When legendary Japanese music mogul Johnny Kitagawa died in 2019, politicians, entrepreneurs and the dozens of boy bands he created filled a Tokyo stadium to pay their respects.
A towering figure in the Japanese music industry, Kitagawa was revered for forging the careers of many of the country’s most popular artists and helping propel J-Pop – a uniquely Japanese version of pop music – to an international audience.
But after singer Kauan Okamoto spoke about his experiences at the hands of Kitagawa this week, accusing him of sexually abusing as many as 200 young boys who dreamed of stardom, Japan’s entertainment industry, media and public were forced to face the allegations that have long been circling the talent manager.
Insiders have compared the culture of silence that helped Kitagawa get away with his crimes for decades to the cases of Harvey Weinstein and Jimmy Savile, both of whom abused their positions of power in the entertainment industry. They told The Telegraph, however, that they feared the tycoon’s downfall wouldn’t lead to significant change.
Although it was covered extensively in international media, Japanese news outlets covered Okamoto’s press conference, in which he claimed he was sexually assaulted by Kitagawa on 15 to 20 occasions in the four years before he left his talent agency Johnny and Associates in 2016, superficially.
The Yomiuri Shimbun, a daily newspaper with a circulation of seven million sales, devoted only seven paragraphs to Mr. Okamoto’s experiences.
The lack of media coverage in Japan has raised concerns that the whole affair is being quietly swept under the rug.
“Other media outlets said they could never confirm the claims against Kitagawa, but they really didn’t try very hard,” said Shiro Saito, a reporter at the news weekly Shukan Bunshun. In 1999 he challenged the taboo around Kitagawa by publishing a series of articles about 10 “talented” adolescent males who had been abused.
Kitagawa sued for libel and was eventually awarded less than £9,000 in damages over the claim that his agency had supplied alcohol and cigarettes to minors.
The court found the sexual abuse claims had “validity,” but none of the teenagers were willing to file formal police reports, and Kitagawa returned to work.
“The problem was that the agency was so powerful that all the media companies were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to get top stars on their shows or arrange interviews if they published negative stories about Kitagawa,” Saito told The Telegraph. “They reported the outcome of our court case, but that’s about it. They just dropped it again.
Other members of the Japanese media regret not speaking out against Kitagawa.
“He had so much power that media companies were terrified of disrupting him,” said a producer at national broadcaster NHK, who declined to be named. “But yeah, we and the rest of showbiz should have done more. We knew the stories and it was wrong to ignore them.”
As a result of the limited media coverage of Okamoto’s lecture, the producer said he expects the Japanese entertainment world to “get back to business as usual” in the blink of an eye and hasn’t learned his lesson.
“The entertainment industry everywhere has this kind of boss-servant relationship and we saw exactly the same thing in Hollywood with Harvey Weinstein,” he said. “So yeah, it could happen again here.”
Companies are untouchable
Makoto Watanabe, a professor of media and communication at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, says too many Japanese companies and institutions “have come to dominate the country to the point where they are untouchable and what they want goes.”
Said that. Tokyo Electric Power Co, the operator of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, was not questioned for its disaster precautions until it was too late and the March 2011 earthquake caused three reactors to collapse while the financial scandals related to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are only now coming to light.
“It’s the same in the idol business and Kitagawa was able to intimidate everyone to the point where they stopped trying to resist him,” Watanabe said, referring to the way Japanese music companies create stars.
“The media kept silent and Japanese society turned its back on these kids. And they allowed Kitagawa to keep his empire until his death. This, to me, is scary.
There is some hope that Okamoto’s press conference could encourage more victims to come forward, Saito said.
“Kitagawa was the head of the agency for 40 years, so there would have been a lot of guys,” he said.
But his death means there is now no one to charge and in many cases the statute of limitations will have expired.
“I don’t even think it will really damage his reputation as what was happening was public knowledge,” Saito said.
The agency will also continue largely unaffected as it remains a key player in providing a conveyor belt of young performers for Japanese television, he added.