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Media & Entertainment

Yoshimoto scandal shakes Japanese media industry

President of biggest talent agency admits gagging comedians

Yoshimoto Kogyo President Akihiko Okamoto apologized to media on Monday for the company's recent problems. Two days earlier, Yoshitomo Kogyo comedians, Hiroyuki Miyasako, left, and Ryo Tamura, held a press conference to offer their side of the story. (Left photo by Kei Higuchi; right photo by Jiji)

TOKYO -- The head of Japan's largest entertainment group Yoshimoto Kogyo apologized on Monday for poor corporate governance and failing to look after the interests of its artistes, after admitting he warned comedians not to speak to media about the company's alleged ties to organized crime.

Yoshimoto's troubles came soon after problems surfaced at another Japanese talent agency Johnny’s & Associates. Earlier this month, the Fair Trade Commission censured Johnny's for allegedly pressuring television stations to keep three former members of popular boy band SMAP off the air allegedly to restrict their activities even though they have left the agency. 

Johnny's denied any wrongdoing but SMAP's plight is common in Japan where performers are often in the thrall of their agencies even after they leave. These two recent scandals have shone a light on the power that agencies wield in the Japanese media industry.

Yamoto Sato, an industry lawyer at Rei Law Office, said that Japanese talent agencies have colluded with each other and have stifled competition by taking measures such as restricting performers from moving to other agencies.

“The situation will not change unless performers themselves start to raise their voice for their own rights,” said Sato who is also a founding member of Entertainers’ Rights Association that was established in 2017.

Yoshimoto is the biggest player in Japanese entertainment and many companies hire its comedians to appear in TV commercials. The market for terrestrial TV advertisements is worth more than 1.7 trillion yen ($16 billion) in Japan and TV is the largest advertising medium, followed by the internet.

"I sincerely apologize on behalf of the company for causing such trouble," said Akihiko Okamoto, president of Yoshimoto at a news conference on Monday.

Okamoto, bowing deeply and speaking with tears in his eyes, said: "We will ensure compliance and put our comedians first by any means to become a company that can put smiles on everyone's faces." He added that he would take a 50% salary cut for a year to show remorse.

The entertainment giant has been in turmoil since it came to light in June that several Yoshimoto comedians attended parties held by an organized crime syndicate in 2014. The comedians attended the party without consulting the company and were paid by the group.

Two comedians accused of receiving money from the crime syndicate met members of the media on Saturday. They said that Okamoto had pressured them not to speak out and that he had threatened to fire all the comedians who were at the party if they went ahead with the news conference.

Okamoto on Monday admitted to speaking to the performers and apologized: "I am deeply sorry for hurting their feelings so badly," adding that he would reinstate their contracts if they wanted.

He said that several of the company's star comedians, including Sanma Akashiya and Hitoshi Matsumoto, have contacted him demanding that Okamoto respond appropriately. Okamoto said they asked him to "put comedians first and to support them" under any circumstances. 

Many TV stations hire Yoshimoto's comedians such as Akashiya and Matsumoto as commentators and moderators on popular programs. Around 5,000 programs are produced yearly in cooperation with the agency. Major TV stations, including Fuji Media Holdings and Nippon Television Holdings unit Nippon Television Network hold shares in Yoshimoto.

Yoshimoto also has government connections. It has worked with the government and pushed comedians to perform in smaller cities as part of Tokyo's plans to encourage relocation outside of large urban centers.

In April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Yoshimoto's Namba Grand Kagetsu theater in Osaka. Abe appeared on stage at the event to plug the G-20 Summit in June.

Okamoto on Monday pledged to cut ties with anti-social forces by ramping up in-house compliance education and securing supporting systems such as inquiry hotlines for performers working for the company.

Yoshimoto has contracts with more than 6,000 performers, including comedians, athletes and musicians, and operates 14 live theaters in Japan. 

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