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On Nov. 17, talent agency Johnny & Associates, Inc. suspended the activities of veteran singer Masahiko Kondo, 56, after he admitted to having had an extramarital affair with an unidentified 31-year-old woman. As is often the case, the indiscretion was first revealed by a weekly magazine.

Given the amount of press the suspension received, even overseas, it sounds like a big deal. Kondo is currently celebrating 40 years in showbiz, and the fact that his agency would suspend him at a time when he might make more money than he usually does sounds like a good example of shooting oneself in the foot, but certain media protocols are sacrosanct.

Kondo’s sex life is nobody’s business but his, his family’s and his lover’s, but the premise that entertainers must bow to perceived public opprobrium is an economic one, based on the belief that people’s consumption with regard to a celebrity will change appreciably if they do something bad. More significantly, advertisers always stipulate in contracts that the stars who represent them do nothing to compromise their public image, otherwise the contract is void, and the stars (or their agents) can be made to compensate those advertisers. Advertising campaigns are more lucrative than concerts, movies and TV appearances.

The Kondo affair caps a year of noteworthy celebrity sex scandals, including the divorce of Anne, daughter of Hollywood star Ken Watanabe, and actor Masahiro Higashide after his affair with a younger actress was exposed; the suspension of Olympic swimmer Daiya Seto after he cheated on his ex-swimmer wife; and the case of comedian Ken Watabe, whose extramarital flings involved the use of public restroom stalls for secret rendezvous. TV personality Yukina Kinoshita also announced she was retiring from show business following reports of affairs with several men.

Addressing these scandals as a trend, an article in the Nov. 20 Asahi Shimbun cited a U.S. survey that found 69% of Japanese respondents thought extramarital affairs were unforgivable, while about 47% of French respondents and 84% of Americans said the same thing. Many Japanese people believe extramarital sex is bad, but they aren’t as prudish as Americans, and yet celebrity sex scandals in the United States rarely result in destroyed or even temporarily upended careers. In Japan, sanctions are mandated.

Which is odd from a historical standpoint. In the Asahi Shimbun piece, professor Yamakaku Sechi of the University of Tokyo explains how marriage norms in Japan have changed over time. For centuries, husbands and wives did not live together. Men, or at least those situated above the peasant classes, would visit their wives “when necessary” and had lovers. There was no legal concept of adultery until the Meiji Era (1868-1912), but only unfaithful wives and their correspondents were subject to penalties. After World War II, adultery was no longer a crime, though the Civil Code allowed aggrieved spouses to sue for compensation.

In fact, the common term for extramarital affairs — “furin” — didn’t achieve currency until the 1980s, mostly displacing the word “uwaki,” which simply meant “having extramarital sex,” albeit with no emotional involvement. Furin, on the other hand, means “immoral,” and was popularized by media companies who learned how to sell more magazines by peddling celebrity sex scandals that were previously kept under wraps. Extramarital affairs became something of a cottage industry unto themselves. By the early 1990s, many weekly TV series, characterized by the popular kintsuma (Friday wives) dramas, featured storylines about illicit love affairs. Eventually, some fallen celebrities exploited their wayward image by treating it ironically, and for a while it seemed as if furin scandals had become less of a sensation. In recent years, however, they’ve gained prominence again.

According to associate professor Kayo Hashimoto of Chikushi Jogakuen University, also quoted in the Asahi Shimbun article, one reason for the resurgence is the popularity of ikumen celebrities. “Ikumen” describes a husband/father who is positively involved in homemaking and raising children, two tasks traditionally assigned to women only. Hashimoto points out that ikumen are now fixtures in media and advertising, so when one is revealed to be cheating on his wife, the backlash is particularly harsh, especially from female fans. A cheating ikumen is seen to be harming not only the institution of marriage, but the institution of the family — a much graver sin.

This dynamic also applies to female celebrities. According to columnist and human relations consultant Takashi Kimura, writing in Toyo Keizai last July, condemnation of Kinoshita’s affairs was particularly severe because her whole image as a TV personality was that of a good mother. When media outlets reported that she was straying outside her marriage, it was not only damaging to her reputation, it compromised her brand.

In Kondo’s case, the family he really betrayed was Johnny’s, which has always kept a close, wary eye on its stable of male idols. Kondo was one of the first Johnny’s artists to be granted dispensation to marry, probably because, as explained in a recent issue of Nikkan Sports, he was considered the agency’s “first son” and had been open about his desire to wed. Since getting married in 1994, he has cultivated an image as a family man, encouraging his fans — middle-aged women who have followed him since they were teens — to bring their children to his shows. Another Johnny’s old-timer but younger than Kondo, Noriyuki Higashiyama, commented on the matter on “Sunday Live!!”, the talk show he hosts, and expressed disappointment with Kondo because he learned everything he knew about being an entertainer by watching him. He was the little brother traumatized by how far his big brother had fallen.

Coincidentally, Higashiyama’s wife, actress Yoshino Kimura, is currently starring in the drama series “Koi Suru Haha-tachi,” which cannily takes advantage of the zeitgeist to revive the kintsuma craze, except that, as the title indicates, it’s not just about straying housewives this time but “mothers in love.” You have to hand it to TV — it really knows how to eat its own.

See www.philipbrasor.com for addendums to Media Mix columns.

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