Johnny Kitagawa, Controversial Japanese Entertainment Mogul, Dies at 87

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The L.A.-born music producer broke industry records, created boy bands whose members went on to be TV and film stars, held enormous power in the entertainment business and was dogged by allegations of the sexual abuse of young boys.

Johnny Kitagawa, a controversial and powerful Japanese-American music producer and talent agency founder, died on Tuesday in a Tokyo hospital, after a stroke, at the age of 87. He was hospitalized after collapsing on June 18.

Through his agency Johnny's Associates, which he ran with his sister Mary, he created megastar boy bands, including SMAP, Kat-tun and Arashi, whose members became fixtures in the pop charts and on television, as well as appearing in movies.

Kitagawa held Guinness World Records for the most number one singles and the most concerts produced by an individual. He was also the subject of multiple accusations of the sexual abuse of young hopefuls in his agency. 

Born John Hiromu Kitagawa in Los Angeles in 1931, he moved back and forth between the U.S. and Japan during his childhood, before serving in the American military during the Korean War and then working at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo.

Founding his company in 1962, he created a boy band called Johnny's, for which his agency was named. His then groundbreaking all-male, all-dancing and singing acts would go on to dominate the charts for decades, making him extremely rich and giving him immense power in the entertainment industry.

At one point in the late 1990s his acts were regularly appearing in 40 television shows weekly in Japan. Kitagawa used his power ruthlessly, punishing anything other than positive coverage and cooperation with boycotts that could stop acts from his stable from appearing in any media in the same group.

In 1999, the Shukan Bunshun weekly magazine ran a 10-part series detailing allegations of sexual exploitation from a dozen former members of his agency. Kitagawa won damages in a court case against the magazine, but a higher court overturned most of the decision, finding that there was sufficient evidence for the allegations. The Japanese media initially ignored the issue, and even a parliamentary inquiry that followed it, something widely seen as a sign of the control Kitagawa wielded over it.

Kitagawa for years forbade images of his stars appearing online, even preventing publicity shots of films that featured them being used on the internet. Few photographs of Kitagawa himself were ever seen and he shunned publicity. Public broadcaster NHK ran an interview with him in early 2018, but his face never appeared onscreen.

SMAP was Kitagawa's biggest success, becoming stars across Asia with their breakup in 2016 even being commented on in the Japanese parliament.

"Johnny-san, you have always guided us until now. I hope you can rest well," former SMAP member and star of the small and big screen Takuya 'Kimu-taku' Kimura, posted on Chinese social media platform Weibo.

Deputy chief cabinet secretary Kotaro Nogami paid tribute to Kitagawa at a press conference, saying he had "trained many idols over many years and left behind huge achievements in the Japanese entertainment industry. I wish to offer my sincere prayers for him."