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Enka scandal keeps star in the news

by Philip Brasor

The conflict between Japan and South Korea over Takeshima/Dokdo has spilled over into the entertainment realm. Some Korean actors and K-pop stars have stated publicly that the group of islets belongs to Korea, causing Masayuki Matsumoto, the president of NHK, to express concern. Last month he hinted to the press that the public broadcaster’s big New Year’s Eve event, the song contest “Kohahu Utagassen,” might not invite any Korean artists this year.

In the tabloids, however, the K-pop issue has less import than the Sachiko Kobayashi question. Referred to as the “queen of enka” (traditional Japanese balladry), Kobayashi has appeared on “Kohaku” for the last 33 years without a break. Cynics say her longevity is all about the suspense surrounding her costumes, which get more outrageous every year, rather than the quality of her singing, but in any case a “Kohaku” without Kobayashi is like a news cycle without Shintaro Ishihara: You feel the absence even if you don’t care. Showbiz insiders think NHK will unfriend Kobayashi because of a scandal in which she has been involved since the spring.

The media has always stood by the belief that NHK doesn’t countenance scandal, but Kobayashi is scheduled to appear in November on its regular BS pop concert program, so if she was asked to sing there it would seem to indicate that NHK doesn’t consider her poison. But it could also have something to do with the nature of the scandal, which is less about bad behavior than the media sticking its collective nose into business dealings that, since we’re talking about the business of show, they believe is their business as well.

In April the weekly magazine Shincho reported that Kobayashi had fired Yoshie Sekine, the president of her production company, Sachiko Promotion, and Suzuko Sawada, one of the company’s directors. Because these three have been close ever since Kobayashi went independent in 1987, Shincho and other media treated the firing as a “family dispute.” The reason for the falling out was Kobayashi’s husband, Akio Hayashi, whom she married last fall. The wedding itself attracted a great deal of press attention, not only because it was the first marriage for the 58-year-old singer, but due to the rumor that she had “stolen” Hayashi, nine years her junior, from his previous wife.

Hayashi is a successful businessman and so took an interest in his bride’s financial affairs. What he found disturbed him, and the showbiz press said he forced his own involvement in the operations of the company, much to Sekine’s and Sawada’s displeasure. Eventually, they issued an ultimatum to their boss: Either Hayashi goes or we do. Kobayashi sided with her husband.

The press was shocked. After all, Sekine was Kobayashi’s manager during her salad days when she belonged to the talent agency Daiichi Productions. After Kobayashi made the risky decision to leave Daiichi and start her own company, Sekine went with her, and Sawada joined to handle the books. Normally, when an entertainer leaves their management, they are blackballed in the industry. It took some years before Kobayashi was able to appear on TV again or sign a record deal with a major label. But through those lean times Sekine and Sawada stuck with her, so how could she be so heartless as to cut them loose just because her husband, “an amateur in this business,” didn’t like the way they were doing things?

The real amateur is Kobayashi, at least in terms of money. According to another weekly, Bunshun, she didn’t even know she was paying ¥1.5 million a month in rent for her Tokyo office. Hayashi wasn’t as shocked by this amount as by the fact that it was being paid to Sawada, who owns the building. Moreover, all of Kobayashi’s concerts are organized by a company called Sawada Kikaku, run by Sawada’s husband, who takes 30 percent of all performance fees. Another company called Sawada Promotion takes one-third of all publishing and merchandising. It even takes one-third of Kobayashi’s royalties. Though these amounts are not unusual, Sawada is an executive of Sachiko Promotion. Regardless of whether or not her profiting from the boss’ popularity is fair, it seems to be normal operating procedure in Japanese show business. Hayashi thought they were ripping off his wife and did what any husband would do, which is protect her interests.

Kobayashi’s mistake was refusing to talk to the media about the matter. Sawada and Sekine had no such trepidation and so controlled the narrative. Big shots in the music business have spoken anonymously against Kobayashi in the press because, according to Bunshun, they think it’s “unforgivable that a talent would act against management.” It matters nothing that Kobayashi owns her company and Sekine and Sawada are, essentially, employees. To these big shots, singers are always subordinate to management. Even Kobayashi’s long-time record company shunned her, neglecting to release a single originally slated for June and then not even telling her. When recording a subsequent single, written for her by folksinger Masashi Sada, she had to do it under a different name because no recording studio would accept her booking. For all intents and purposes, she’s an indie artist now.

Kobayashi finally gave an interview to Bunshun last week, pointing out that she should now be celebrating her 50th year in show business (yes, she started when she was 8) but instead dreads every day. “I’m afraid to open my door because the media might be there,” she said. “I don’t even enjoy singing any more.”

NHK is thus more important to her than ever, since it’s the only broadcaster that pays attention to enka now that TV Tokyo has dropped its long-running Friday night music showcase. Enka singers only make money through concerts, and TV remains the most desirable means of promotion since only older people care about enka and older people still watch TV. The scandal is a sideshow to the deepening irrelevance of enka as a unique pop music genre, so maybe Kobayashi shouldn’t take it so hard. At least it keeps her name in the news.