Last August, comedian and TV emcee Shinsuke Shimada retired from show business following allegations that he’d been palling around with an underworld figure. His withdrawal came on the eve of the implementation of a well-publicized police crackdown on organizations that work with antisocial elements, such as the yakuza. The media presumed that Shimada had been forced to retire by his management, the powerful Osaka-based production company Yoshimoto Kogyo, which didn’t want the authorities scrutinizing its business.

On Jan. 4, during a press conference to celebrate Yoshimoto’s 100th anniversary, president Hiroshi Osaki said that he hoped Shimada would “come back to the entertainment world someday.” It was the first time anyone from the company had mentioned Shimada’s rehabilitation, leading reporters to wonder whether Osaki’s remark was off-the-cuff.

The memory of Shimada’s humiliating departure is still fresh in the public’s mind, and according to the weekly magazine Aera, Yoshimoto subsequently received dozens of telephone calls from people who disapproved of Shimada’s return. Aera says Yoshimoto is predicting it “can make money instantly” if Shimada comes back, but isn’t thinking about possible backlash from sponsors and viewers.

Another weekly, Bunshun, reported that there are many “Shimada sympathizers” in the television industry who want the comedian to return to active duty but nevertheless feel that Osaki spoke too soon and as a result has made it more difficult for that to happen. Osaki himself later told yet another weekly, Flash, that his comment had been misconstrued, while Shukan Taishu reports that Shimada will be back next August.

Aera implied that the remark may have been prompted by controversy surrounding NHK’s New Year’s Eve song contest, “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” which was broadcast several days before the Yoshimoto press conference. “Kohaku” is still considered Japan’s biggest pop music event of the year and a huge honor for anyone invited to perform. An anonymous music promoter told Aera that it was strange seeing all these people who everyone believed had long-time yakuza connections “singing their hearts out” on the show despite a statement last fall by NHK’s chairman that the public broadcaster would screen all Kohaku participants for underworld ties.

The magazine previously covered this matter in a Dec. 12 article outlining the conflict within NHK, whose top executives felt they couldn’t invite singers with purported yakuza connections. However, this decision met with strong resistance from production staff, who said “Kohaku” would be impossible without these singers, many of whom are considered “regulars” on the show. Young people have been drifting away from “Kohaku” for years, leaving behind an increasingly older audience who prefer enka (traditional ballads). Many enka singers are rumored to have long-standing yakuza relationships.

Aera said a solution was provided by a powerful “insider,” who, representing a music industry that is quite anxious about the crackdown, suggested that NHK peg its screening process to the timing of the new antiyakuza rules. In effect, only mob connections which could be cited after Oct. 1, 2011, would disqualify a singer from appearing on the show. Theoretically, that meant an artist could enjoy a round of golf with a gangster on Sept. 30 and still be approved for the show as long as the relationship wasn’t noticed after that date.

The promoter who Aera interviewed assumes that Yoshimoto, having picked up on NHK’s alleged cynicism, wondered if Shimada hadn’t just been made the scapegoat of a policy that was mostly lip service. Such reasoning may explain the emotional impetus behind Osaki’s remark, but it doesn’t explain why Yoshimoto is so desperate to have Shimada back.

Bunshun reports that Yoshimoto is having cash flow problems. Some of the comedians who work for the agency told the magazine they haven’t been paid for months. Yoshimoto’s financial chief, Hiroshi Nakata, insisted to the weekly’s reporter that the company was solvent and is paying its debts on time. However, last year Yoshimoto sold off much of its real-estate holdings and closed three showcase theaters.

The problem stems from the company’s 2010 delisting from the Tokyo and Osaka stock exchanges to merge with Quantum Entertainment, a consortium of TV networks. This move cost the company ¥30 billion, which it had to borrow. Some pundits have hinted that Yoshimoto delisted due to the anti-yakuza crackdown, since listed companies have to open their books to the public. The business magazine Toyo Keizai recently profiled Hori Productions, another major entertainment company that has delisted. The president has already denied the yakuza rationale, telling the magazine that the company cut any ties it had to the underworld more than 50 years ago. He says Hori Pro delisted because it is diversifying and doesn’t want to be “discouraged” by stockholder reaction to its business decisions. Yoshimoto’s stated reason for the delisting is similar: Quantum can help make it the No. 1 agency in Asia.

Everyone is hurting, which begs a question: Would Shinsuke Shimada’s return really make a difference? Given the reaction to Osaki’s remark, TV producers may be placed in an awkward position if suddenly confronted with his availability.

In any event, the only person on TV who talks openly about it is Sanma Akashiya, the one comedian in Yoshimoto’s stable equal to Shimada in popularity and earning power. Last week, he was the guest host on one of the series Shimada used to emcee, the legal variety show “Gyoretsu no Dekiru Horitsu Sodanjo,” and garnered an impressive 30 percent peak audience share in the Kansai region. On the show, Sanma said he was getting more work than ever, and hoped his former rival never came back. Maybe Yoshimoto disapproves, but If Sanma can joke about such a thing on the air, it probably means he doesn’t have any yakuza connections for them to worry about.

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