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Star’s exit shows it’s not what you know — but who

by Philip Brasor

If you asked anyone in the world with access to any sort of media what last week’s big news story was, they would probably say Libya. If you asked the same question of similarly connected people in Japan, they would probably say the retirement of comedian Shinsuke Shimada. The fall of Tripoli didn’t merit lead story status on most TV news reports here, but Shimada’s announcement was honored with program-interrupting bulletins.

“Retirement” is used euphemistically here, and the big question has become: Did he jump or was he pushed? Tuesday evening Shimada and his Osaka-based management company, Yoshimoto Kogyo, held a press conference at the company’s Tokyo offices to head off an article that was to appear three days later in Shukan Bunshun about Shimada’s relationships with organized-crime figures.

Expressing regret for having to end his career in such a “miserable” fashion, Shimada was contrite, but only up to a point. He admitted he knew a high-ranking gangster, but said that over a 10-year period he had only met this person five times. He aimed some ire at the weeklies, saying he had been a target of malicious stories in the past and swore on his life that none of them were true. He didn’t deny the yakuza connection, but also didn’t seem to think it merited such censure.

The performance was saturated with passive-aggressive resentment. In his own statement, Yoshimoto President Nobuhiro Mizutani implied that retirement wasn’t Shimada’s only option. After comedian Sanma Akashiya, Shimada is Yoshimoto’s biggest earner, with a personal income of ¥400 million a year. He hosts six regular variety shows, all of which have been cancelled since the Tuesday announcement. Management companies are supposed to protect their charges’ interests, and it’s not as if yakuza/showbiz connections have never been revealed before. The connection has been a well-known fact of entertainment life for decades. Usually, a performer caught fraternizing with gangsters is suspended for a time.

The way Mizutani told it, Yoshimoto received information about Shimada’s relationship with the yakuza figure last weekend, presumably from Bunshun. When they determined the information was “reliable,” they confronted the comedian on Aug. 21, who confirmed it. Mizutani emphasized that Shimada did nothing illegal and that no quid pro quo “transactions” occurred. Nevertheless, such a relationship is “unforgivable” for someone who makes his living as a television personality and who therefore must abide by a higher moral standard. They considered an appropriate punishment, but when faced with the evidence Shimada immediately said he was done.

The reason for the comedian’s relationship with the gangster, identified by Bunshun as Hirofumi Hashimoto of the Yamaguchi-gumi, was not explained at the press conference, and even Bunshun was sketchy about it. The comedian said that the yakuza in question helped him “clear up a problem,” and according to Tokyo Shimbun and various morning news show commentators, the “problem” originated on the now defunct Kansai-area variety series “Human Mandala” 10 years ago. On one show, Shimada described an encounter with a right-wing group during which he made a joke comparing the shape of a chrysanthemum, the group’s symbol, to that of the anal sphincter. Like most right-wing groups, this one didn’t have a sense of humor and started systematically harassing him.

Through Jiro Watanabe, a former boxer Shimada has known since before becoming a comedian in the 1970s, he sought an underworld figure to mediate the problem. Announcer Tomoaki Ogura, commenting on Fuji TV’s “Toku Da Ne,” said anyone in Shimada’s position would have done the same thing, a statement he later apologized for.

Bunshun reports that during an investigation of Watanabe in connection with an extortion case, police came across items linking Shimada to Hashimoto. In his autobiography, Tadamasa Goto, the former head of another yakuza organization, derides Shimada as a chinpira (punk). Former Yomiuri Shimbun reporter Jake Adelstein, who has written extensively and from personal experience about yakuza, related on his website that Goto may have leaked information about Shimada’s yakuza connections as punishment for the comedian’s insufficient deference to the mob boss. Such anecdotes reinforce Shimada’s juvenile-delinquent image — he and Watanabe reportedly met in a corrections facility — and add substance to his abrasive style of humor, not to mention his bullying attitude. The comedian was suspended for two months in 2004 for assaulting a female manager who he felt did not pay him the proper respect.

Shimada has always cultivated a public identity that could pass for that of a hoodlum, so it’s easy for the media, and the public, to make the leap. Another magazine, Gendai, asked him directly about reported yakuza connections in April, which he denied. Reporters who appeared on the morning news shows said Shimada sometimes uses veiled references to yakuza for intimidation purposes.

So despite his wit and learning — he is a self-taught real-estate wizard — Shimada’s overriding image is that of a lout, albeit a sentimental lout, so at this late date underworld connections would hardly seem to do damage to his marketablity. One could say it’s all about appearances that got out of hand: Yoshimoto will lose a lot of money for broken contracts because of Shimada’s retirement. And while Yoshimoto may have been spooked by the police announcement of a crackdown on underworld activity starting in October, and reporters think Shimada himself may eventually face arrest, at the moment the most credible explanation for his quitting as he did is that he’s tired of being told what to do.

It’s not the end of the world. Unfortunately, it also isn’t the end of Japanese TV as we know it, but it could mark a turning point. Commercial television’s reliance on a handful of stars is one explanation for its redundant, self-referential pointlessness, and maybe producers will now realize how risky it is to have so much riding on the perceived popularity of one person. With Shimada’s exit, TV not only loses a “bad influence,” it gains at least six hours a week of air time that could be spent on something better, but don’t hold your breath.