J-pop abuse scandal exposes broader crisis of governance

In mid-May, mainstream Japanese television stations broadcast a one-minute apology from Julie Fujishima. Four sentences. Four bows. And a formidable absence of anything resembling regret, reflection or responsibility.

It was a terse, but rather necessary, response to claims of nearly 60 years of open-secret sexual abuse and paedophilia allegations surrounding her late uncle, Johnny Kitagawa — enigmatic svengali, pioneer of the Asian boy band genre and founder of one of Japan’s most powerful talent agencies for young male performers.

His alleged victims, who have been said to number as many as 100 now adult men, have begun to break decades of silence. Three of them did so in a BBC documentary this year that set out to challenge the agency’s omertà. Fujishima’s apology was primarily for the social kerfuffle this exposure has caused. The company says it cannot verify the claims since Kitagawa is dead.

The collective picture painted by the victims’ stories is horrifying. The question is whether Japan will be collectively horrified enough to decide that nothing like this should ever happen again, to men or women of any age. 

There are many other powerful talent agencies, many teenagers yearning for stardom and a terrifying failure to care how routinely this yearning is treated as a licence to abuse. For all the grimness of Kitagawa’s sexual predations, the fundamental, far-reaching — and perhaps fixable — crisis is one of power and governance.

The continuing centrality of Kitagawa’s empire (now run by Fujishima) to the Japanese entertainment and media industries is hard to overstate. So, too, is the societal waiver that Kitagawa was granted even as the allegations swirled. His company, Johnny & Associates, was and remains a prodigious generator of stars and hits. Consequently, it is a pre-eminent source of the high-energy silage on which Japanese media — the scores of variety shows, dramas and adverts in which Johnny’s stars abound — insatiably grazes.

That status as an essential service granted Kitagawa, with the exception of a revelatory magazine article in 1999 and a related civil case that reached the Tokyo high court in 2004, near-total protection from serious scrutiny, which lasted until his death in 2019.

After the BBC documentary on Kitagawa was broadcast in March, parallels were drawn with Britain’s painful reckoning with the crimes of the entertainer Jimmy Savile. Here, too, was a catalogue of sexual abuse by a vile eccentric leveraging extraordinary power over decades and hiding, with the collusion of the media, in plain sight. Here, too, was an abuser around whom allegations swirled for years but whose comeuppance, while explosive, made a hollow posthumous boom. 

And while it is tempting to suggest that Japan is on the brink of some similarly great deluge of truth-telling and hand-wringing, it is likely that the media will decide that it simply has too much to lose. At worst it will not investigate; at best it will, but may conclude firmly that Kitagawa was the exception, not the rule.

There is, though, a way to approach this that treats the matter as cautionary and creates a focus on the wider crisis: that of good corporate governance and the egregious concentration of power that its absence allows. 

The godlike status conferred on Kitagawa as a pioneering industrial founder has echoes across corporate Japan. There is a profound reluctance to let higher standards of governance constrain these figures, but increasingly there is also a grudging recognition that it may be the only way to reduce the potential for abuse. 

The pivotal difference between Savile and Kitagawa is that the latter was the president and founder of a large company, and the relationships that protected him were corporate. The customers of J&A are the huge media groups that dominate Japanese TV and the hundreds of companies that use it — and other agencies — to promote their products. 

Those companies are under mounting pressure to demonstrate better governance, and to question much that has for years been unchallenged. If stronger governance norms can push managements to take responsibility for wrongdoing across their supply chains, that should include the human supply chains on which they rely for adverts, brand ambassadors and filling endless airwave hours.

This is easier said than done. Kitagawa’s skill was to provide what corporate Japan needed as tidily as possible: perfectly packaged talent, ready to sing, dance and pose on command. But better governance is often messy. The companies knew there was a high price for that tidiness, and it is time to admit they should not have paid it.

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