April 2023

BBC filmmakers criticize Japanese mainstream media for ignoring sexual abuse claims against pop mogul Johnny Kitagawa

Artwork by Julio Shiiki

Johnny Kitagawa famously pioneered the Asian boy band formula. Kitagawa’s agency, Johnny & Associates, manufactured and launched a string of groups and pop acts that dominated the Japanese entertainment scene for decades. Britain’s Take That and America’s NSYNC and Backstreet Boys all arguably owe a debt to him.

But the reclusive pop Svengali’s alleged pedophilia was an open secret in the industry. Thousands of teenagers were placed in his care by parents who hoped his agency, which held the world record for most No. 1 hits, would make them famous. The position, with Kitagawa as chief talent scout and nurturer, gave him unlimited access to starstruck teens in company “dormitories” where he was virtually the only adult. 

In 1999, the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun ran a series of articles in which 12 of Kitagawa’s former charges accused him of rape and abuse. Kitagawa sued for libel but the Tokyo High Court concluded in 2004 that the agency had failed to successfully challenge the testimony of two victims. The civil court ruling suggested strongly that Kitagawa was a serial sexual predator. 

In a new BBC documentary that aired in March, three men said they had been coerced into having sex with Kitagawa when they were boys. In addition to unearthing a previously unknown victim, the documentary makers, Mobeen Azhar and Megumi Inman, questioned why there was so little follow-up in the domestic media to the Bunshun bombshell.

Azhar acknowledged the “brilliant” work of journalists at Bunshun and elsewhere outside of the mainstream press pack, but said he and Inman had been “flabbergasted” at the “brick-walling” they met from the big media and other institutions while filming the documentary in Japan. 

“One of the predominant conversations we had was the press not reporting this story,” he told the FCCJ via Zoom. “I had a semblance of the limitations on press freedom in Japan. But I think I underestimated how that would affect the story, and how difficult it was for the press in Japan to report these issues.” 

Azhar described his interactions with the Japanese police as “incredibly frustrating” after years of talking to law enforcement and public officials in other countries. “I think it helps the police to avoid foreign scrutiny”, he said, adding that they are part of the story because they declined to prosecute Kitagawa when the allegations entered the public domain. 

Critics have been quick to accuse the BBC of hypocrisy. The broadcaster also failed to report abuse by Jimmy Savile, who hosted two of its top-rated shows from the 1970s-1990s. Savile used his fame and access to fans to hide decades of predatorial abuse in plain sight. As soon as his golden coffin was lowered into the ground in 2011, however, a tsunami of revelations destroyed his reputation. 

Azhar said that comparisons to Savile and other famous abusers were “entirely fair”, but defended his right to report the Kitagawa story, despite being an “outsider". He said the lesson from both the Savile and Kitagawa cases was that journalists everywhere are susceptible to groupthink. “Every single one of us do our jobs better if we are interrogating the established narrative,” he said.

He added: “What I think is unfair is the idea – and we often hear it when people don’t want to talk about an issue in the public domain – that we should go and sort out our own house first. No one journalist can sort out all the ills in the world. I think these conversations about people within the public eye exploiting their positions of power should happen and need to happen in every context. All exploitation is bad. If that’s happening in the U.K., it needs to be spoken about.”

Inman, who grew up in Japan and the U.K., said she believed only an outsider could properly tell the Kitagawa story. “There were too many relationships between the agency and the media in Japan,” she said. “It took someone from outside that didn’t have ties, like the BBC, to be able to tell the story … and to be a place where survivors could trust us and know that their story would be told fairly.” 

At their peak, Johnny & Associates managed clients who appeared annually in over 30 television programs and at least 40 commercials. Before they disbanded at the end of 2016, the five members of SMAP, then Japan’s best-loved pop group, had about 15 regular TV shows between them.

The organization’s clients still sprinkle the pop charts today and help grease the wheels of primetime television, propping up ratings and selling mayonnaise, phones and airline tickets during commercial breaks. Inman said it was still surprising “how powerful and omnipotent Johnny’s & Associates is. You can’t escape them. That is something that is hard to find a comparison to in the U.K.”.

Azhar insisted that once British journalists recovered from the shock of the Savile revelations, they “rolled up their sleeves and went to work”. He cited in-house BBC specials on Savile by flagship programs Newsnight and Panorama, and the 2016 documentary Abused: The Untold Story, in addition to a Netflix documentary called, appropriately enough, Jimmy Savile: a British Horror Story.

A new BBC drama is set to air this year, despite concerns that it might embarrass King Charles, who was a personal friend of Savile.

Will anything similar happen in Japan – and will we ever know how many children Kitagawa abused? While there has been a powerful reaction to the documentary on social media in Japan, the mainstream newspaper and TV networks have so far remained silent.

“We do know that there was a constant stream of young men joining the agency with aspirations to become stars,” Azhar said. “The fact that his homes were regarded as dormitories because there were so many boys sleeping over gives us an indication of the scale of abuse. It’s terrifying and it’s horrible to think about, but I don’t think we’ll ever be able to put a number to it.”

David McNeill is professor of communications and English at University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, and co-chair of the FCCJ’s Professional Activities Committee. He was previously a correspondent for the Independent, the Economist and the Chronicle of Higher Education.