece, and the other headed by Iijima. When a 2015 story in the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun revealed details about the split within the agency, Mary Kitagawa responded in an interview:

If there are two factions inside Johnny’s, then I haven’t done a good job of running the agency. As of today, I will have [Iijima] quit. Is there anything wrong with my daughter [Julie Fujishima] taking over the company? She will be the next president![39]

Under pressure to resign from Johnny’s—Mary reportedly told her, “If you oppose me, you can leave the company today and take SMAP with you”—Iijima began making preparations to quit the agency and, it was rumoured, start her own company.[40]

This put SMAP, who felt loyalty to both Iijima and Johnny Kitagawa, in a difficult position. According to the Nikkan Sports story, which was immediately confirmed by virtually every other media outlet in Japan, four members—Masahiro Nakai, Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, and Shingo Katori—were ready to join Iijima in leaving Johnny’s, while Kimutaku was determined to remain with the agency. This would be the end of SMAP, and public reaction was swift. Typical comments on social media included:

What will we do without SMAP?

All the talk at school today has been about SMAP. My head hurts.[41]

This drama was put to rest, for the time being, when one week later all five SMAP members, somberly dressed in dark suits, made a special live TV appearance at the beginning of their weekly show SMAP x SMAP to apologize for causing their fans such great concern, and to say that they would not be breaking up. Each member spoke briefly, emphasizing the group’s solidarity and asking fans for their continuing support. Among their comments:

Starting today, we once again want to make you smile. – Shingo Katori

I’m relieved the five of us are here together. – Tsuyoshi Kusanagi

We will keep moving forward, no matter what. – Takuya Kimura[42]

As SMAP spoke, viewer ratings hit 37.2% in the Kanto (Tokyo) region—only one program had achieved a rating over 30% in Kanto in all of 2015—and Twitter flashed an error message, indicating that its servers had been overloaded by viewers posting comments online. Even Prime Minister Shinzō Abe weighed in, remarking at an Upper House Budget Committee meeting the next day, “The group will remain intact in response to many fans’ wishes, which is good. As is the case in the world of politics, I presume there are many issues [that must be overcome] for a group to continue for many years.”[43]

Alas, the reconciliation did not last—the fissures dividing the group were too deep. Seven months later, on August 14, Johnny & Associates announced that SMAP would break up at the end of the year. The split was the outcome of contentious discussions over the summer among Johnny Kitagawa and group members over SMAP appearances on special music programs. Kitagawa tried to dissuade the group from splitting up, but the issues that had caused the break-up rumors to surface the previous January, and tensions within the group that were exacerbated by that crisis, could not be resolved. Group leader Masahiro Nakai reportedly tried his best to keep the group together but was unable to convince the others. In the end, only Kimutaku wanted SMAP to remain intact; the other four members opted for a permanent split.[44]

On his weekly Tokyo FM radio program, Kimutaku apologized to fans:

I now cannot find words to say to all of our fans who, just like me, have seen SMAP as part of their life. I just feel sorry for all fans of SMAP. I’m really sorry.[45]

SMAP fans were hoping to be able to see the group perform together one last time, on New Year’s Eve’s Kōhaku Uta Gassen. But on December 23, SMAP’s agent announced that the group had turned down a request from NHK to make what would have been its 24th appearance on the annual show. SMAP’s “last stage” as a group was a taped episode of their signature variety show SMAP x SMAP, aired December 26, 2016.

At the time of the breakup, it was announced that all five SMAP members would stay with Johnny & Associates and pursue their solo careers, but this too proved to be illusory. In June 2017, after months of speculation in the tabloids, Johnny Kitagawa faxed a letter to the Japanese media saying that Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, and Shingo Katori had received offers from other agencies and decided to leave Johnny’s when their contracts expired in September. Nakai and Kimutaku would stay with Johnny & Associates.[46]

Johnny Kitagawa appeared to have no hard feelings, graciously thanking Inagaki, Kusanagi, and Katori for their contributions to Johnny’s:

The three will embark on their own paths that they themselves decided on, but anywhere they go, and under all circumstances, I’ll wish them the best of luck. … Five great people of SMAP will not only remain in your hearts, but also in my heart as well.[47]

Kitagawa ended his letter by giving the name SMAP, which he had originally created to stand for Sports Music Assemble People, a new meaning: Subarashii (great) Memories Arigato (thank you) Power.[48]

Violation of the Anti-monopoly Act, or “sontaku?”

In the year after they left Johnny’s, Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, and Shingo Katori pretty much dropped out of sight, disappearing from the TV variety programs they had regularly appeared in and only rarely showing up in other entertainment media or advertising. The contrast with the former SMAP members who stayed with Johnny’s was clear: Masahiro Nakai and Takuya Kimura maintained a sizable presence in the entertainment and advertising media, although at a somewhat reduced level in comparison to their SMAP days. Part of the reason was that Nakai and Kimutaku had been the two most popular and in-demand SMAP members long before the breakup, as was reflected in their salaries, which were significantly higher than the other three members’ (see Chapter 2). Nakai and Kimutaku also still had the powerful Johnny’s organization working on their behalf to secure TV and radio appearances, drama and movie roles, and other work. Inagaki, Kusanagi, and Katori, on the other hand, had moved to a new agency, Culen, which had been started by Michi Iijima, their former Johnny’s manager, where they were building more web-centric careers.[49] Culen obviously did not have the connections or pull in the industry that Johnny’s had.

But given Johnny Kitagawa’s reputation for punishing television networks that featured rival agencies’ talent by cutting off their access to Johnny’s artists, there was also a widely-held suspicion that Johnny’s had put out the word to the TV networks not to use Inagaki, Kusanagi, and Katori in their programming. Or perhaps it wasn’t necessary to put out the word; the TV networks may have simply been practicing sontaku, the Japanese word for “conjecturing” another party’s displeasure about a matter and preemptively taking measures to ensure that the matter doesn’t turn into a problem. In other words, they may have decided on their own to keep Inagaki, Kusanagi, and Katori off the air because they knew the risks of displeasing Johnny Kitagawa. Whatever the case, Japan’s Fair Trade Commission issued a warning to Johnny & Associates for violating the Anti-monopoly Act by pressuring TV stations to keep the three Johnny’s defectors off their programs. Johnny’s admitted it was under investigation but denied doing anything illegal, and pledged to “endeavor to prevent misunderstandings in the future.”[50]

In 2019, however, after a quiet start to their post-Johnny’s careers, Inagaki, Kusanagi, and Katori were not doing badly. They had formed a new group called Atarashii Chizu (New Map) and were attracting attention on social media and getting work in movies and advertising. Katori had made a name for himself as a visual artist. Kusanagi had a regular TV gig as a narrator on NHK’s travelogue, Buratamori,[51] had his own YouTube channel, with over 900,000 subscribers, and had lead roles in two major 2019 films, Makuko and Typhoon Kazoku. And Inagaki was a popular blogger, receiving “Blogger of the Year” awards in 2017 and 2018.[52]

Johnny’s Goes Digital

In 2018, perhaps inspired (or embarrassed) by the online successes of its defector artists, and no doubt aware of K-pop artists’ use of social media to build strong international followings, Johnny & Associates began taking small steps into 21st century digital marketing. In January the company lifted its ban on the use of images of its artists on online news sites.[53] In March, Johnny’s officially launched a Johnny’s Jr. YouTube channel, with a different Johnny’s Junior group posting content at 8 pm each day of the week.

In October, the popular Johnny’s Jr. group SixTONES (pronounced “Stones”) was selected by YouTube to participate in its Artist Promotion campaign, alongside popular international artists such as Sean Mendes, BTS, Camila Cabello, and Dua Lipa. For the campaign, Johnny’s released its first-ever online music video. Produced by Hideaki Takizawa, the SixTONES video, “Japonica Style” got 1.29 million views in its first two days after publication. In parallel with the Artist Promotion campaign, Johnny’s created a Johnny’s Jr. YouTube channel and opened an official account on Twitter.[54] A number of Johnny’s artists also opened Instagram accounts, led by Tomohisa Yamashita, widely known as “Yamapii,” a popular actor who started out as a member of NEWS but went solo in 2011. Yamapii joined Instagram on May 16, 2019 and within 7 hours and 40 minutes gained one million followers—the second-fastest in Instagram history to hit the one million mark, after royal couple Prince Harry and Meghan (5 hours, 45 minutes).[55] By October Yamapii had 3.6 million Instagram followers, as well as 2 million followers on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Regarding Johnny’s long-overdue move to online exposure, a company spokesperson said, “We are aware that it enables [our talent] to be seen by everyone around the world. When it’s clear that there are many people watching, then it’s really time to think about going global.”[56]

“I want to live freely.”

Over the years, a number of Johnny’s idol groups had seen members leave due to contract violations, scandal, illness, or to pursue a solo career. On the whole, however, Johnny’s units had been remarkably stable, continuing to perform with the same or nearly the same lineup for many years (see Exhibit 1). But there appeared to be a growing desire among Japanese talent in general to take charge of their own careers, a trend that Johnny’s was not immune to.

In January of 2019, Arashi, which had succeeded SMAP as Johnny’s most popular and highest-earning group, announced at a press conference that they would be calling it quits as a group at the end of 2020. The reason: leader Satoshi Ono wanted out of show business so he could “live freely.” Fans were shocked, not just by the prospect of having less than two more years to enjoy their favorite group, but also because Arashi had a reputation for being particularly tight. A 12-year-old fan of Arashi member Jun Matsumoto said, “They had an image of having an extremely close bond among the members, so I can’t believe it.”[57]

Arashi announces suspension of group activities.

Recalling the moment Ono shared his thinking with the other four members, Shō Sakurai said, “I was surprised. Since we are like brothers, I knew we had to find a solution that we all could agree upon.” That solution, after many conversations, was to bow out together. Kazunari Ninomiya explained, “Four members or six members is not Arashi. … While discussing the issue among the five of us, we thought it best to mark an end to our activities at our 20th anniversary.”[58]

Arashi’s looming retirement as a group did nothing to dim its popularity. Lawmakers and business leaders tapped the group to perform at a festival held at Imperial Palace Plaza in central Tokyo in November 2019 to celebrate the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito, who had ascended Japan’s throne the previous May following the abdication of his father, former Emperor Akihito.[59]

Kanjani8 had recently seen the departure of two members. Subaru Shibutani, Kanjani8’s lead vocalist and a successful songwriter in his own right, left the group and Johnny’s in 2018 to pursue his dream of making it as a legitimate musician,[60] and Ryō Nishikido, an accomplished actor with a long list of TV dramas and feature films to his credit, exited Kanjani8 and Johnny’s in September 2019.[61]

Now that the gates were open, would there be a stampede? No, there wouldn’t. For aspiring young male entertainers in Japan, Johnny’s was still the place to be. But for those who were talented, had built strong followings, and wanted greater control over their careers and lives, the opportunities that the internet and social media offered, combined with the example of peers who were doing well outside the loving but constraining arms of Johnny & Associates, made it a bit easier to strike out on one’s own. Cracks were beginning to appear in the closed system operated by Japan’s talent management companies. As one observer noted, “eventually, even idols get tired of being told what to do.”[62]

The Passing of a Legend

On June 18, 2019, Johnny Kitagawa was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. For the next three weeks a parade of Johnny’s artists and trainees visited him in his hospital room, talking about their memories of him with music playing in the background. The end came on July 9: TV breaking news and newspaper headlines announced that Johnny had died of a stroke at the age of 87.

In early September a memorial event was held at Tokyo Dome, attended by current and former Johnny’s artists and various luminaries from Japan’s entertainment industry. A telegram of condolence was presented from Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. The event included videos of concerts, song and theatrical performances, and words of thanks from many celebrities for Johnny’s contributions to Japanese show business. The concluding remarks were given by Masahiko Kondō, better known as “Matchi,” who was a huge Johnny’s star in the 1980s. Facing a giant picture of Johnny set in the middle of the stage, Kondō said, “We’re in a baseball stadium, the sport you love. It’s Tokyo Dome. You probably wouldn’t have expected your memorial event to be held here.” Then turning to the crowd, he continued, “As Johnny-san would say, ‘The show must go on.’ Let us send him off with a smile.”[63]

In the meantime, the future leadership of Johnny & Associates appeared to be in good hands. In September of 2018, Johnny & Associates had released a “Message from the President” in which Johnny Kitagawa wrote, in part:

It has been a long term dream, desire, and wish of mine to establish a training academy, to be able to continuously nurture performers who subscribe to my ideology. This has been my dream for many years, and one that I knew could not be realized overnight. While we’ve always had a studio where artists could receive lessons to help hone their craft, our vision to provide a place that provides comprehensive support for both the fundamental basics and applications necessary for their craft is finally coming together.

Recently, when Hideaki Takizawa approached me and expressed his desire to use his experience and knowledge as an artist to “help me nurture Johnny’s juniors,” I was so surprised and delighted that it almost brought me to tears. I am truly grateful to Hideaki for his decision.[64]

In the following January, Takizawa was named president of Johnny’s Island, a newly-formed subsidiary of Johnnys & Associates set up to develop new talent and produce Johnny’s Juniors groups. No longer an artist but now a company president, Takizawa consulted frequently with Johnny’s vice-presidents Mary Kitagawa (Johnny Kitagawa’s sister) and Julie Fujishima (Mary’s daughter and Johnny’s niece). For Takizawa, at age 36, to become, like Johnny himself, a company president, was extremely unusual, given the reputation of Johnny & Associates as an organization in which hierarchy rules. But Takizawa had strong support from Johnny’s Juniors and groups like Arashi that he had helped propel to stardom, as well as from Johnny’s veterans like SMAP leader Masahiro Nakai, Masahiko Kondō, and Noriyuki Higashiyama (a singer, actor, and member of Shōnentai); the latter two said that supporting Takizawa was a mission they felt Johnny had entrusted them with.[65] In September 2019, the new presidents and directors of Johnny and Associates were announced on the company’s official website: Julie Fukushima (age 53) was now president, Takizawa assumed the post of vice-president (in addition to being president of Johnny’s Island), and Mary Kitagawa (age 92) assumed the post of chairman.

Would the future of Johnny and Associates include expansion into overseas markets, as Johnny Kitagawa had pondered four years earlier while noting the increasing number of non-Japanese customers in Johnny’s Family Club in Tokyo? With new leadership on the production side, with the agency starting to embrace social media and SixTONES being promoted on YouTube, and with K-pop groups as well as some Japanese individual artists and groups building global fan bases, a growing international orientation at Johnny & Associates seemed possible. But given the size and wealth of Japan’s music market, combined with the language barrier and Johnny’s artists’ demanding domestic schedules, it appeared likely that any growth in Johnny’s international footprint would take the form of more overseas fans discovering and liking Johnny’s idols as they are rather than Johnny’s artists and their music changing in order to appeal to a mainstream global audience.

In January 2020, as Arashi entered their final year as an idol group, fans had two new-generation Johnny’s units to discover and like, as SixTONES and Snow Man made their CD debuts simultaneously on January 22. The six members of SixTONES were all good singers and included a rapper, a voice percussionist, an experienced actor, and a karate black belt.[66] Their debut song, “Imitation Rain,” a poignant power ballad written by Yoshiki of X Japan, quickly rose to No. 1 on the Japan Hot 100 chart. No. 2 was the upbeat electro-pop “D.D.,” by nine-member Snow Man.[67] Johnny Kitagawa was no doubt feeling proud.

Exhibit 1. Major Johnny & Associates Recording Artists.

Debut Artists No. of Members
1968 Four Leaves* 4
1973 Hiromi Gō** solo
1980 Masahiko Kondō solo
1980 Toshihiko Tahara** solo
1981 Shibugakitai* 3
1985 Shōnentai 3
1991 SMAP* 6 -> 5
1994 TOKIO 5 -> 4
1995 V6 6
1997 KinKi Kids 2
1999 Arashi 5
2002 Tackey & Tsubasa* 2
2003 NEWS 9 -> 8 -> 7 -> 6 -> 4
2004 Kanjani8 8 -> 7 -> 6 -> 5
2006 KAT-TUN 6 -> 5 -> 4 -> 3
2006 Tomohisa Yamashita solo
2007 Hey! Say! JUMP 10 -> 9
2011 Kis-My-Ft2 7
2011 Sexy Zone 5
2012 A.B.C-Z 5
2014 Yūma Nakayama solo
2014 Johnny’s West 7
2018 King & Prince 6
2020 SixTONES 6
2020 Snow Man 9

* disbanded  ** left the agency

  1. The opening scene of Johnny Kitagawa in Johnny's Family Club is fiction. The rest of this chapter is factual.
  2. “Johnny’s World: Top of the J-Pops” (documentary video), NHK World, accessed November 4, 2014), https://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=401985879892492.
  3. “Japanese Producer Johnny Kitagawa Produces the Most #1 Acts by an Individual,” Guinness World Record News, December 10, 2012, http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2012/12/johnny-kitagawa-most-1-acts-produced-by-an-individual-46316/.
  4. Robert Michael Poole, “Johnny Kitagawa, Japanese Music Legend, Speaks Out,” Newsweek, December 15, 2012, http://www.newsweek.com/johnny-kitagawa-japanese-music-legend-speaks-out-63563.
  5. Marie Mutsuki Mockett, “The Pretty Boy Factory,” June 2, 2007, http://mariemockett.blogspot.jp/2007/06/pretty-boy-factory.html.
  6. Masako Nakamura, “Show Business Wiz Johnny Kitagawa Keeps On Rolling,” The Japan Times, January 25, 2013, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2013/01/25/entertainment-news/ show-business-wiz-johnny-kitagawa-keeps-on-rolling/#.VFYsTyj88Rl.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Johnny’s World.”
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Poole, "Johnny Kitagawa Speaks Out."
  12. Kara Baer, “A Peek Inside Japan’s Tightly Managed Johnny’s Entertainment,” Pop Matters, February 7, 2013, http://www.popmatters.com/feature/166068-a-peek-inside-japans-tightly-managed-johnnys-entertainment/.
  13. To give just two examples, Hideaki Takizawa of Tackey and Tsubasa portrayed 12th-century warrior-leader Yoshitsune, the main character of NHK’s 2005 Taiga drama of the same name, and Kazunari Ninomiya of Arashi had a prominent role in Clint Eastwood’s film Letters from Iwo Jima.
  14. Mockett, "Pretty Boy Factory."
  15. Poole, "Japanese Music Legend Speaks Out."
  16. W. David Marx, “The Jimusho System: Part Three,” neojaponisme, May 23, 2011, http://neojaponisme.com/2011/05/23/the-jimusho-system-part-three/.
  17. Baer, "A Peek Inside Johnny's Entertainment."
  18. "Janii-shi no kōkeisha Takizawa Hideaki, Nakai ya Jurii-shira ga ato-oshi" [Nakai and Julie back Johnny's successor Hideaki Takiawa], News Post Seven, July 29, 2019, https://www.news-postseven.com/archives/20190720_1413531.html.
  19. “4 tai 1 ni bunretsu! SMAP kaijo e no zen'uchimaku” [4 against 1 split! Behind the scenes of the SMAP breakup], Shukan Shincho, January 21, 2016, p. 30.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Yuma Sato, “SMAP nenshū sūoku na no ni Arashi wa 2,000 man en dai... Janiizu shūnyū kakusa no shinsō” [Income differences within Johnny’s: SMAP annual income in the hundreds of millions but Arashi’s 20-some million], Excite News, January 15, 2013, http://www.excite.co.jp/News/entertainment_g/20130115/Menscyzo_201301_post_5263.html.
  22. Marx, "The Jimusho System: Part Three."
  23. Poole, "Japanese Music Legend Speaks Out."
  24. Tomoko Iizuka and Rei Miyake, “Johnny’s Goes Digital: Taking On K-Pop and the Rest of the World,” Sankei Shimbun, November 21, 2018, https://japan-forward.com/johnnys-goes-digital-taking-on-k-pop-and-the-rest-of-the-world/.
  25. Baer, "A Peek Inside Johnny's Entertainment."
  26. Peter Dyloco, “Can J-pop Replicate the Success of K-Pop?” Japan Today, September 15, 2011, http://www.japantoday.com/category/opinions/view/can-j-pop-replicate-success-of-k-pop.
  27. Baer, "A Peek Inside Johnny's Entertainment."
  28. Patrick St. Michael, “Does Korean Pop Actually Have a Shot at Success in the U.S.?” The Atlantic, January 30, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/01/does-korean-pop-actually-have-a-shot-at-success-in-the-us/252057/.
  29. Jordan Siegel and Yi Kwan Chu, The Globalization of East Asian Pop Music, Harvard Business School Case No. 9-708-479, 2010, p. 22.
  30. Patrick St. Michael, “How Korean Pop Conquered Japan,” The Atlantic, September 13, 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/09/how-korean-pop-conquered-japan/244712/.
  31. Jeffrey Hays, “J-pop (Japanese pop music), the Japanese Music Industry and Competition from K-pop,” Facts and Details, accessed June 23, 2015, http://factsanddetails.com/japan/cat20/sub130/item705.html.
  32. “Seoul Trained: Inside Korea’s Pop Factory,” Spin.com, accessed May 30, 2014, http://www.spin.com/articles/seoul-trained-inside-koreas-pop-factory/.
  33. Hays, "J-pop."
  34. Don Reisinger, “‘Gangnam Style’ the First Video to Hit 1B YouTube Views,” CNET, December 21, 2012, http://www.cnet.com/news/gangnam-style-the-first-video-to-hit-1b-youtube-views/.
  35. “The Growing Influence of K-pop in the West,” Sessions X, June 8, 2015, http://sessionsx.com/tracks/spotlight/the-growing-influence-of-k-pop-in-the-west/.
  36. Baer, "A Peek Inside Johnny's Entertainment."
  37. Ibid.
  38. "4 tai 1 ni bunretsu!" [4 against 1 split!].
  39. "Janiizu jotei Merii Kitagawa ikari no dokuhaku 5 jikan" [5 hour monologue of Johnny's queen Mary Kitagawa], Shukan Bunshun, January 29, 2015.
  40. "4 tai 1 ni bunretsu!" [4 against 1 split!].
  41. Justin McCurry, "Breakup of Beloved Boyband SMAP Shocks Japanese Fans," The Guardian, January 13, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/13/breakup-beloved-boyband-smap-shocks-japanese-pop-fans. 
  42. Tomohiro Osaki and Atsushi Kodera, "SMAP Fans Relieved but Perplexed by Apology over Rumored Breakup," The Japan Times, January 19, 2016, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2016/01/19/entertainment-news/smap-pulls-back-brink-break/#.Vx3YBmOPXHg.
  43. Ibid.
  44. “SMAP Breakup Became Unavoidable Despite Multiple Talks with Agency President,” The Mainichi, August 15, 2016, http://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20160815/p2a/00m/0et/020000c.
  45. “Kimura Apologizes for SMAP Breakup,” The Japan Times, August 20, 2016, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2016/08/20/entertainment-news/kimura-apologizes-smap-breakup/#.WK-AaBhh2qk. 
  46. “Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, & Shingo Katori to Leave Johnny’s in September,” Arama! Japan, accessed August 3, 2017, http://aramajapan.com/news/goro-inagaki-tsuyoshi-kusanagi-shingo-katori-to-leave-johnnys-in-september/76807/.
  47. Daisuke Kikuchi, “Three Former SMAP Singers to Leave Talent Agency in September,” The Japan Times, June 19, 2017, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2017/06/19/entertainment-news/ex-smap-trio-leave-talent-agency-johnny-associates-september/#.WYLHIq2B17N.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Mark Schilling, "Is the Feudal Era Over for Japan's Talent Agencies?" The Japan Times, May 2, 2018, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2018/05/02/films/feudal-era-japans-talent-agencies/#.XYsdCC-B28U.
  50. Kim Morrissy, "Johnny & Associates Talent Agency Denies Pressuring TV Stations to Reduce Coverage on Former SMAP Members," Anime News Network, July 20, 2019, https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/interest/2019-07-20/johnny-and-associates-talent-agency-denies-pressuring-tv-stations-to-reduce-coverage-on-former-smap-members/.149089.
  51. Philip Brasor, "Idols and Agencies in Japan Navigate a Brand New Landscape," The Japan Times, March 23, 2019, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/03/23/national/media-national/idols-agencies-japan-navigate-brand-new-landscape/#.Xi-W9y17FmA.
  52. "Shashin tokushū: Ichikawa Ebizō 'BLOG of the year 2018' saiyūshūshō jushō Inagaki Gorō, Okada Yumi, Suzuki Nobuyuki-ra shūketsu" [Special feature: Eizo Ichikawa's 'BLOG of the year 2018' Grand Prize winners Goro Inagaki, Yumi Okada, and Nobuyuki Suzuki], Model Press, February 8, 2019, https://mdpr.jp/news/detail/1820883.
  53. “Johnny & Associates Lifts Ban on Online Images,” Arama! Japan, accessed September 26, 2019, https://aramajapan.com/news/johnny-associates-lifts-ban-online-images/84776/.
  54. Iizuka and Miyake, “Johnny’s Goes Digital."
  55. Yamashita Tomohisa Hits 2M Followers, Welcomed to Instagram by Will Smith," Arama Japan!, accessed October 4, 2019, https://aramajapan.com/news/yamashita-tomohisa-hits-2m-followers-welcomed-to-instagram-by-will-smith/98450/.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Yuki Yamamoto, “'I Want to Live Freely': Boy Band Arashi Announces End to 20-yr Career, Shocking Fans,” The Mainichi, January 28, 2019, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20190128/p2a/00m/0et/006000c.
  58. Ibid.
  59. “Arashi Tapped to Perform at Festival for Emperor’s Enthronement,” Kyodo News, September 18, 2019, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2019/09/c26505762cd6-arashi-tapped-to-perform-at-festival-for-emperors-enthronement.html.
  60. Brasor, "Idols and Agencies in Japan."
  61. Lynzee Loveridge, "Kanjani Eight's Ryo Nishikido Leaves Idol Group, Johnny's Agency," Anime News Network, September 6, 2019, https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/interest/2019-09-06/kanjani-eight-ryo-nishikido-leaves-idol-group-johnny-agency/.150827.
  62. Brasor, "Idols and Agencies in Japan."
  63. “Celebrities Mourn Death of Johnny Kitagawa at Tokyo Dome Memorial Event,” The Japan Times, September 4, 2019, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2019/09/04/entertainment-news/celebrities-mourn-death-johnny-kitagawa-tokyo-dome-memorial-event/#.XYmMbS-B0_V.
  64. "A Message from the President," September 13, 2018, Johnny & Associates, https://www.johnny-associates.co.jp/news/info-131/?lang=en.
  65. "Janii-shi no kōkeisha Takizawa Hideaki, Nakai ya Jurii-shira ga atooshi" [Nakai and Julie back Johnny's successor Hideaki Takizawa], News Post Seven, July 20, 2019, https://www.news-postseven.com/archives/20190720_1413531.html.
  66. Jin Kiyokawa, "SixTONES Make Much-awaited CD Debut," The Japan News, February 7, 2020, p. 16.
  67. Tamar Herman, "5 Thing to Know about J-Pop Group SixTONES," Billboard, January 30, 2020, https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/international/8549736/5-things-j-pop-group-sixtones.


Johnny & Associates: Japanese Pop Idol Producer Faces a Changing World Copyright © 2020 by Tim Craig and Lauren Jubelt. All Rights Reserved.

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