From October 17, the talent enterprise formerly known as Johnny & Associates will change its name to "Smile-Up," officially ending the "Johnny's" brand (as it is known in Japanese) for the firm and its related subsidiaries.
In addition, a new company for talent management will be set up within a month. Its name will be decided after taking suggestions from the fanbase. The idea is that the rebaptized Johnny & Associates will finish compensating victims and cease to exist. That will leave space for the new company in the talent agency business.
This announcement comes after weeks of turmoil following a third-party investigation which found that founder Johnny Kitagawa — who died in 2019 — had sexually abused and molested many teenagers working in the agency.
Hundreds of Victims Coming Forward
As of October 2, 478 people had come forward claiming to have suffered abuse at the hand of Kitagawa. Of those, 325 are asking for compensation, said lawyer Hiroshi Kimeda.
The company initially responded to the claims by appointing a new president, Noriyuki Higashiyama, on September 5. In the fallout, more victims came forward. Reacting to the number of victims, Higashiyama said he was surprised that so many people had raised their voices to accuse Kitagawa.
The company restructuring comes with the desire to promote a "new way of doing things and a new vision," said Higashiyama in a press conference on October 2. He will be the new talent agency's CEO and Yoshihiko Inohara will be his deputy. Both entered as young talents at Johnny & Associates in 1979 and 1988, respectively. They went on to conduct successful careers as actors, singers, and personalities. Moving up in the ranks, Inohara became the CEO of the subsidiary Johnny's Island in 2022. Higashiyama started working in an administrative role at Johnny & Associates in 2020.
Johnny & Associates was silent from the start of the investigation in May until well after its findings were announced on August 29. Eventually, the embattled company held its first press conference on September 7. At that time the company publicly admitted Kitagawa's wrongdoing. Former CEO Julie Keiko Fujishima, the founder's niece, also announced her resignation in favor of Higashiyama. However, the company's name was unchanged at that point.
Higashiyama addressed his decision to change the company name on October 2. "I had thought changing the name would be a disservice to those that had worked hard under Johnny & Associates," he said. "However, naturally there was a lot of pushback. This convinced me I needed to change my thinking drastically."
Newly appointed compliance officer and lawyer Masayuki Yamada said that the company will take steps toward implementing stricter compliance measures under the umbrella of human rights protection.
"We want to take care of everyone involved. So if anyone else wants to come forward, or speak to me personally, please don't hesitate to get in touch with our office," said Higashiyama.
The company has not yet announced the sums of compensation, which are currently being negotiated with the victims.
As of October 2, the new CEO said he's met in person with three alleged victims. He emphasized that he was open to meeting more people in the future should they wish to do so.
Inohara explained that the company was not planning to conduct a further probe into Kitagawa's assaults. They feared doing so could force victims into the open against their will.
"Whether victims want to raise their voice, demand mental health care, or compensation, we want to address each individual person's concern," said Inohara.
Words from the Former CEO
Former CEO Fujishima was not present at the press conference. In a letter read out by Inohara, she explained in more detail the background behind Kitagawa's behavior and why it went unchecked for many years.
"When Johnny had the court case [over magazine coverage accusing him of sexual assault] he said that those rumors were baseless. And we believed him," she wrote.
She was referring to a case affirmed in the Supreme Court in 2004. Kitagawa had sued a magazine for libel for reporting anonymous interviews with the talent mogul's alleged victims. The court found that the interviews were consistent, effectively lending credibility to the anonymous claims.
The former CEO also said that, although she was part of the executive board, in practice she worked away from the main head office. She was not part of the decision-making process until after 2018.
Still, Fujishima wrote she took "full responsibility" for what Kitagawa had done. She said the establishment of a new company was an attempt to "remove any traces of Johnny [from the company legacy]."
Fujishima owns 100% percent of the shares of the former Johnny & Associates. She will keep those, she said, justifying it as a move to facilitate the compensation of victims. Fujishima will not, however, be part of the executive board in the new company, said Inohara.
Under any name, the Johnny & Associates brand has a bumpy road ahead, as heavy scrutiny continues.
Fan voices and social media attention have been high since the company's four-hour press conference on September 7. Many people have raised concerns about whether keeping the name unchanged would be a sufficient break from the previous administration.
A simple sign of this mood was the atmosphere at the press conference on October 2. It was close to mutinous, with many journalists aggressively firing questions to executives and requesting follow-ups.
Going forward, a key factor will be how the care of victims takes place and whether promises of compensation are met.
Another issue is how talent management will be handled going forward. Higashiyama and Inohara have both stressed that the new company will change its managerial style, leaving more freedom to the artists. But in practice what this will look like is still not clear.
In the meantime, several major companies have announced their decision to distance themselves from the talent agency during this existential reckoning. Broadcaster NHK announced in late September that it will not be signing new contracts with Johnny & Associates for the upcoming New Year's Eve singing contest, Kohaku Uta Gassen.
Asahi Group Holdings, Nissan Motor, Sapporo Beer, and Suntory Holdings, among others, also announced in September they would discontinue contracts or commercial agreements with the talent management giant for the time being.
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Author: Arielle Busetto