National / Media | MEDIA MIX

News outlets in Japan less afraid to tackle entertainment issues

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Ever since Johnny Kitagawa died on July 9, the media has been filled with sentimental tributes to the pop idol impresario, mostly by the young men whose careers he cultivated, but also by those with a stake in Japan’s hermetic show biz world.

Meanwhile, Kitagawa’s media nemesis, the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, took time to weigh in on his legacy and alleged transgressions. Mineko Nomachi’s column in the magazine reviewed the condolences in a mocking tone, focusing on the elephant in the room — allegations of sexual abuse at the agency that had been levied by some of his charges over the years — because it was Shukan Bunshun that first made such allegations and, as Nomachi pointed out, a judge eventually decided that the stories had some degree of credibility to them. And she added that while the public is clearly interested in these allegations, the media “can’t speak ill of the dead,” so tributes will continue to be the default coverage mode.

However, another aspect of Kitagawa’s career is now in the news. The Fair Trade Commission is investigating Kitagawa’s agency, Johnny & Associates Inc., for violations of antitrust rules, examining whether Johnny’s put pressure on commercial broadcasters to blackball three former members of the popular boy band SMAP after they left the agency about two years ago. The company quickly denied that it has ever done such a thing. Those familiar with Japan’s entertainment world suspect that this is true, since the situation with regard to blackballing artists who leave their agencies is that pressure isn’t needed. Media companies who purchase A-list services automatically know not to hire such people lest it angers their former agencies.

So it was surprising when NHK reported on its July 18 evening news show that it had talked to an anonymous TV employee who claimed that Johnny’s really did pressure the broadcaster not to hire the three former SMAP members. Realizing that a single anonymous tip wasn’t compelling evidence, NHK showed an interview with one of the members, Shingo Katori, recorded earlier this year, in which the interviewer asked in a guarded way if Katori had felt frustrated with his career since leaving Johnny’s. In equally guarded terms, Katori replied that almost everything that had happened over the past two years was unexpected.

However, it has been the scandal surrounding the even more powerful Yoshimoto Kogyo talent agency that has galvanized the media lately, and a close look at the fallout indicates that the cause of the controversy is similar to that behind the conflict between Johnny’s and the Fair Trade Commission: Talent agencies and TV networks are just too dependent on each other.

The Yoshimoto scandal started when a weekly magazine revealed that 11 of the company’s comedians provided entertainment at a 2014 party for a suspected group of phone fraudsters and were paid under the table, meaning Yoshimoto didn’t know about it. It is not unusual for comedians, who make up the bulk of Yoshimoto’s charges, to gain work outside their agencies’ purview. Comedians are famously low paid, and many moonlight in some capacity.

However, the 11 comedians had to be disciplined, so Yoshimoto announced they would suspend their contracts. The problem here is that there were no contracts to suspend, since Yoshimoto, like many agencies, has only verbal agreements with its talent. When two of the comedians who took money from the antisocial group announced they wanted to hold a news conference to apologize, Yoshimoto threatened them with dismissal, but they appeared before the press anyway. Several days later, Yoshimoto Kogyo President Akihiko Okamoto gave his own five-hour-plus news conference at which he rescinded the threat of dismissal and got an earful from the media about the way he runs his business.

The encounter opened up a can of worms, with Yoshimoto’s biggest stars complaining publicly about their treatment at the hands of management. Haruna Kondo of the manzai duo Harisenbon told tabloid Nikkan Gendai she didn’t even have a verbal agreement. In an interview with Business Insider Japan on July 13, Yoshimoto Kogyo Chairman Hiroshi Osaki defended the practice by saying that, according to the Civil Code, verbal agreements are just as good as contracts. As for why that is, all he could say was that they “fit the Yoshimoto style.”

The problem with not having physical contracts is that members of the agency are never sure what they’re getting paid, because Yoshimoto negotiates their fees without their input. If TV stations seem OK with this setup, it’s because Yoshimoto can charge them less. Yoshimoto is not concerned with the size of the fees, but rather the volume of work. They manage roughly 6,000 people, many of whom graduated from their school with the belief they’d become professionals. Instead, they became cheap labor.

That’s why the media is worried about Yoshimoto’s seeming incompetence. Almost every major TV company owns shares in Yoshimoto Kogyo. Are they now going to have to pay more for talent?

What they don’t discuss is Yoshimoto’s responsibility for the sorry state of TV. The company’s Osaka-based comic approach combines slapstick assault with put-downs of weaker members of society, a style that makes many people uncomfortable. In an article for Ronza, writer Genki Katsube wrote that many young people no longer watch TV because it’s boring, and the reason it’s boring is its over-reliance on comedians, obviating the need for inventive production ideas, which cost money. 

In an interview with Newsweek, TV personality Dave Spector explained Yoshimoto’s negotiating strategy: If a TV station wants big name comedian A, the agency agrees if they hire unknown comedians B and C as a package. That way, even unfunny funny men get to be on TV. Other agencies do the same thing, because they take on too many people who simply want to be in show business. They’d rather have TV personalities who work for nothing than people who have sellable skills.

This system has become so entrenched that broadcasters can’t see how bad things have become. All they care about is getting larger shares of an ever-dwindling viewership. Katori and his mates should be glad they got out when they did.