Feature - Back Numbers

The Boys in the Band - The Legendary Johnny's Jimusho (2005.07.23)

Johnny's Jimusho is a Japanese talent agency, child star training center, management company, marketing powerhouse and media conglomerate that has been consistently and stupendously successful for nearly 40 years. Even music fans who have no interest in the "bidanshi" (pretty boy) idol pop fare in which they specialize can not help but be impressed by the business savvy that allows this entertainment giant to bathe in cash.

Johnny's Jimusho (literally Johnny's Office) was started by California-born Japanese-American Johnny Kitagawa in 1963. Johnny originally came to Japan while serving in the U.S. Army, remaining in the country after discharge. He still runs the company together with his sister Mary.

Legend has it that Johnny's was not always a talent agency, but rather began as a baseball team. The team reportedly attended a performance of the musical West Side Story, and were so inspired that they decided to stage their own show. They put together a dance team and achieved some level of success, despite the perception that they were amateurs who had merely studied and worked hard. This gave Kitagawa the idea that he could develop the talents of others, using the connections he had established in Japan to start an artist management company of his own. He launched his company in 1963 with a group called the Johnny's, but success did not come immediately.

Johnny's Jimusho's first major hit was with the Four Leaves in 1968, who remained popular until they broke up in 1978. After the Four Leaves, Johnny's has produced an endless string of boy bands, many of which have been gigantic hits.

The Johnny's production style has often been likened to a factory. They scout young boys for looks and character, then putting them through intensive training that includes grooming, public speaking, dance, singing, acting, gymnastics and sometimes more esoteric skills such as skating, which was the trademark of the smash 80s group Hikaru Genji. The company is constantly flooded with letters from youngsters (and their parents) hoping to become the next male super idol. Most Johnny's boys sign on in their early teens, but the age can be as young as nine. Among current groups in the Johnny's stable are the News, Tokio, V6, Kinki Kids, Arashi, Johnny's Juniors, Tackey & Tsubasa and the aging but still ubiquitous SMAP.

TV exposure is an essential part of the Johnny's formula. With Johnny's front line artists always in demand, Johnny's uses this leverage to also get TV time for his up and coming groups. Sometimes the rookies appear initially as back dancers or in other non-spotlight positions. Even before they have their own hit records, they may have been on TV many times. In fact it is probably more accurate to think of Johnny's artists more as "talento" than as musicians, as most perform in a wide range of entertainment categories, ranging from live theatre to historical TV dramas, ad pitchmen, cooking shows, movies and comedy.

Live shows are always major productions. Every song receives full-on production, usually with dancing, and always with plenty of large scale "bells and whistles". Kitagawa in fact has cited Alice Cooper as an inspiration for putting on crowd-pleasing theatrical performances.

The system for bringing up Johnny's idols has been compared to that of early era American movie studios. The members are under strict contracts, and their public images are carefully groomed. Generally they aspire to be the handsome boy next door, making both daughters and mothers (and even grandmothers) swoon. As a general rule, the members do not publicly have girlfriends, as the boys are of greater interest to fans when they are "available".

In the early years of Johnny's, members were not allowed to have long or dyed hair, but the production company has changed with the times. This seems to be another part of the Johnny's formula for success, they watch for pop culture trends, make unashamedly commercial versions of them, and flog mercilessly on TV and beyond. Johnny's also has a genius for gimmicks and generating "news". There are many magazines filled largely by photos and articles about Johnny's groups and their latest escapades.

When a certain level of success is achieved by a group, they then move into the lucrative job of advertising pitchmen. This is especially lucrative for Johnny's Jimusho, who in addition to managing the boys owns the group's recordings, videos, images and even names. While some observes might see the income splits as exploitive, Johnny's Jimusho undeniably has a major investment in all of their artists, and sticks with them long term as long as they keep to task. Shonentai for example were signed for seven years before they made their recording debut.

One of the most amazing things about Johnny's is their "batting average" - nearly every group they launch enjoys major success, although only their accountant knows what goes into developing each of their franchises. The successful group then also is used to bring up the next generation of aspiring Johnny's idols, giving them time in their TV shows or other productions. There are also sometimes spin-offs. The Tanokin Trio, for example, launched the solo careers of members Masahiko Kondo and Toshihiko Tahara. Arashi is a spin-off of Johnny's Juniors. All of the members of SMAP do solo or side project work.

As is the case with many highly successful boy bands, Johnny's groups also have their detractors. A common criticism is that the members do not have to be particularly good singers, dancers or actors to be seen on TV in heavy rotation, and that they are merely famous for being famous.

A more serious charge concerns Johnny Kitagawa's personal involvement with his stable of young beautiful boys. From the early days of Johnny's Jimusho there have been accusations that Johnny sometimes enjoys the boys in his bands more than might be considered appropriate. In the 1970s an idol's parents charged Johnny with "indecent behavior" with their son, a charge some say that was settled out of court. In 1988 former Four Leaves member Koji Kita wrote a book that alleged that Kitagawa had sodomized him from the age of 16, despite his not being gay or bisexual, and that at the time he had yet to have sex with a woman. Another Johnny's idol, Jo Toyokawa also made similar charges. There have also been books and magazine articles, some seemingly sincere and others sensational, that make accusations along similar lines.

In 2002 Kitagawa successfully sued Shukan Bunshun's parent company Bungei Shunju for defamation over articles that appeared in 1999 claiming that Kitagawa had sexually and otherwise abused his charges. Part of the court's ruling was that the credibility of the related parties' testimony was doubtful, and that there was not enough substantial evidence.

While there has been plenty of smoke from this lurid direction, in fact Johnny Kitagawa has not been convicted of any such wrong doing, and his business has not had any substantial repercussions from the accusations. In fact, as anybody who watches much Japanese TV knows, Johnny's Jimusho stars remain incredibly visible and popular. SMAP remains Johnny's biggest franchise at the moment, with Kinki Kids and Tackey & Tsubasa not too far behind in popularity, but should any Johnny's groups break-up, history suggests that a newer and younger Johnny's group is in the wings ready to take their place.

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Originally submitted by: Keith Cahoon | See Edit History | Edit Article