If I were to pick out a celebrity whose name was a household word but who died virtually "faceless," Johnny Kitagawa would be about the only one who fits the bill.

The iconic founder of Japan's top talent agency, Johnny & Associates Inc., died on July 9 at age 87.

News of his demise was accompanied by a photograph showing Kitagawa in a hat and dark glasses, rendering it impossible to read his facial expression or guess his age.

Kitagawa was notorious for his personal philosophy of never letting the public see his face or hear his voice.

According to a colleague of mine, Kitagawa agreed to be interviewed only on condition that he not be photographed. One of the reasons he gave was, "I cannot let my face be known if I am to sit among the audience and gauge their reaction."

His language was street talk casual when he addressed young showbiz talents under his wing. But when he was being interviewed, he talked slowly and politely in perfectly decorous Japanese, enunciating each word clearly.

Asked how he would define the "essence" of his enterprise, he reportedly replied, "genteel sophistication."

Born in Los Angeles in 1931, Kitagawa was still a toddler when he relocated to Wakayama Prefecture, the ancestral home of his father, who was a Buddhist priest of the Shingon sect.

During World War II, the young Kitagawa barely survived a U.S. air raid by jumping into the Kinokawa River.

When the Korean War broke out, he was sent to the Korean Peninsula as a U.S. serviceman. He helped war orphans become self-reliant by tasking them with laundering the uniforms of U.S. troops.

Kitagawa learned the basics of show business in Los Angeles, where he lived during the pre-Korean War years. While attending high school and later university, he worked as a stage assistant to visiting Japanese singers, including the legendary Hibari Misora (1937-1989).

After settling down in Tokyo, he founded Johnny & Associates at the age of 30.

The pop groups he groomed into superstars included the Four Leaves, Shibugaki-tai, Shonen-tai, SMAP, Arashi, Kanjani Eight, just to name a few.

Ask anyone who their favorite Johnny group is, and you can readily tell their age.

Kitagawa was truly a one-of-a-kind showbiz producer who strictly remained a "faceless backstage hand" and continued to pump fresh air into Japan's pop culture.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 11

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.