Magazine journalist Ryutaro Nakamura had heard rumours about a top music producer in Japan sexually abusing boys and teenagers.

His journalism instincts told him to dig. And they were right.

One day, he found the proof he was looking for.

WARNING: This story includes details of sexual assault and rape, which some readers may find distressing.

Three men agreed to go on the record and recount how they were raped and sexually abused as teenagers by industry heavyweight Johnny Kitagawa.

“When [one victim] told me about what had happened, his voice would tremble and he would cry,” Nakamura told the ABC.

“I felt shocked and apologetic at the same time.

“I felt that I had no choice but to tell the world about it.”

Kitagawa was a giant of Japan’s powerful J-pop industry, credited with inventing the very style of boy band the country is famous for.

Over his five-decade career at the helm of production agency Johnny & Associates, he created Japan’s biggest pop stars, perhaps most notably the boy group SMAP.

A boy band wearing white suits over garish shirts strike a pose on stage
SMAP was one of Johnny & Associates’ most successful pop acts until it disbanded in 2016.(Xinhua via AFP: Jin Liangkuai)

His celebrities didn’t just create hit records, they infiltrated every corner of mainstream media, from television shows to advertisement billboards, guaranteeing high ratings and interest.

But away from the bright lights of the entertainment industry, Kitagawa was luring starry-eyed boys and teenagers to his home, where he would sexually abuse and rape them, according to multiple victim statements proven in court and eyewitness accounts.

In 1999, Nakamura and his colleagues published a series of reports in Weekly Bunshun magazine that detailed multiple allegations of boys being raped by Kitagawa.

A two-page spread of an old, yellowing magazine includes photos of J pop stars and an office building
Some of the Weekly Bunshun articles were headlined “Acts forced on Johnny’s boys in the devil’s house” and “The monster of the entertainment world”.(Supplied)

The journalist was sure the revelations would destroy Kitagawa’s career and change the music industry for the better.

But instead, it was met with silence.

“I approached my various media friends and colleagues, and asked them to follow up on our story,” Nakamura said.

“I told them that serious human rights issues should be taken up, but they were reluctant to do so.

“I was disappointed at every turn.”

How ‘Johnny’s Boys’ were allegedly groomed in ‘the dormitory’

The images of Johnny Kitagawa and his proteges were meticulously curated and controlled, and Japanese media were all too happy to accommodate.

Kitagawa’s agency, after all, had the best stars.

Very few photographs were ever published of Kitagawa himself, as the media would agree with his demands of staying out of the spotlight.

Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, once broadcast an interview with Kitagawa that was shot from the neck down. 

Unlike other agencies, Johnny & Associates only dealt with boy bands, not girls or women.

To become a “Johnny’s Boy”, children and teenagers were selected through an audition process.

Those who impressed Johnny Kitagawa could then rise through the ranks from a background dancer to a fully fledged pop idol.

A sign with logo of a red circle with a white J and 'Johnny & Associates' sits atop an office building
Johnny & Associates was one of Japan’s first talent agencies recruiting boy bands that would pave the way for the behemoth that is J-pop.(Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon)

Nakamura said the boys would often stay at Kitagawa’s home, called the “dormitory”, without other parental supervision. He said this was where Johnny would take advantage, offering the children alcohol and cigarettes.

After the series of reports in 1999, Kitagawa sued the magazine for defamation.

But the lengthy court battle, rather than quashing the reports, vindicated the journalists.

Tokyo’s High Court found the claims of sexual abuse reported in the Weekly Bunshun were correct.

And yet, police did not file any charges. The press also ignored the matter.

Nakamura was flabbergasted.

“I was really shocked,” he said.

“I wondered how such a thing could happen in a civilised country.”

The ‘elephant in the room’ after a media giant’s death

The case of Johnny Kitagawa has drawn comparisons with that of other high-profile celebrities found to have abused their power, including Britain’s Jimmy Savile, Australian entertainer Rolf Harris, and Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Savile, who hosted top-rating programs including the BBC’s Top of the Pops, was exposed as a serial paedophile in 2012, a year after his death.

Like Kitagawa, there were rumours of his behaviour throughout his decades-long career, but little was ever done to investigate.

A culture of cover-up was also exposed in Hollywood in 2017, when the New York Times revealed dozens of sexual abuse and rape allegations against Weinstein.

Again, there was a long history of widespread rumours, but little action.

But when both Savile and Weinstein were eventually exposed, the media floodgates burst open and the reputations of the men were destroyed overnight.

When Kitagawa died in 2019, aged 87, the allegations stacked against him were largely ignored.

Instead, the music mogul was lavished with praise.

A black-and-white photo of an older man, wearing a cap and dark glaasses, on a billboard with Japanese writing
There remain very few photos of Kitagawa. (Getty Images: Yuichi Yamazaki)

More than 3,000 adoring fans flocked to the Tokyo Dome for a memorial event.

Then-prime minister Shinzo Abe issued a message of condolence, describing Kitagawa as a source of “courage and inspiration [for] all of Japan”. 

“We are really sorry to lose Mr Johnny,” he said.

Irish academic and journalist David McNeill, who wrote a feature on Kitagawa for Japanese magazine Newsweek, said the way the media covered his death was the most shocking part.

“I was one of those people who assumed that when Kitagawa died finally the dam would break,” he said.

“I assumed there would be a flood of revelations, now he no longer had a stranglehold over the media.

“There wasn’t one mention in the Japanese press that I could see of the elephant in the room.”

McNeill said when he queried the lack of media attention, he was told the Japanese don’t like to talk “ill” of the dead.

“I just find that a very unconvincing response,” he said.

“This wasn’t somebody’s grandfather. This was a very powerful person and somebody who was also a public figure. I think the media hid behind that excuse, that cultural taboo, because it was uncomfortable in so many ways.

“They refused to say what everybody knew. That to me is really the most shocking part of the whole Kitagawa story.”

Why Japan’s tight media circle swept accusations under the rug

The silence from Japan’s mainstream media is often put down to the fact that Kitagawa’s agency was home to the most famous celebrities.

“Johnny’s is the strongest and most powerful entertainment agency in Japan, and many sponsors use their people for advertising,” veteran journalist Hiroshi Samejima explained.

“The reality is that TV programs can get good numbers if they use Johnny’s people, and they’ll lose the sponsors if they’re in the bad books.”

The case also reflects historical attitudes towards sexual abuse in Japan.

Just this year, the justice ministry proposed an overhaul of the country’s laws on sex crimes, including raising the age of consent from 13 to 16, criminalising the grooming of minors and expanding the definition of rape.

Currently, Japan has the lowest age of consent among developed nations.

A group of women sit on the ground, some holding signs, some with candles
Following a wave of peaceful protests in 2019, Japan’s justice ministry has proposed a review of the country’s sex crime laws.(Reuters: Issei Kato)

But the saga has also raised questions about the culture of journalism in Japan.

Samejima says journalists often rely on information from the top down, and few are willing to rock the boat out of fear of losing access to the newsmakers.

It doesn’t matter if you are a political reporter or an entertainment reporter, the system is the same, he says.

“Truly inconvenient matters are not reported in a wide range of areas,” he said.

“In the case of coverage of the entertainment industry, they are feeling morally indebted to the entertainment industry and will not report on anything that is inconvenient.”

Japanese newspapers featuring photos of an older man, Johnny Kitagawa
In front-page articles about his death, there were no mentions of the allegations against Kitagawa. (Getty Images: Yuichi Yamazaki)

Samejima quit the newspaper industry after 27 years because he found the culture so stifling.

“Reporters self-regulate within the company,” he said

“They’re so concerned about their company bosses and their reputation within the company that they don’t want to get into trouble.

“There are possibilities that the company could be sued or protested against. In that sense, investigative journalism is risky.”

Johnny Kitagawa’s alleged crimes are finally back in the spotlight

The allegations against Johnny Kitagawa and the grip his music business had over Japanese media have been thrown into the spotlight again this month, with the BBC airing an hour-long documentary, Predator: The Secret Scandal of J-pop.

One man, who was given the alias Hayashi, told the program he was abused by Kitagawa when he was 16.

He described how Kitagawa bathed him “like a doll” after he auditioned to join the agency. The abuse continued all night.

Other boys staying at the house warned him: “You have to put up with it or you won’t succeed.”

Another man, who has written books about his time under Kitagawa’s care, told the BBC that parents also knew about the abuse.

Journalist Mobeen Azhar reacted with shock and dismay after several interviewees expressed their admiration for Kitagawa despite the allegations.

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While Johnny & Associates continues to carry tremendous sway, the agency has lost some of its power since Kitagawa’s death.

The agency’s president, Julie Fujishima, told the BBC in a statement that Johnny’s was developing “highly transparent organisational structures” that complied with laws, regulations and “impartial experts”, to be implemented later this year.

There is some hope that the BBC documentary will spur more media coverage in Japan.

“There’s lots of good documentary makers in Japan. Plenty of them are furious about [Kitagawa],” McNeill said.

“So, there’ll be plenty of pressure from below now, from producers, from documentary makers, to break through that taboo.”

While the documentary has prompted a fresh wave of discussion on social media, the latest developments have been overlooked by the mainstream press.

Ryutaro Nakamura has lost hope.

“I’ve been despairing of the Japanese media since 1999,” he said.

“I’m 200 per cent sure it won’t happen.”

A man wearing a blue jumper over his shirt looks directly into camera
Nakamura says he has little faith the Japanese press will pick up the Kitagawa story now. (ABC News: Yumi Asada)