One would have to be a hermit, literally shut off from all media, to avoid exposure in Japan to the comedians and other entertainers managed by Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., the nation’s oldest and arguably most powerful entertainment agency.

Besides appearing on the numerous television variety and comedy shows and radio programs that dominate the airwaves, Yoshimoto’s comedians publish best-selling novels and essays, record hit music albums and even direct films that in some cases win international recognition.

In short, not a day goes by when the Yoshimoto “owarai,” or comedy, empire is not engaged with the public.

But back when Yoshimoto was founded nearly 100 years ago, it was a small hand-to-mouth affair run by a married couple with a passion for comedy.

What was Yoshimoto in the beginning?

Yoshimoto’s origins date to 1912, when Sei and Kichibei Yoshimoto opened a theater for “rakugo” comic storytellers in the precincts of Tenmangu Shrine in Kita Ward, Osaka.

The following year the couple formed the Yoshimoto performance troupe. They then gradually began buying and opening more theaters and hiring entertainers.

According to writer Masafumi Masuda’s book on the entertainment house, “The Real Yoshimoto Kogyo,” to compete with other entertainment halls that featured popular rakugo of the time, Yoshimoto offered dirt-cheap entrance fees to its theaters and did not hesitate to hire entertainers with colorful backgrounds who could perform a wide range of acts.

By the time Kichibei passed away in 1924 and Sei and her two brothers took over management, the agency had grown to become a dominant force in the Osaka entertainment scene and had expanded its reach to other areas, including Tokyo.

Has Yoshimoto always followed an upward trajectory?

Mainly. Throughout the 1930s, Yoshimoto continued to prosper, buying up several theaters in the Kanto region, opening a Tokyo office in 1932 and launching the popular Asakusa Kage-tsu theater in the entertainment district of Asakusa, Taito Ward.

Around this time the company began to branch into other forms of entertainment.

In 1934, Yoshimoto co-founded a baseball team that later became the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, and in 1936 it went into partnership with Toho Eiga Distribution Corp., one of the predecessors of Toho Co.

These were the golden years when Yoshimoto owned dozens of entertainment venues nationwide and had more than 1,000 entertainers on its payroll.

But as the nation entered the war, things began to look grim, and government censorship on comedy scripts was tightened.

During the war, Yoshimoto lost most of its theaters and offices to American air raids, and because of this it was forced to cancel the exclusive contracts it had with entertainers.

When did Yoshimoto take off?

Yoshimoto was quick to recover from the devastation of the war, at first concentrating on movie production and screening for sources of revenue, then gradually refocusing its attention on live acts.

As television went mainstream in the late 1950s and 1960s, Yoshimoto kicked off its Shinkigeki theater, featuring slapstick comedy skits, in 1959. This form of entertainment became immensely popular.

And while slowly increasing exposure via radio and television, the 1980s heralded the “manzai” standup comedy boom nationwide, producing stars of the likes of Sanma Akashiya, Shinsuke Shimada and the duo Downtown, who to this day remain common television fixtures.

What’s Yoshimoto like today?

Yoshimoto has continued to expand in recent years. Hundreds of aspiring comedians graduate each year from New Star Creation, Yoshimoto’s entertainment school. The agency has also signed up athletes, producers and musicians to increase its clout in the entertainment scene.

The company has two headquarters, in Osaka and Tokyo, and a number of stages, namely Yoshimoto and Nanba Grand Kagetsu in Osaka, and Lumine the Yoshimoto and Yoshimoto Mugendai Hall in Tokyo.

Since 2009, Yoshimoto has hosted the annual Okinawa International Film Festival, which features both domestic and foreign short and feature-length films.

How much do Yoshimoto comedians get paid?

Yoshimoto is known for pinching pennies when it comes to entertainers’ paychecks.

In his book, Masuda explains how the owarai boom of the ’80s and ’90s transformed the public’s perception of comedians from third-rate entertainers to top-class celebrities.

“Nowadays comedians are ‘stars,’ the same way movie (actors) and singers, television idols are. Youths aspire to be one — in short, they are symbols of success, of popularity and money, and are targets of envy,” Masuda writes.

But he was quick to note that this kind of success is only attained by a handful of the estimated 700 to 1,000 comedians and other talent Yoshimoto manages. Most rookie comedians get a paltry salary, and some are not even paid at all.

A former Yoshimoto comedian in his late 20s who asked not to be named said that after finishing high school and graduating from a one-year course at the New Star Creation school in Tokyo, he formed several comedy groups before recently calling it quits.

The man, who said he supported himself doing part-time jobs when he was a comedian, said he almost never received a salary for performing skits while he was an active comedian, and said such is the case with most Yoshimoto entertainers who do not make it.

At the other end of the scale, some of the top earners at Yoshimoto make hundreds of millions of yen a year.

In 2004, Masatoshi Hamada of Downtown was the top Yoshimoto entertainer, raking in ¥345.3 million. He was followed by his partner, Hitoshi Matsumoto, with ¥296.9 million, and Shinsuke Shimada, with ¥226.5 million, according to a media report that cited figures supplied by the National Tax Agency. Hamada was the third-highest earning comedian in Japan, trailing Takaaki Ishibashi and Noritake Kinashi, the two stars of Tunnels.

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