Imagine a music landscape dominated by just one individual—an all-powerful Svengali who, for more than 45 years, has held a virtual monopoly on male pop groups, producing a world-record-holding 289 No. 1 hits, 35 chart-topping acts, and, in the past decade alone, 8,419 concerts. He rarely appears in media, and yet his power over the press has left them kowtowing to his demands for decades. His reclusive character is revered and feared in equal parts by an entire Japanese music industry. Welcome to the world of Johnny Kitagawa.
His story reads like a myth. Born the son of a Buddhist priest in Los Angeles in 1931, John Hiromu Kitagawa left America for Japan after the outbreak of the war in the Pacific, not returning until the late 1940s. Kitagawa later served with the U.S. Army, teaching English to orphans during the Korean War. “Although Japan was suffering, Korea was suffering even more,” he recalls sadly.
In the 1950s, Kitagawa moved to Yoyogi, Tokyo, where—after taking four members of a local baseball team to see the movie West Side Story—he conceived of a plan novel at the time: a music act made up of good-looking men who could dance and sing simultaneously. He shaped the athletes into Japan’s first boy band, The Johnnies. They would become the model for the country’s entire music industry to this day.
“I had started in an era when boys, male talents, did not sing and dance in Japan,” says Kitagawa, in his first-ever exclusive interview. “That was a challenge, and it became a unique spot in the entertainment world, something unprecedented.”
Kitagawa’s acts—such as SMAP, Arashi, and KAT-TUN—have become so ubiquitous across all forms of Japanese entertainment that seemingly no TV channel, brand, or company could be complete without their endorsement. His hit-making formula has been replicated across Asia. Yet Kitagawa is surprisingly humble and generous, traits that few in the industry expect of the shadowy kingmaker. “I believe the spotlight should be on the stars; my role is to help them glow,” he says of his ability to remain eternally elusive. Though he holds three Guinness records, he remarks, “This is a team effort. I personally tend to forget all these numbers so I also thank those who actually keep record!”
He also downplays the topic of his own legacy. “My only wish is for my acts and their entertainment to be remembered for what they are,” he says, adding proudly, “Nobody at Johnny’s was made into a star just because he was good-looking. They look cool because they do something cool.”
Kitagawa’s success has been achieved despite a seemingly anti-PR strategy—images of his groups do not appear on the company website, and are virtually never published unless on official merchandise. Yet it’s proven to be a fruitful recipe. His most successful act, SMAP—a quintet whose ages all now hover around 40—owe their fame to Kitagawa’s strategy of placing them on variety and comedy shows, extending their appeal beyond their looks or songs.
“I believe entertainment sheds light on people’s lives more than we realize [and] should be able to breathe the changing seasons of people’s moods,” Kitagawa says. To ensure his acts remain in vogue, he pioneered another key component of the Asian music industries—the fan club. With more than 2.5 million members of “Johnny’s Family Club,” Kitagawa can ensure that his stable of 500 artists have a built-in fan base.
Kitagawa’s career, though luminous, has not been without incident. In 1988 a former member of his group Four Leaves published graphic details of alleged sexual activities between the staff and some of the young boys in Johnny’s & Associates, Kitagawa’s production agency. An April 2000 National Police Agency investigation eventually exonerated Kitagawa. His latest challenge is the rise of Korean K-Pop. “I feel Japan has become numb [faced with the] competition and I try to make my acts acknowledge this,” he says.
Kitagawa’s latest production—fittingly titled Johnny’s World—features a mammoth cast of boys of all ages, including latest popular groups Hey! Say! JUMP!, Kis-My-Ft2, and Sexy Zone. The musical includes an onstage replica of the Hindenburg airship, a Titanic sequence, and a full-flowing waterfall appearing centerstage, and weaves in Japanese cultural history during tightly choreographed dance routines in which performers fly out over the audience. It’s a pulsating medley that seems to include all of Las Vegas’s shows in one, and is a nod to Kitagawa’s ambition to take a production to Las Vegas himself one day. “To write, cast, and produce each concert at this age is not easy,” he says, “but I enjoy every moment of it.”