Social distinctions related to class, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation that mean a lot in everyday life tend to mean less in the world of show business. Indeed, it’s one of the few places where the normally dispossessed can expect an even break, especially in Japan.

However, the insularity that characterizes careers in the popular arts also fortifies any outsider status these popular artists may possess and thus make them more sensitive about that status. Japanese show business is filled with ethnic Koreans who are still reluctant to reveal their heritage; and performers who overcame poverty may never quite overcome the feeling of being second-class, no matter how much money they make.

One of Japanese show business’s greatest success stories is Shinsuke Shimada, a former juvenile delinquent who made his name as a comic during the manzai (standup comedy) boom of the early 1980s. Possessed of a nimble wit, Shimada has since become one of the most sought-after emcees on television. He currently hosts eight different quiz or variety shows, and until last spring helmed TV Asahi’s Sunday morning news program. In addition, as a self-taught financial wizard, he has written several best-selling books about investment strategies for lay people.

Two weeks ago, Shimada gave a news conference where he admitted to assault charges brought against him by a female employee of Yoshimoto Kogyo, the powerful talent agency he’s worked for since entering show business. Shimada broke down in tears at the news conference and was so distraught that he had to be dragged from the room.

Though some of the details differ between Shimada’s account of the incident and the woman’s, the basic story is the same. Interviewed by Sunday Mainichi, the woman, referred to only as H, said that she works for Yoshimoto’s Bunkajin Dept., which handles writers, scientists and celebrities of an intellectual persuasion.

On Oct. 25, she was with one of her charges at the studios of Asahi Hoso in Osaka, where Shimada was taping one of his shows. H was in the canteen and spied the comedian sitting at a table. She went up to him and introduced herself, saying that when she was in high school in Tokyo she was a big manzai fan and several times talked to Shimada offstage. Did he remember her?

Shimada basically ignored her. Feeling uncomfortable, she apologized and went to get some coffee. The comedian, visibly agitated, followed her.

“Who do you think I am?” he said, grabbing her arm and pulling her into a nearby dressing room. He locked the door and proceeded to beat her. Here the details diverge. Shimada says he slapped her once. H claims he struck her several times with his fists and even spat on her. “I finally started screaming for help and he snapped out of it,” she told the magazine.

At the news conference, Shimada tried to explain his conduct. After saying she worked for Yoshimoto, H referred to several top executives in a way that the comedian found disrespectful. He couldn’t control himself and felt he had to teach her a lesson.

Show-biz reporters condemned Shimada for his violence but expressed sympathy for his situation. People who see celebrities on the street tend to expect them to be the same as they are on TV, thus placing a strain on the celebrities, who have to “act” accordingly. What’s more, the woman, who according to at least one reporter grew up overseas, didn’t seem to know how to talk.

This last observation is more to the point. Shimada came up in the rarefied world of Osaka comedy, which is intensely hierarchical. The cruel slapstick and emphasis on ridiculing the socially vulnerable — old people, women, the poor — that characterizes Yoshimoto humor springs from the daily humiliations the comics endure at the hands of their betters.

Shimada, as a former bosozoku (hot rodder), has risen further than most, and the idea that this fellow employee — a woman, no less — was being so familiar with him apparently set him off.

It’s also likely that Shimada reacted negatively to what he perceived as the woman’s higher breeding. Though his accomplishments are considerable, it’s easy to discern a lack of self-esteem in Shimada’s transparent efforts to come off as being just as smart as the college graduates he often works with. In the past, even the most successful comics never stepped outside comedy, which was considered a low profession. Funny-men like Shimada and Beat Takeshi — who takes every opportunity to show off whatever erudition he’s acquired, to the point of playing bad classical piano on TV — want to rise above their lowly comic image.

It will be interesting to see how Shimada weathers this storm. Yoshimoto suspended him for 10 days, but he will continue exercising “self-restraint (jishuku).” Consequently, the networks that air his shows have said they will reedit or temporarily replace those shows. Nihon TV, which uses Shimada on four programs, even said it would use new emcees, at least for the time being.

If he were still merely a stand-up comedian, Shimada might be able to take advantage of the scandal in his routines — Takeshi got some mileage out of being arrested for beating up a publisher once — but his career has been about moving beyond his reputation as a former bad boy. A lot of people will surely think the assault proves he hasn’t.