J-pop mogul made boy bands into cultural icons

Front pages of Japanese daily newspapers with pictures of Japan’s boy-band star-maker Johnny Kitagawa, who died on Tuesday.
Front pages of Japanese daily newspapers with pictures of Japan’s boy-band star-maker Johnny Kitagawa, who died on Tuesday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TOKYO • Johnny Kitagawa, one of the Japanese entertainment industry's most powerful producers and the Guinness record-winning brains behind many of Japanese pop music's most popular boy bands, died on Tuesday at age 87 after a stroke, his office said.

Born in the United States as Hiromu Kitagawa, he came to Japan after serving in the American military in the Korean War (1950 to 1953). He worked at the United States Embassy before starting a musical group called Johnny's and setting up a talent agency called Johnny & Associates in 1962.

Over the years, he honed a strategy of making sure the bands he created became cultural icons through a combination of appearances on television variety shows, in addition to concerts and recording sales. He held open casting calls to recruit and then train his musicians in singing and dancing.

This pattern gave birth to groups such as Smap, Arashi, Tokio and Kinki Kids. It is also widely followed in South Korea's mammoth K-pop industry.

Kitagawa won three Guinness World Records for his phenomenal production experience, including the most No. 1 singles and most concerts produced by any one individual.

Several celebrities linked to Kitagawa paid tribute to him after his death. Takuya Kimura, a member of Japan's once-biggest boy band Smap, wrote on China's Twitter-like Weibo, "Johnny-san, you have been at the forefront till now. I hope you can rest well."

Smap disbanded in 2016 to the dismay of its fans and much of Japan.

Taichi Kokubun, a member of Tokio, broke down on a TV programme while talking about Kitagawa. He expressed his gratitude to the producer who gave him the opportunity to shoot to fame.

Even Japan's staid political world paid heed to his death.

"He raised many entertainment idols through the years in a huge contribution to Japan's entertainment industry," Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami told a news conference yesterday.

In 2002, the Tokyo District Court found in favour of Kitagawa in a defamation suit against a weekly magazine that had alleged he sexually harassed some of the young entertainers he recruited, although the judgment was later partially overturned.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2019, with the headline 'J-pop mogul made boy bands into cultural icons'. Print Edition | Subscribe