TOKYO -- Japan's Fair Trade Commission has warned talent agency Johnny's & Associates over suspected pressure on television stations to keep three former members of popular boy band SMAP off the air, in a sign of the watchdog's broadening application of antitrust law.
The commission had investigated reports that the powerful agency -- whose founder, John Hiromu Kitagawa, died on July 9 -- had pushed stations not to invite Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Shingo Katori onto TV shows.
The investigation did not find sufficient evidence to confirm a violation of Japan's antimonopoly law. Johnny's posted a statement on its website Wednesday evening, saying that "there is no truth to allegations that TV stations were pressured." But in acknowledging the gravity of the probe, the talent agency said that it would take care to avoid future "misunderstandings."
The ex-SMAP trio left Johnny's in 2017 and are now part of an agency established by a longtime manager of the band. TV programs that regularly featured the singers have ended, and they all but vanished from terrestrial broadcast networks aside from appearances in commercials -- to the chagrin of their fans, who remain numerous even after SMAP's 2016 breakup.
The move against Johnny's follows a February 2018 report by a Fair Trade Commission panel found that the protections of antitrust law -- including provisions against abuse of a dominant position -- can apply to freelancers, entertainers and athletes. It could presage investigations beyond the entertainment world, looking at the contracts of freelance engineers or animators, for example.
The SMAP affair is far from the first case in Japan's entertainment industry of friction with talent agencies causing problems for performers. The issue is widespread, affecting singers, actors and even comedians.
Rena Nonen, a popular actress who appeared in NHK serial dramas, changed her stage name to Non and temporarily withdrew from the spotlight after contract problems with her agency.
The notice issued to Johnny's to encourage voluntary corrective action is the weakest of the commission's three options for addressing suspected antitrust violations. It can issue a cease-and-desist order if it finds the law has been breached, or a warning if it lacks sufficient evidence to impose an actual penalty.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the commission expressed concern about an agreement among six major film production and distribution companies -- including Toho, Shochiku and Toei -- not to show movies featuring the others' actors in their own affiliated theaters, aiming to ensure they retained star talent.
The watchdog ultimately opted against taking action after some of the participants withdrew from the deal and the rest removed the problematic clauses from the relevant contracts.