TV

Japan's king of comedy, Yoshimoto Kogyo's Hiroshi Osaki, expands his realm

by Matthew Hernon

Contributing Writer

It has been 10 years since Hiroshi Osaki took the reins at Yoshimoto Kogyo, and in that time Japan’s oldest and arguably most influential entertainment agency has veered down several different paths. While comedy remains at the forefront of the company’s activities, as it has for over a century, these days it’s about much more than just promoting and showcasing owarai geinin (comedy performers).

During Osaki’s tenure, Yoshimoto has continued to diversify its business profile, expanding into new fields like movie production, idol pop, sports and video games, and even working with the United Nations on sustainable development projects. Its latest venture is Laugh & Peace_Mother, a joint initiative with NTT and the government-backed Cool Japan Fund Inc. Its aim is to produce and distribute educational content via apps and videos.

“Some say Yoshimoto is trying to do too much. Yet I have this vision, 30 years from now, of us becoming an NPO,” the 65-year-old Osaki says. “Though comedy is part of our DNA and always will be, I feel it’s important to broaden our horizons and try new and innovative things as we are doing with Laugh & Peace_Mother.

“There are similar video platforms to this online, but none were made in Japan. We can’t afford to get left behind. The education system in this country hasn’t moved with the times. You often hear people say how much they love music, for example, but more often than not, they don’t like studying it. Our goal is to make use of technological advancements to create a learning environment that people of all ages can enjoy and utilize.”

A larger than life character who’s been with Yoshimoto for more than four decades, Osaki’s passion for the company is evident, though he admits this hasn’t always been the case. When he first joined the firm in 1978, he wasn’t particularly motivated to work. Prior to his employment there, Osaki spent several months surfing and generally bumming around Ise on the eastern tip of Mie Prefecture. A graduate from the sociology department at Kansai University, he was living off his girlfriend’s money and had no desire to get a job. Things changed when he heard that his housemate was to be employed by Watanabe Entertainment talent agency.

“It dawned on me that if even he was going to work, maybe it was time that I did as well,” he says. “I looked through the employment listings and found Yoshimoto next to Watanabe. I called and asked about the number of days off per month. The response from the HR lady was seven to eight days, but I would have to work weekends. That sounded alright, and when she mentioned I wouldn’t have to wear a suit, I decided to join. Forty years on and I’m still here.”

Osaki wasn’t just joining any old corporation. Yoshimoto had been the dominant force in the entertainment industry for decades, with a history that went back to 1912. It all began when Sei Yoshimoto bought a rakugo (storytelling) theater for her husband, Kichibei, in Osaka. Cheap to enter, the place proved popular with locals and, in the years that followed, the pair opened several more theaters, hiring their own entertainers as employees. By the time Kichibei had passed away in 1924, the Yoshimoto empire had spread beyond Osaka, making inroads into other areas, including Tokyo. Sei Yoshimoto and her younger brother, Shonosuke Hayashi, continued to lay the foundations of the company after her husband’s death.

The family’s legacy lived on. Yoshimoto established itself as the No. 1 comedy agency in Japan, with a share in the market that was unrivaled. To get a foot in the door, up-and-coming entertainers had to become apprentices to stars, taking on various errands for their masters in the hope of one day becoming famous themselves.

Things changed in 1982 with the launch of New Star Creation, a comedy school that provided a new path for aspiring comedians to go down. Notable graduates in the early years included Downtown’s Hitoshi Matsumoto and Masatoshi Hamada, actor and director Itsuji Itao and TV presenter Koji Imada. Osaki was one of the school’s original staff members.

As with all new employees, the Osaka-native started out at the bottom of Yoshimoto’s ladder, but soon began to work his way up, becoming an influential figure in the company during the manzai (stand-up comedy) boom of the 1980s, and played a significant role in the rise of Downtown. The double-act struggled to get attention early on and couldn’t even give away tickets for its shows. Those in attendance rarely laughed and sometimes heckled. Matsumoto and Hamada considered quitting but, with the support of Osaki, decided to keep going and eventually their luck turned. They hosted a local TV program called “It’s Four O’Clock” (“Yoji Desu Yo Da”) in 1987, and then hit the jackpot two years later with the hugely popular variety show “Downtown’s We Aren’t Errand Boys!” (“Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!”).

Southern charms: Yoshimoto Kogyo opened a comedy theater in Okinawa in 2015 as part of its drive to expand its brand of performing arts to the island prefecture. | KYODO
Southern charms: Yoshimoto Kogyo opened a comedy theater in Okinawa in 2015 as part of its drive to expand its brand of performing arts to the island prefecture. | KYODO

“Many people say I raised them like some kind of parent, but I don’t see it that way,” says Osaki. “It was just pure luck on my part. They could have had anyone in charge of them and been just as successful. They were the ones with the talent and charisma, it had nothing to do with me. I’d been exiled to the window seat of the office and when I looked up there were these two rookies staring at me, hoping for an opportunity. At that time nobody wanted to manage new recruits. We all hoped for that successful artist or group who was already established. Being in a lowly position myself, I wasn’t afforded that luxury. I would have to take care of these two guys. We were at the bottom together. Fortunately, things worked out well and we had a lot of fun along the way.”

As Downtown’s reputation grew, so did Osaki’s. He took on several directorial roles in the years that followed before being named Yoshimoto’s vice-president in 2006 and CEO three years later. Shortly after his appointment, the company was delisted from the Tokyo and Osaka stock exchanges as it merged with Quantum Entertainment, a consortium of TV networks. At the time, Yoshimoto cited challenges in Japan’s slowing contents market as the main reason for going private, though, according to Osaki, it was also an important step to take in order to wrestle power away from the yakuza.

“When you see your business potentially going into the hands of people who don’t have its best interests at heart, you need to act,” says Osaki. “As a public company, your stock is open to being bought by anyone, including criminals and gangsters, who will, therefore, have a say in how things are run. I didn’t want that. I’ve had death threats and been in meetings with people who had guns under the table. I’ve never been a fighter, I don’t have a black belt in karate or very powerful parents. I was being attacked from various sides and it was scary. I found this inner-strength from somewhere because I wasn’t prepared to let these villains take over.”

In the same year Osaki took charge of the conglomerate, the Okinawa International Movie Festival was launched, followed by the Kyoto International Film and Art Festival five years later. The former is famed for its half-mile long red carpet, which has hosted some of Japan’s best-known actors and comedians, as well as foreign guests such as director Joel Schumacher and “Jackass” star Johnny Knoxville. Osaki got the idea for these events after visiting the 2007 Cannes Film Festival to support Matsumoto’s mockumentary “Big Man Japan” (“Dai Nipponjin”).

“Around 25 of us went out, uninvited,” says Osaki. “It was so much fun, we wanted to make it an annual thing but couldn’t expect Matsumoto to be asked back every year. Instead, I decided to make my own festival in Okinawa, a place where you can relax and be yourself. It was the only island invaded by U.S. forces during World War II and I feel we owe it to the citizens there to give them something back for trying to protect Japan. They suffered a lot in the postwar years and tourism aside, there still isn’t much there in terms of industry. It’s a wonderful region, full of laughter, dancing and music. Our goal is to make it an entertainment hub.”

The headquarters of Laugh & Peace_Mother will be in the prefecture’s capital, Naha, with future plans to build an attraction facility on the island. A number of other projects have already been launched in the area, such as the Laugh & Peace Entertainment School Okinawa, which includes a creative department where students can learn about manga, CG and anime production, in addition to a performing arts department which is aimed at developing the skills of dancers, actors and those hoping to work backstage.

Looking beyond Okinawa (and Japan in general), Yoshimoto continues to expand its business around the world. Earlier this year, the comedy giant announced that it had invested in the streaming platform, Iflix in a strategic move to showcase Yoshimoto’s content across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The move comes five years after the company established MCIP Holdings in Indonesia as its base of Asian strategy and began the Living in Asia Comedians program, which gives young Japanese entertainers the opportunity to work in Asian countries.

“It wasn’t a specific strategy to spread our wings globally,” says Osaki. “Things just happened naturally because I don’t like competition. I prefer to push outward and extend my territory rather than compete with others where I always feel I’ll lose. It’s been like that throughout my career. Maybe it’s because I’m a surfer. I like to be at one with nature, ride the waves and just see where they take me.”

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