Takeshi Kitano, arguably Japan’s most recognizable entertainer, has weighed in on the sexual abuse scandal that has shaken the country’s multi-billion-dollar media landscape.
Since March, a long-delayed reckoning has been brewing in the country’s entertainment industry. For decades, rumors of rampant sexual abuse had swirled around Johnny Kitagawa, the founder of Johnny & Associates (locally known as just “Johnny’s”), Japan’s dominant talent agency for young male stars. But it wasn’t until the BBC aired an in-depth documentary examining the allegations — Predator: The Secret Scandal of J-pop — that Japanese media have begun to cautiously cover the scandal. In recent weeks, several other male idols have come forward with allegations that they were sexually assaulted by Kitagawa when they were boys, and the company’s current management has issued an unprecedented apology.
The Hollywood Reporter asked Kitano for his thoughts on the growing outcry during an interview Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival, where the director, actor and comedian is premiering his latest feature, Kubi, a period samurai film.
“The time of being able to speak up about LGBTQ stuff and sexual harassment has finally come to Japan,” Kitano said. “But these stories have always been around [in our industry],” he added. The 76-year-old performer, also known by his stage name “Beat Takeshi,” is a ubiquitous figure in Japan’s entertainment scene — an iconic standup comedian, variety show star, mainstay of Japanese gangster movies, and a Venice Golden Lion-winning director (Hana-bi, 1997), among various other creative pursuits (he also paints and has authored bestselling books).
Kitagawa, who died of a stroke in 2019, was credited with pioneering the J-pop boy band model of entertainment that swept Asia in the 1980s and 90s, ahead of the K-pop wave that would later conquer the world. A ruthless businessman, he was known for his masterful manipulation of Tokyo’s top media and entertainment conglomerates, leveraging his talent’s star power to command top fees and total obedience over how he and his company were covered.
The earliest known allegations against Kitagawa date back to 1965, when the parents of four boys attempted to sue him for making sexual advances toward their children. In 1988, Koji Kita, a member of one of Johnny’s earliest hit boy bands, published a memoir alleging that he and other aspiring singers had been abused by Kitagawa. And in 1999, leading local tabloid magazine Shukan Bunshun published an investigative report containing additional accounts of child sex abuse from several anonymous boys signed with Johnny’s. The company then sued the publication for libel. Tokyo’s High Court concluded that key parts of Bunshun’s report on Kitagawa’s sexual abuse were true, but said other claims about Kitagawa allowing the boys to drink and smoke while underage were in doubt. The magazine’s publisher was ordered to pay Johnny & Associates 1.2 million yen in compensation.
Throughout it all, Japan’s mainstream media maintained near-total silence — despite the fact that the allegations involved the company responsible for creating some of the country’s very biggest stars, including idol group mainstays like SMAP, Shonentai, Arashi and Travis Japan. With famously cutthroat industry acumen, Kitagawa made his stars so indispensable to Japan’s music, film, TV and advertising industries that local media conglomerates dared not cross him by publishing unfavorable commentary.
Kitano, whose own career as one of his country’s most popular public entertainers stretches back to the early 1970s, blasted some of the structural forces that have allowed Japan’s talent agencies to wield such outsized power — long a source of complaint in the country’s film and TV business.
“Since the post-war period, Japan has had really big talent agencies. And rather than having [fair] contracts, these agencies have treated talent sort of like slaves — and that’s continued until today,” Kitano said. “Talent’s earnings are exploited. Recently, these old institutional practices and other incidents from the past have come to the surface.”
Several weeks after the airing of the BBC’s documentary in March, Kauan Okamoto, a former member of Johnny’s trainee program for aspiring pop idols, Johnny’s Jr., gave an interview with Shukan Bunshun and a press conference at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan detailing further allegations against the deceased media magnate.
Okamoto said he signed with the agency when he was 15 years old in 2012, and that he was subsequently abused by Kitagawa about 15 to 20 times over the next four years. He also said he saw Kitagawa sexually assault three of his fellow teenage trainees.
According to local press reports, when asked why the boys put up with the abuse, Okamoto said, “In the first place, the boys who could make their debuts at Johnny’s were Mr. Johnny’s favorites. Everybody understood that a word from Mr. Johnny dictates everything.” He also said that he had heard from other Johnny’s Jr. boys, “If you don’t go to [Kitagawa’s] mansion, you won’t become a star.”
As outcry over the claims began to spread, a Johnny’s fan group in mid-May submitted a petition with over 16,000 signatures, demanding that the agency launch an internal investigation. Johnny’s current president and Kitagawa’s niece, Julie Keiko Fujishima, then took the unprecedented step of directly addressing the sexual abuse allegations on behalf of the company for the first time.
“I would like to express my apology from the bottom of my heart for the social problems caused by the sexual assault cases of Kitagawa, our founder,” Fujishima said in a video statement published on the agency’s website. She said she took the allegations “very seriously,” but neither confirmed nor denied them. She said that at the time of Bunshun‘s 1999 report, she was just a director and the company was managed exclusively by her uncle, Johnny Kitagawa and her own mother, Mary Kitagawa.
“Knowledge of these [accusations] was limited to the two of them,” she said.
“I don’t think those issues didn’t happen at all,” she added, “However, it’s not easy for me to confirm if allegations are true or not without confirming with Johnny Kitagawa.”
Two additional Kitagawa accusers have since come to light. Yasushi Hashida, a 37-year-old dancer and actor, told a hearing of Japan’s Diet, the national legislature, that he was sexually assaulted by Kitagawa twice when he joined the agency at age 13. And Ryu Takahashi, another former Johnny’s teen idol, said he was one of the lucky ones to successfully rebuff Kitagawa’s attempted sexual advances. (He described in detail an episode of being invited to Kitagawa’s luxury home and being offered a massage by the aged CEO that quickly turned sexual, only ending after the singer and dancer, then just 16, shouted, “No!”).
Takahashi described the current Johnny’s president’s apology as an “act of desperation” and rejected the company’s claim that it was unaware of the multi-decade rumors and allegations of sexual abuse by the founder.
“There were rumors, and a court also handed down a ruling in a lawsuit against Shukan Bunshun,” Takahashi, now 31, told Tokyo’s Asahi Shinbun newspaper. “It does not make sense if someone who was a director and later succeeded [Kitagawa] as president says she did not know.”