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A man in a black ballcap and dark glasses seen on a screen as another man walks past.
A person walks past a screen showing news reporting about Johnny Kitagawa’s passing away in Tokyo in July 2019. (Kyodo News via AP)

The humiliating downfall of Japan’s Johnny & Associates: Fans reckon with sexual assault in entertainment

Johnny & Associates, one of J-pop’s most famous entertainment agencies, has retired the company name as part of its compensation to the talents who experienced sexual assault at the hands of its late namesake founder, Johnny Kitagawa.

The agency has split into two: one company, named “Smile-Up,” will be responsible for compensating victims.

Another yet unnamed company will house entertainers. Fans of Johnny & Associates have been tapped to decide what the name of the new agency should be.

The international reckoning of Kitagawa’s abuse has led to the agency’s public downfall. It’s also catalyzed many emotions among victims of abuse and fans of the male talent produced by Johnny & Associates (also known as Johnny’s).

Some victims have slammed Johnny & Associates’ rebranding efforts as a meaningless symbolic gesture, a desperate attempt to stay afloat amidst calls for the company to shut down.

Some diehard fans have also urged the agency to be accountable to victims.

But how fans’ advocacy and commentary will shape a reckoning about the culture of sexual assault that has been exposed in the agency and the Japanese entertainment industry at large remains to be seen.

Fall of a titan: Johnny & Associates

Allegations and rumours of systemic sexual assault had plagued Johnny & Associates for decades.

Kitagawa, the late founder of the male-only agency, was known as the “king of Japanese boy bands,” responsible for producing beloved boy bands and male entertainment personalities. He was accused multiple times of assaulting young boys signed to his label from the 1950s to the 2010s.

Despite this, Kitagawa escaped culpability and punishment up until his death in 2019. This was aided by his power in the entertainment industry and what Hiroshi Fujita, journalism professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, has characterized as Japanese media’s “cautious and timid” approach to dealing with “sensitive subjects.”

A building with the sign 'Johnny &  Associates.'
A sign hangs on the facade of the headquarters of Johnny & Associates talent agency, seen in July 2019, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

‘Predator’ documentary

At one point in time, it seemed that Johnny & Associates would be forever untouchable.

Then in March 2023, the BBC released a documentary, Predator: The Secret Scandal of J-Pop. The documentary exposed Kitagawa’s abuse allegations as “Japan’s secret sex scandal” as well as the national media cover-up that impeded justice.

After an explosive reaction to the documentary nationally and internationally, along with news of a United Nations intervention to interview victims of abuse, Julie Fujishima, niece of Kitagawa who took over as president of Johnny & Associates, admitted the allegations were true and issued an apology.

A man and woman seen at press conference.
Julie Keiko Fujishima, right, outgoing president of Johnny & Associates Inc. and new president Noriyuki Higashiyama, at a conference on Sept. 7, 2023, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

Now under the leadership of the new CEO and former Johnny’s talent Noriyuki Higashiyama, the company promises reparations for victims.

But with Higashiyama himself facing sexual abuse allegations and Japanese companies from McDonald’s to Nissan cutting ties with the agency and their talents, fans have been left wondering what the future holds for the once-titan company of Japanese entertainment.

‘Parasocial’ relations

As sociologist Karen Sternheimer explains in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, what fans often feel for their favourite music star or entertainment company is vicarious and dangerously “parasocial” — based on a relationship they imagine having with another person whom they do not personally know.

This may mean a fan’s love for a certain entertainer may lead them to align themselves emotionally, ideologically and even politically with the entertainer, defending them against criticism and shutting down unflattering discourse about them.

Company, brand loyalty?

In some cases, fans’ conception of their favourite celebrity’s stardom can extend to the company that produced these talents.

Fans of Disney stars Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez may see themselves more generally as “Disney fans,” while fans of Korean girl groups Girls’ Generation, Red Velvet and aespa, produced by Korean record label and management company SM Entertainment, may consider themselves “SM fans.”

This is especially true when companies strategically encourage fanatical behavior and mobilize affective attachments around the company brand.

Johnny & Associates certainly fits the bill with their creation of fan communities around their male talents, or as they are colloquially known, Johnny’s Idols (or Janīzu).

A line of seated men at a long table with sombre faces.
Shimon Ishimaru, third from left, deputy head of Johnny’s Sexual Assault Victims Association, with other accusers, at a news conference in Tokyo, Sept. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

Fans can be overzealous

Diehard fans have been known to defend their favourite celebrities against criticism, shutting down viewpoints they perceive may tarnish their idol’s image.

Music critics have expressed fear over criticizing Taylor Swift because of her overzealous fans, who writer Kara Kennedy has called “cult-like.”

Journalists like Juwon Park and Raphael Rashid, speaking of K-pop fan dedication, have sounded the alarm over the ways fans have attacked those who dare ruin the fun of worshipping their favourite entertainers by looking through critical lenses.

Just as with K-pop fans disrupting Trump rallies in 2020 and spreading public health awareness online in the early period of the COVID-19 pandemic, celebrity fan culture’s considerable social media power and ability to organize can transform consumer power into sustained activist potential.

Read more: Nicki Minaj’s COVID-19 vaccine tweet about swollen testicles signals the dangers of celebrity misinformation and fandom

However, such fans can also just as easily mobilize to maintain the status quo.

If observations of existing fan culture are any indication, we should anticipate that some fans could remain emotionally invested in the agency, regardless of the dire implications of the scandal.

Upholding accountability

More reverberations should be expected following a September announcement about victims seeking criminal charges. Johnny & Associates fans must not use their power and presence within transnational networks to divert attention away from the talent agency’s abuse.

Documentaries, YouTube series and editorial exposés have been important for furthering movements to hold sexual predators in entertainment industries accountable.

Particularly at a time when victims are speaking out, the public, including fans, will need to decide how their actions, cultural commentary and support for victims can most productively contribute to this reckoning.

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