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A Peek Inside Japan’s Tightly Managed Johnny’s Entertainment

Kara Baer
Takuya Kimura, deemed one of Japan's most beautiful celebrities.

If looking into the Japanese music industry is like peering through a frosted glass shower door, attempting to crack Johnny’s Entertainment is like trying to see what’s inside a black hole. We bring a flashlight.

A young Justin Bieber fan searching the Internet for live performances would probably be somewhat confused if she stumbled across the video of Bieber performing “All Around the World” and “Boyfriend” on the long-running Japanese television show, SMAP x SMAP. Not only was Bieber accompanied by five men in their very late 30s, but the camera spent as much time -- if not more -- on highlighting the older men on the stage as it did on the teen idol. As Bieber sings, “All Around the world” one of the men, dressed in a sharp lime green jacket, leans in to stand back to back with him.

The audio engineer pushes the sound up on Inagaki Goro, villain of Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, and member of boy band SMAP as he finishes the line, “People want to be loved.” The camera then switches to Takuya Kimura, who has ranked among the top ten most beautiful celebrities for the last 15 years. Kimura gives a saucy wink. Justin who?

The boy band SMAP, on whose show Beiber was appearing, debuted in 1991, three years before Bieber was even born. They released their 46th chart topping single in April 2012. Their variety show, SMAP x SMAP, which has the members doing comedic skits, chatting with special guests, showing off their cooking skills, and performing, has been on air since 1996 and consistently scores ratings in the 20 percent range -- numbers American television executives would kill for.

Meanwhile Bieber’s album, Believe, which topped charts in the US, UK, Australia, and all over Europe, barely cracked the Japanese top ten in its first week before disappearing without a trace. And just like that, Bieber becomes the latest Western artist to discover that Japan has little use for imported pop stars.

And Japan doesn’t just remain impervious to foreign artists; as the second largest global music market, Japan has no need or desire to export its own artists to the rest of the world. Week after week, the Oricon charts (Japan’s equivalent to Billboard) are almost completely populated by artists who are almost completely unknown in other countries. Americans can purchase everything from Tamil film songs to Chinese pop to South African rap on iTunes, but not the latest SMAP single. We have to order that on CD, directly from Japan.

While Korean pop acts like Shinee and Big Bang rack up millions of youtube views worldwide, SMAP have no official youtube channel. And none of the members have twitter accounts or blogs or instagram or Facebook pages. In fact, SMAP’s only official web presence is a text-only Japanese language page buried in the “artists” menu of their talent agency, Johnny’s Entertainment.

If looking into the Japanese music industry is like peering through a frosted glass shower door, attempting to crack Johnny’s Entertainment is like trying to see what’s inside a black hole. The talent agency, which has been producing chart topping boy bands since 1962, is the brainchild of Johnny Kitagawa (80) who still oversees operations. Though it would be easy to draw a parallel between Kitagawa and our own controversial boy band impresario Lou Pearlman, as both are dogged by child abuse allegations, even at the top of his game Pearlman had nowhere near the amount of cultural clout that Kitagawa does. Advertisers, television channels, and magazine publishers will accede to Kitagawa’s demands -- whether it’s refusing to book bands from rival agencies on vital promotional shows like Music Station or covering up scandals -- out of fear that he will cut off access to his entire empire of money-generating boy bands.

A boy band impresario with this kind of cultural clout may be a difficult thing for Westerners to understand. Our boy bands flare up in popularity for a few years, milk as much as they can from the pockets of teen girls, and then vanish into the dustbin of pop culture history. Does anybody care about the Jonas Brothers? LFO? The cast of High School Musical? If a member from one of these groups is lucky, he will be able to parlay this short time in the spotlight into a solo music career like Justin Timberlake or a career as permanent D-Lister like Nick Lachey, if he’s lucky. A Johnny’s boy band is different.

Boys enter Johnny’s Entertainment at anywhere from eight to-16 years old as “Johnny’s Juniors”. The agency gives the Juniors performance lessons in gymnastics, dance, and singing. From this pool of Juniors, management will pluck out a handful of talented boys and form them into a group. So by the time a Johnny’s group debuts with an official single, they will represent a significant investment on behalf of the company and instead of going for the quick surge in popularity, Johnny’s groups are allowed time to grow a more diverse fanbase and establish themselves as idols in the public eye. Being part of a Johnny’s group isn’t a stepping stone to a career, it is a career.

That Johnny’s groups are able to build broad fanbases and have lengthy careers speaks to some of the cultural differences between Japan and the West. Japan, like the rest of Asia, is unconcerned with the main pillar of American pop culture: authenticity. Johnny’s talents don’t sing about or even publicize their private lives, and though some write their own music or play their own instruments, audiences neither require nor expect them to.

Audiences don’t even expect Johnny’s groups to sing live. It’s an open secret that most Japanese pop acts, Johnny’s groups included, usually lipsync when they perform on television. When this is unintentionally revealed -- as happened when Arashi performed without their backing track during Fuji Television’s end-of-the-year music special in 2011 -- the result is not outrage, but sympathy for the group for having been embarrassed. In fact, Arashi member Satoshi Ohno often tells the story about how he didn’t realize that when he sang lead vocals on Arashi’s debut single “A.Ra.Shi.” he was going to be part of the group!

The Japanese audience’s acceptance and even embrace of artifice has no equivalent in the West. Rather than the single “authentic” self that the West demands, Johnny’s talents are able to separate the private from the public and craft public personas -- personas which go far beyond “the funny one” and “the cool one” and are much closer to what we saw from The Beatles playing “The Beatles” in A Hard Day’s Night. Group members will play up in-group rivalries, friendships, and even sexual tension for the audiences.

SMAP’s Tsuyoshi Kusanagi is still made the butt of practical jokes from other SMAP members and Arashi’s Satoshi Ohno and Kazunari Ninomiya (a talented actor, whom you might remember from the Clint Eastwood film, Letters to Iwo Jima) once spent two years pretending they were dating. Fan appreciation for the Ohno-Ninomiya “romance” remained strong, even after an adult film actress sold a story to the tabloids about having a threesome with Ohno and another woman -- a story he confirmed.

Even a struggle through a time of low popularity can become an integral part of a group’s image. Though nothing succeeds like success in America, Japan prefers to lionize ganbaru, which roughly translates to perseverance. A good example of the appeal of ganbaru recently played out in the pop charts as Johnny’s group NEWS returned from an 18-month hiatus. NEWS had been struggling through both poor sales and an identity crisis. The group had never really gelled as a unit and, during the hiatus, old tensions came to a head and their most popular member, Tomohisa Yamashita, left for a solo career.

Contrary to how this would play out in America, Yamashita finds himself sinking further and further in popularity while NEWS came out from hiatus with a renewed energy and chart-topping single. It’s as if Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” was trounced in the charts by the remaining members of N*Sync!

Though Johnny’s groups do trade on their personas in advertisements and on television shows like SMAP x SMAP, at the heart of any group’s success is music. Much like Motown did in its heyday, Johnny’s Entertainment employs a stable of talented songwriters, musicians, and producers. And, also like Motown, Johnny’s Entertainment songs are a genre unto themselves. Though there are the occasional experiments with the current trends -- Yamashita’s solo album contains a couple of songs that wouldn’t sound out of place in a New York dance club -- for the most part, Johnny’s songs have a timeless “Johnny’s” feel to them. This “Johnny’s” sound is timeless enough that the newly formed group NYC adopted Hikaru Genji’s 1994 hit “Yuuki 100%” as their own song with little change to the arrangement.

The Johnny’s sound is almost completely uninfluenced by the R&B and club sounds that dominate the Western pop charts. Instead of Black Eyed Peas-style booty-shaking beats, Johnny’s songwriters turn out gentle ballads like we haven’t heard in the West since Burt Bacharach or Paul Williams were at their peak and ridiculously fun party songs. Instead of Taylor Swift’s high school woes, Johnny’s lyricists pen uptempo yet bittersweet odes to the transitory nature of happiness and fantastical ditties about what life might be like as a monster. And the Johnny’s studio musicians are some of the best in business -- even guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr. has played on a Johnny’s record.

Though each Johnny’s group is working with the same pool of songwriters and within the same broad genre of music, there are a wide range of styles on display and each group is encouraged to craft a style that suits its image, interests, and vocal strengths. Tokio is a solid rock group while duo Tackey and Tsubasa are fond of Latin rhythms. Building on lead vocalist’s Subaru Shibutai’s distinctive vocal timbre, Kanjani 8 haven’t met a ska song they don’t like, while the golden-voiced duo Tegomass specializes in the aforementioned Bacharach-style ballads. There is a Johnny’s group for every musical taste and a song for every palate.

Japan’s strict digital rights management and reluctance to embrace new business models, means that not only is Japan the only country to still rely on heavily on fax machines but, to a far greater extent than the American and other Western markets, Japan still sells most of its music as physical CDs and CD singles rather than as inexpensive digital downloads. And because Johnny’s fans are invested in the group members themselves, they are more than willing to buy the more expensive physical CDs -- both to support their favorites in the charts and to get the photo booklets and bonus items that come with the albums. All of which means that even though Japan, like the rest of the world, is experiencing an overall downward trend in music sales, Johnny’s Entertainment’s sales have held steady. This explains why advertisers, television executives, and magazine publishers are willing to give in to Johnny Kitagawa’s every demand.

With its seemingly inexhaustible supply of talent, Johnny’s Entertainment successfully survived into the digital age, but the real test will come when 80-year-old Kitagawa steps down. Kitagawa has yet to designate a successor, and depending on how the succession plays out, we may be living the last great era of Johnny’s Entertainment.

Some are placing bets on Kitagawa’s niece, Julie Fujishima, who is campaigning hard for the position. Earlier this year she hosted an exclusive dinner for selected television and women’s magazines executives -- a dinner served by five of the most popular members of the groups under her control. But rumor has it that Fujishima faces stiff competition from Johnny’s talent Hideaki Takizawa of Tackey and Tsubasa, who has mostly given up performing in favor of working with Johnny’s Juniors. Takizawa is widely credited for the “Golden Age of Juniors”, which led to the current crop of bands, including Arashi and Kanjani 8, which are now under Fujishima’s control. Takizawa has the drive and passion, yes, but Fujishima has influence.

Whether or not the Johnny’s name survives, Johnny’s influence will still be felt for years to come. Marius Yo, the youngest member of the youngest group, Sexy Zone, is only 12. And the giants on whose shoulders he is standing are really, really cute.

Kara Baer was born in America but raised all over the world. She has a degree in Audio Engineering from Berklee College of Music, a Masters in Library Science, and just passed level N3 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. When she's not prying open the hidden secrets of global pop culture, Kara works as a librarian in Washington, DC.

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