A Top Japanese Talent Agency Apologizes Amid Sexual Abuse Accusations

One of Japan’s most influential entertainment production companies has issued an apology over sexual assault claims leveled against its founder, Johnny Kitagawa, decades after allegations about abuse of young men in his care first came to light.

Accusations that Mr. Kitagawa forced sex on the boys who signed onto his agency, Johnny & Associates, in the hopes it would catapult them to pop stardom had been made decades ago. And over a dozen former trainees have spoken out. But Mr. Kitagawa, a titan of Japan’s entertainment industry credited with helping to create the J-pop boy bands that were popular among Asian fans before the K-pop boom, has faced little public scrutiny even after his death in 2019.

In March, the accusations against him were the focus of an hourlong documentary by the BBC, which interviewed three accusers. As several other accusers came forward after the it aired, public pressure mounted for the agency to respond.

On Sunday, the chief executive of Johnny & Associates and Mr. Kitagawa’s niece, Julie Keiko Fujishima, apologized in a written and video statement published on its website.

“I would like to express my apology from bottom of my heart for the social problems caused by the sexual assault cases of Kitagawa, our founder,” Ms. Fujishima said.

Ms. Fujishima said the company took the accusations “very seriously” but stopped short of confirming or denying them. “I don’t think those issues didn’t happen at all,” she said, “However, it’s not easy for me to confirm if allegations are true or not without confirming with Johnny Kitagawa.”

She added that she had not been aware of the accusations against Mr. Kitagawa.

Mr. Kitagawa was never criminally charged over the accusations and consistently denied them.

Mr. Kitagawa’s accusers have said that he made sexual advances toward them while they trained to rise through the ranks of his talent agency, which is known for producing some of the biggest pop groups in Japan. Some said they felt they could not refuse his advances.

Most of the accusers have been anonymous. But last month, Japanese Brazilian singer Kauan Okamoto came forward with his account of being repeatedly sexually abused by Mr. Kitagawa during the four years he was at the agency between 2012 and 2016. He was abused between 15 and 20 times, starting from when he was 15, he said at a news conference.

Mr. Okamoto said in an interview with The New York Times that he felt he could not resist Mr. Kitagawa’s advances if he wanted to continue at the production company. “I had to be determined to quit if I were to resist,” he said.

Mr. Okamoto was unaware of the allegations when he first signed to the agency, he said. After he joined, “Other boys asked me, ‘Have you been assaulted?’” he said. “I said, ‘What?’ They said, ‘Oh, you haven’t yet.’”

Many accusers, including Mr. Okamoto, have said that they still look up to and are grateful to Mr. Kitagawa.

“I wouldn’t have made it that far on the stage without him,” Mr. Okamoto said. “You feel like he is nearly a family member. So many people are thankful to him.”

Over 18,000 people have signed a petition calling for the company to conduct an independent investigation into the accusations. However, Ms. Fujishima has rejected the idea, saying that some victims may not want to participate in an investigation. She added that the company would instead provide “consultation services” where victims can speak to counselors, lawyers and doctors.

Some journalists and media experts have also questioned how Ms. Fujishima was not aware of the accusations made against Mr. Kitagawa.

“If Julie Fujishima ‘didn’t know’ about the abuse, why not simply tell that to all the journalists (including myself) who contacted her agency about claims of abuse in 2023, 2019, 2005, 2000, 1999, 1988,” David McNeill, a professor of communications at Sacred Heart University in Tokyo, said on Twitter.

The first public accusation made against Mr. Kitagawa from someone who said he had experienced abuse came in 1988. Koji Kita, a member of one of the agency’s earliest successful boy bands, wrote a book detailing allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of Mr. Kitagawa and how other male teenage trainees had experienced abuse. His account prompted a string of similar accusations from other former trainees. As early as 1965, local news media reported that the guardians of four boys sued Mr. Kitagawa, claiming he made sexual advances toward them. The boys later said they could not remember the details.

In 1999, the Japanese magazine Shukan Bunshun reported the accounts of several anonymous accusers, sending shock waves through the entertainment industry. The story attracted international attention but was largely ignored by the local media.

The agency sued the publication for libel and denied it access to acts managed by Mr. Kitagawa. In 2002, the Tokyo District Court ruled in favor of Mr. Kitagawa, ordering the publisher to pay 8.8 million yen (about $65,000) in damages. The amount was reduced to 1.2 million in 2003 by the Tokyo High Court, which found that the accusers’ statements were consistent with one another.

Media experts have noted that local television stations and newspapers have historically been wary about angering Mr. Kitagawa and his company, fearing that their access to his acts would be restricted.

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