Johnny Speaks

Legendary Japanese pop impresario Johnny Kitagawa, of the powerful Johnny and Associates, gave an extremely rare interview to Newsweek for its final print edition.

The reclusive Kitagawa, who was born in 1931 in Los Angeles and worked with the U.S. Army teaching English to Japanese orphans in the early 1950s, created the first male idol group, The Johnnies, in the late ’50s after he saw the movie “West Side Story.” He’s since spun that formula into a huge empire of boy bands that has dominated Japanese show business, in particular television, for four decades.

“I started in an era when boys, male talents, did not sing and dance in Japan,” he said in the interview. “That was a challenge.”

Kitagawa explains his reclusiveness by saying that the “spotlight should be on the stars; my role is to help make them glow.” He also downplays the general impression many people have that his talent agency and production company, Johnny and Associates, chooses talent based solely on looks. “Nobody at Johnny’s was made into a star just because he was good-looking,” he says. “They look cool because they do something cool.”

Nevertheless, Kitagawa is known to run an extremely tight ship. Images of all his charges are strictly controlled: no photos on the company’s website or even in promotional materials unless they are official merchandise.

This strategy has worked especially well in terms of TV. Because television is one of the few places where fans can see their idols readily, programs with Johnny’s stars are big ratings winners, and thus producers are always clamoring for more Johnny’s idols.

Kitagawa acknowledges that he has had stiff competition from Korea in recent years, and that the competition for the public’s attention has made that public “numb,” which makes his job even more of a challenge.