Johnny & Associates Inc. may never recapture the influence it wielded within Japan's entertainment industry due to the scars left by the sexual abuse perpetrated over decades by its late founder, even after on Monday announcing a name change and revealing a new agency will be created.

As pressure from sponsors mounts in the wake of the scandal, the agency's performers are expected to be less frequently seen on television, something that could continue for some time as corporate clients further scrutinize the firm's response and reform efforts.

With performers from the agency known widely as Johnny's being sidelined, the door has opened for other Japanese performers to raise their profiles, entertainment industry watchers believe.

Noriyuki Higashiyama (2nd from R), president of Johnny & Associates Inc., and Yoshihiko Inohara (2nd from L), president of the agency's subsidiary Johnnys' Island, attend a press conference in Tokyo on Oct. 2, 2023. The agency said it will change its name to "SMILE-UP."  and establish a new firm to manage its performers. (Kyodo)

But the scandal and restructuring of Johnny's does not have to be entirely negative for Japanese pop music, known as J-pop, and the country's entertainment industry, said Mamoru Nishiyama, associate professor at J.F. Oberlin University, who specializes in advertising and marketing.

"Those with ability, including former junior members of Johnny's who were robbed of the chance to debut, can (now) compete fairly in a normal manner," he said.

Despite the South Korean equivalent, called K-pop, having a huge boom in worldwide popularity on the back of superstar group BTS, Nishiyama does not believe J-pop will fall further behind.

"Japanese idol groups are a genre still unique in overseas markets and there are solo Japanese musicians who are doing well. It depends on how they are produced," Nishiyama said.

In a press conference Monday, Johnny's said it would set up a new firm to manage its performers, while the current company will change its name to "SMILE-UP." and dedicate itself to providing redress to the victims of sexual assault by the founder Johnny Kitagawa, who died in 2019.

The news about the firm's internal reforms will be considered by some as a step forward, but whether new fans will be won depends on if and when television channels and magazines, the agency's main promotional channels, will again cast Johnny's entertainers, analysts said.

"Media appearances of Johnny's performers are set to be restricted for the time being," said Noboru Saijo, a mass communications professor at Edogawa University who has penned a book about Johnny's performers.

The agency has long enjoyed a massive presence in the Japanese entertainment industry, with a PIA Research Institute 2022 J-pop box office report showing that six out of the top 10 groups were managed by Johnny's, with the performers putting on a total of 206 concerts in the year at venues attracting some 4.08 million fans.

The agency's popular entertainers were formerly used widely in commercials and advertisements by Japanese companies. A survey by Tokyo Shoko Research showed that 226 companies in Japan did business with Johnny's and its affiliate companies, of which 80 had sales of over 10 billion yen ($67 million).

But since the scandal surfaced, several companies such as Suntory Holdings Ltd., Japan Airlines Co., and Nissan Motor Co., which have promoted their wares with Johnny's entertainers, have said they will not work with the agency until it addresses the allegations sufficiently.

Saijo said while the situation facing Johnny's entertainers is "severe," other talent agencies now have an opportunity to compete with the entertainment behemoth.

"Broadcasters are also under pressure from the public to review their long-term relationship with Johnny's entertainers which involved prioritizing their casting for music programs and TV dramas," he said.

Seven-member Japanese boy group BE:FIRST took its chance last month when it appeared for the first time on popular TV program Music Station, a major achievement for a non-Johnny's group. The TV Asahi program has in the past often featured Johnny's performers heavily, apparently at the expense of rival acts.

"The recent moves among Johnny's idols to increasingly pursue overseas markets amid the success of South Korean boy band BTS could also face further challenges with foreign entertainment companies looking negatively on sexual harassment," Saijo said.

Johnny's performers have started to have some success on the international stage.

The seven-member group Travis Japan recently made a splash when its debut single ranked fifth on Billboard's Global chart in 2022, while Sho Hirano left Johnny's boy band King & Prince earlier this year, saying he wanted to work overseas.

Industry watchers said, even before the scandal, that Johnny's members had been facing headwinds in attracting new fans due to young people watching less TV, which has traditionally been the agency's main avenue to attract eyes.

Saijo said the new management team will need to find a way to attract new fans at a time when the company's talent will have reduced access to broadcast media.

Even if it struggles to win new fans, the hordes of existing Johnny's diehards are expected to remain loyal due to the long-standing bonds created with performers over decades, other analysts said.

The agency will be able to rely on revenue from official Johnny's-run fan clubs and sales of merchandise and CDs, with the fan base unlikely to dwindle for the time being, they said.

"The core fans are expected to stay and they may actually throw more support behind performers in solidarity with 'overcoming this crisis together', but the challenge for the new management is whether they can expand the fan base," Nishiyama said.

"The lack of media appearance opportunities could encourage members to leave the agency, taking their respective fans with them, in the largest threat to Johnny's," he said, adding the agency may need to shift focus to social media, adopting the business model that has been so successful for BTS.

It was only in November 2019 that Arashi became the first Johnny's entertainer to release songs online globally, in contrast to K-pop groups like BTS which have had legions of fans on social media for years.

A woman in her 30s from the Philippines who has been an avid fan of Arashi since 2008, feels people like her are in a "complicated position" in drawing the line between supporting performers while having "so much doubt" about the firm even with a new structure.

She added dealing with the current situation is "more difficult" for an overseas fan given the "international standards of cancel culture" in which offenders are punished more severely in the public eye than they are in Japan.

Despite the challenges of being an Arashi supporter now, she has invested so much it would be difficult to give up on her fandom. "I think it's too late for that," she joked.

(May Masangkay contributed to this story.)

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