National

Five things to know about the scandal enveloping top Japanese comedy agency Yoshimoto Kogyo

by Masumi Koizumi

Staff Writer

From one channel to the next, almost every comedy and variety show on Japanese TV features personalities from entertainment powerhouse Yoshimoto Kogyo Co.

But recently the company has been rocked by a scandal involving high-profile comedians that is no laughing matter. What began last month with the revelation that 13 entertainers entered into a lucrative “underground business” has evolved into scathing criticism of the firm’s management and corporate culture. Although President Akihiko Okamoto apologized for the scandal and took a 50 percent pay cut for a year, he said he would not step down.

Here are five things to know about the lingering scandal:

1. Yoshimoto dominates Japanese comedy

Yoshimoto Kogyo began in 1912 as an operator of a storytelling theater and expanded its business over the years with the advent of radio and television.

Yoshimoto now has more than 6,000 comedians, athletes, actors and other performers under contract, including comedian and Instagram star Naomi Watanabe.

2. Scandal’s roots go back to 2014

The origin of the scandal dates back to 2014, when 13 comedians performed and received compensation without consulting the agency, a practice known as yamieigyō (underground business). They obtained anywhere from tens of thousands of yen to ¥1 million in remuneration for secretly performing at a party hosted by a purported crime group.

On June 7, weekly magazine Friday reported about their attendance at a party thrown by the group, which allegedly specialized in telephone fraud.

Osaka-based Yoshimoto later disclosed that the largest sum, ¥1 million, was paid to Hiroyuki Miyasako of comedy duo Ameagari Kesshitai, while Ryo Tamura of comedy pair London Boots Ichi-go Ni-go received ¥500,000.

3. Compensation details slow to come out

Naturally, ties with “antisocial forces” are taboo in business, although the two comedians have said they did not know the group was connected to organized crime.

Exacerbating the scandal was the false explanation the pair had made to Yoshimoto.

Before the article was published in Friday, Miyasako and Tamura told the agency that they did not receive any money from the alleged criminal group. A day after the publication, they went to Yoshimoto’s headquarters, together with two other comedians, and admitted to receiving payments.

But the compensation was not revealed to the public until June 24, when Yoshimoto announced disciplinary measures against 11 of the embattled comics, including Miyasako and Tamura.

4. Alleged cover-up, power harassment

At first public opinion was overwhelmingly against the two comedians, but a news conference by Miyasako and Tamura on July 20 in Tokyo turned fans’ anger back on the agency. The pair’s tearful apologies and their accusations of a cover-up by management, as well as power harassment, shifted criticism from them to the agency.

During the news conference, Miyasako explained that the disclosure of the compensation was delayed because the company had ordered them “to remain silent.”

He also divulged alleged power harassment by Okamoto. Miyasako said that Tamura told the agency’s president on June 24 that he wanted to hold a news conference. Miyasako quoted Okamoto as answering: “You can do that. But if you do, I will fire all of you because you are collectively responsible.” He was later quoted as saying, “I have the power to fire you all.”

5. Okamoto fails to defuse controversy

The barrage of criticism and other factors pushed Okamoto to speak to the press, but that only added to the growing showdown between the comedians and their agency.

In a news conference on Monday, Okamoto was asked about the intimidation, to which he replied: “I made the remark as if I was talking to my family members.”

Okamoto said he will reinstate Miyasako, who had been fired.

The president’s evasive responses left many Yoshimoto comedians and public observers perplexed, drumming up support for Miyasako. The scandal, which also highlighted problems due to a lack of written contracts and other issues in the entertainment business, drew reactions from politicians, too.

Takuya Hirai, minister of state for “Cool Japan” strategy, said Tuesday, “We cannot help but expect the company to thoroughly meet the legal compliance and accountability.”