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The Yoshimoto Kogyo Scandal and the Japanese Entertainment Industry

Miyasako and Tamura at press conference, July 20, 2019

The Yoshimoto Kogyo Scandal and the Japanese Entertainment Industry

(I didn’t really think an entertainment industry story would be my first long form article on this new site, but it is very current, and it does reflect many aspects of Japanese society. So, here goes.)

In a very eventful week, the news that dominated the headlines and on-air news programs even more than the Kyoto Animation studio arson tragedy or the House of Councillors election, was the firing of a comedian/TV show host called Hiroyuki Miyasako by his management agency, Yoshimoto Kogyo, and the press conference he held with another entertainer, Ryo Tamura, the next day.

How talent management agencies in Japan work

Before I dive into the actual story, here is some background.

In the North America and western Europe, entertainers or artists (actors, comedians, musicians etc.) have their business affairs managed by a single agent, a small team or a management agency, as clients of the agent or agency. The typical agreement between an agency or agent is that they get a percentage of the artist’s earnings, but the entertainers basically free agents. If they can’t earn enough with their craft, they are free to earn money elsewhere. The association with the agent and the artist is something of little concern to most fans, and is rarely mentioned in connection to the entertainer unless there is a problem. And most importantly, if the agent-artist relationship is not working out, the artist is in most cases (unless there are disputed contractual terms) free to go to another agent or agency, and their careers are as a rule not affected by such a move.

In Japan, with very few exceptions, artists tied to their management agencies in a far closer way than in the west. Although they are not exactly employees, they are bound up either by written contracts or old fashioned verbal agreements to the agency. Some agencies have very strict, even draconian morality clauses for their artists, especially younger ones, that step well into their personal lives.

Yoshimoto Kogyo (吉本興業), based in Osaka with a second head office in Tokyo, is the agency embroiled in this current scandal. Yoshimoto is the biggest talent management agency in Japan, and they specialize artist-wise is comedians and variety-show talent, collectively called geinin 芸人. The 2017 NHK morning serial, Warotenka, was based on the founding of Yoshimoto Kogyo. They have around six thousand artists on their books.

Big agencies such as Yoshimoto Kogyo, as well as another behemouth in the industry, boy group/singer/actor focused agency Johnny & Associates (ジャニーズ事務所), also run training schools. Johnny & Associates recruit boys as young as 12 or 13, who get trained in dance, singing, acting, comedy and so on while attending regular school too. Yoshimoto runs a comedy training school that’s best known by its acronym, NSC, and also owns and operates several live comedy theaters, where up-and-coming talent can hone their skills.

How and how much artists get paid differs from agency to agency. A few pay for basic living costs while the entertainer is still unknown, but more often than not they only get paid a pittance by the agencies, and have to work at temporary jobs (arubaito or baito) to make ends meet.

Once they become successful, entertainers get paid a salary by their agencies, commensurate to how much work they are doing. This does mean however that there are very few Japanese entertainers who can become very wealthy, since the management agency takes a very healthy cut of the take from any of their properties.The agency-artist split varies, but at Yoshimoto Kogyo apparently it starts at a 9:1 agent-artist split for new artists, with the ratio changing as an artist becomes more popular and/or senior.

The agency often takes a cut even when the work the artist does was not arranged by the agency. For example, when comedian Naoki Matayoshi won the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize in 2015 for his novel Hibana, which became a huge bestseller, his management agency (Yoshimoto Kogyo again) took a very big cut of the earnings from his book, even though it was not directly co nnected to his work as a comedian/TV personality.

The artist-agency association is such an ingrained part of the Japanese entertainment industry that many entertainers identify themselves all the time as belonging to a management agency. Yoshimoto and Johnny & Associates are by far the biggest, most powerful, and best known, agencies, and the entertainers who belong to one or the other frequently mention this fact. Yoshimoto artists frequently makes jokes on air about how cheap the agency is.

Besides temporary work, one way an entertainer who can’t make enough money from their work via their agency can earn a few yen on the side is by doing something called yami eigyo 闇営業, underground operations. This is where they get paid off the management’s books to appear at events, parties, weddings and so on. It’s important to note that yami eigyo does not mean doing business with shady figures; it points to any kind of off-the-books-entertainment type work. Apparently, many agencies know that yami eigyo goes on, but turn a blind eye to it.

Big agencies and the TV industry

Ex-SMAP members Shingo Katori, Goro Inagaki and Tsuyoshi Kusanagi

 

The big agencies have a huge influence over the entertainment industry in Japan, especially TV. Although it’s ostensibly up to the producers of each program to decide who they want to be on their shows, apparently the agencies have a big say in who they will even make available. There is a lot of something called “bartering”, where in order to book an act they really want a program, production company or TV network has to agree to book another act too, even if they don’t really want them. There are even “barter” agreements where the TV network or production company is pressed to take on an unrelated project by the agency in exchange for booking the artist(s) they want.

And although it is denied publicly, there is blackballing of talent, especially ones that leave their agencies on less than amicable terms. Another incident in the news last week was the warning issued by the Fair Trade Commission (公正取引委員会) to Johnny & Associates, who were suspected of blackballing former SMAP members Shingo Katori, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Goro Inagaki after they left the group in a highly public and messy sequence of events in 2016. Apparently, this type of blackballing is so common in the industry that people are used to it, and turn a blind eye.

This is the biggest reason why most artists in Japan are so tightly bound by their agencies. If they leave the agency, they most likely will not get any work. That 's a very strong incentive for artists to stay "loyal" to their agencies. (In the case of the ex-SMAP members, they had enough popularity already to pursue numerous non-TV projects, such as movies, art exhibitions, and programs on streaming internet channels as well as a successful YouTube channel. Still, it is true that they have virtually disappeared from broadcast TV, except for commercials.)

In any case, currently the agencies dominate the casting on all TV shows. In particular, Yoshimoto Kogyo and Johnny & Associates members are everywhere, on everything from variety-comedy type shows to music shows and even news discussion shows and the morning and evening news programs. For example, of the 4 weekday morning news/chat type shows on the major networks including NHK, the national broadcaster, 2 are hosted by Yoshimoto talent and 1 by a Johnny’s talent. Only one is hosted by someone with an actual journalism background. Roughly half, sometimes more, of the regular commentators on news and news discussion shows are entertainers, while the rest are experts, journalists, lawyers and so on.

Something to note also is that Yoshimoto Kogyo used to be a publicly traded company, but went private a few years ago. Currently their main stockholders are the 5 major TV networks in Tokyo and Osaka. The conflict of interest is glaringly apparent here.

The main players in the story

Hiroyuki Miyasako is a 49 year old comedian, TV show host and regular TV show guest, as well as an occasional actor and musician. He has been pretty success at anything he’s done. As a comedian he is one half of a comedy duo called Ameagari Kesshitai (雨上がり決死隊) with another comedian called Toru Hotoharu. Most comedians in Japan work in pairs or as part of a trio, but in many cases one of the pair is far more popular and well known than the other. Such was the case with Ameagari Kesshitai ("The Rain Has Stopped Die Hard Squad"), where Miyasako was on way more TV shows and his partner. Nevertheless they did work together too, including co-hosting a very popular weekly comedy variety show called Ame Talk.

Ryo Tamura is also part of a comedy duo, called London Boots Ichigo Nigo - which means London Boots Model no. 1 and no.2. Japanese comedy duo/team names rarely make sense, so never mind about analyzing them. His partner is Atsushi Tamura (they aren't related) and they too host a popular night time variety show called London Hearts. In his case he’s the less prominent one of the pair, although he does have his share of fans, who call him Ryo-kun. Primarily a comedian, he is also a TV show host and frequent guest, and does some music occasionally.

On to the scandal

In June 2019, a weekly gossip magazine called Friday published a series of photos showing several geinin, most of whom were from Yoshimoto Kogyo, partying with known members of “antisocial groups”, aka the yakuza, back in 2014. (The source of these photos is not known, although it is fairly easy to guess.) Around that time the same people were arrested for swindling money from an elderly woman, using a notorious swindling scheme called ore ore sagi オレオレ詐欺.

Having any kind of association with yakuza is strictly a no-no in Japan, but the big issue with these photos was that apparently these geinin were paid to appear at these parties, as yami eigyo.

It’s important to note again that it’s not illegal to accept money for appearing at events. However, it is illegal to knowingly take payment or be otherwise associated financially with the yakuza; this law is in place to prevent money laundering by these groups. Of the 13 geinin caught in the Friday investigation net, all but 2 belong to Yoshimoto. The most prominent name was that of Miyasako.

Initially Miyasako, as well as Tamura, lied about having taken money for appearing at the party on their Twitter accounts and elsewhere. Later on, he says he told Yoshimoto management that he had received about 1 million yen (about US $9,300), although he still claims to this day that he had no idea that the party was being held by yakuza. Tamura apparently received 500,000 yen. He too claims that he did not know the party was connected to yakuza. Whether or not they knowingly took payment is the key here as to whether they committed a crime or not, although they have never been charged with anything. (The Tokyo Metropolitan Police have commented that it was unlikely they would be charged, given the time lapse since that event.)

On June 4, Yoshimoto fired Shinya Irie, another comedian who was part of a comedy duo called Karateka. Irie had allegedly arranged for the other geinin to attend that yakuza-backed event and to be paid for it. He too denies any knowledge that the backers were yakuza.

Still,the main focus was on Miyasako as the best known name. He was suspended ‘indefinitely’ initially, and disappeared from all the TV shows he had been a regular on. He did not make any public statements at all, including on his Twitter account, and people were starting to wonder if he was going to try to lay low until this story had blown over. But on July 18, Yoshimoto Kogyo issued a statement that they were terminating their management contract with him.

The press conference by Miyasako and Tamura

On July 20, Miyasako and Tamura held a press conference, which was streamed live on internet video outlets like AbemaTV and Niconico Douga. After abjectly apologizing for what they described as their incredibly poor judgement in taking the money, as well as lying about it initially, they dropped several bombs that seemed to accuse the top management of Yoshimoto Kogyo.

  • They had assumed that the event was okay to attend and be paid for, since they had been sponsors for a prior official Yoshimoto event. Furthermore, Irie asked them to attend the event in the presence of Yoshomoto managers.
  • They wanted to come out with the truth (about taking the money) weeks ago, but were forbidden to do so by the Yoshimoto management.
  • At a meeting with Akihiko Okamoto, the CEO of Yoshimoto Kogyo, he said to them “You better not be taping this.”
  • The two, along with 3 other Yoshimoto geinin, hired a lawyer because they had lost confidence in the way the management was dealing with the situation and them. As soon as they did this management’s attitude changed for the worse. Since they were afraid of losing their jobs, they fired the lawyer. However from that point on they could only talk to Yoshimoto management via their in-house counsel.
  • At one point, CEO Okamoto told them “I can just fire you all (if you go to the press). I have that power.”
  • The day before Yoshimoto announced they were terminating Miyasako’s management contract, they were given an ultimatum: either hold a press conference, where they would only be allowed to say waht they would be coached to say beforehand, that they were retiring from the industry, or get terminated. They chose the latter (although it was never explained why only Miyasako was terminated).

Another point of the press conference that struck me is how a tearful Tamura said that he had always been told by Yoshimoto management that Yoshimoto was a big family. He said that in that big family, the geinin, the talent, were the children, and as one of the sons of the family it was wrong for the parents to tell him to keep quiet when he wanted to make things right. This concept of the company/employer as a family is not uncommon in Japan, even in large organizations with thousands of members like Yoshimoto, but it feels increasingly outdated.

A powerful Yoshimoto geinin reacts

Hitoshi Matsumoto (Downtown)

 

One of the most respected and popular geinin in Japan, Hitoshi Matsumoto of the comedy duo Downtown, is generally regarded as one of the top two veteran members of the Yoshimoto roster, along with Sanma Akashiya. He was personally close to Miyasako, and is also close to CEO Okamato, who used to be his personal manager. (Interestingly, all the top management at Yoshimoto are connected in some way to Downtown.) He said during a live telecast of his regular Sunday morning show, Waido na Show, that he was going to talk to the top management including Okamoto. Okamoto appeared in a taped segment on the Waido na Show to announce he was going to hold a press conference on Monday to respond to Miyasako and Tamura.

Anger from other Yoshimoto geinin, as well as other prominent figures

Koji Kato

 

One of the popular weekday morning news and events shows on Nippon TV (Nittele), Sukkiri, is hosted by - you guessed it - yet another Yoshimoto geinin called Koji Kato. One of his co-hosts is - yep! - another Yoshimoto geinin, a female one for a change, Haruna Kondo of the duo Harisenbon. Kato expressed his anger towards Yoshimoto management at length on the Monday, July 22nd Sukkiri show, and declared that if the top management did not change or reform, he would resign from Yoshimoto. Kondo was not as loud, but she also tearfully expressed her disappointment in management.

Other well known names have made public statements highly critical of Yoshimoto Kogyo

The Yoshimoto CEO’s disastrous press conference

Yoshimoto Kogyo CEO Okamoto

 

As he had promised, CEO Okamoto of Yoshimoto Kogyo held a press conference in the afternoon of Monday, July 22nd. This time at least part of the 5 hour plus conference was broadcast live by the TV networks, as well as being carried in its entirety by several internet broadcast outlets. I could not watch the whole thing (I have things to do!) but had it on in the background, and it was a mess. It was more or less fine while he was reading some prepared statements (among other things he said that he was rescinding Miyasako’s firing, and that he was welcome to come back to Yoshimoto) but when it came to the Q and A part he was constantly contradicting himself, stumbling over his own words and waffling. Aside from his poor performance, his statements were troubling, saying at one point that he said he was going to “fire all of you, I have the power to do that” as a joke to lighten the atmosphere. Threatening to fire someone doesn’t seem very funny under the best of circumstances. In fact he awkwardly claimed that all of his statements, such as when he said “you had better not be taping [the meeting]”, were made in jest.

In fact, many pundits as well as people on social media made the observation that his attitude and reactions seemed like textbook cases of powahara (パワハラ) or power harassment, bullying in the workplace. Power harassment is a major topic in Japan, as the corporate world continues to change from the way things were during Japan’s economic boom years. Any public display of it is greeted with a lot of harsh commentary, especially from younger people who are in the workplace. Yet another Yoshimoto geinin, Tsukasa Saito of the duo Trendy Angel, who is a regular on a Fuji TV new program, wondered out loud what the heck the CEO was doing and said he was ashamed to be part of a company that seemed to have little idea what he was doing.

Conclusion (for now)

So this is where things stand now. The initial scandal was the taking of money from the yakuza, unknowingly or not, by well known entertainers, but it has now evolved into something else, perhaps a lot bigger. (In terms of not knowing whether yakuza are behind something, it has come to light that the same organization that paid the geinin was also backing an event planning company that worked on a Yoshimoto event.)

The bigger story at this point is whether Yoshimoto Kogyo can continue to operate as they have up until now. Will they try to wait until it’s all blown over and the public has moved on to the next scandal, and not enact any changes? Will the TV networks continue to be dictated to by the agencies? The Johnny & Associates situation regarding the blackballing of former SMAP members is also part of the pattern of big agencies controlling the Japanese entertainment industry.

Or will it not matter that much anymore? Younger people in Japan are increasing turning to the internet for their entertainment, as they are elsewhere. The agencies cannot control who gets to start a YouTube channel or if it becomes popular. It will be interesting to see how this story will develop.

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