The flip side of Japan's "laughter" industry

Yoshimoto Kogyo is an icon of Japan's "laughter" industry. It has produced countless popular comedians since its beginnings in 1912. But the agency has been shaken by a scandal involving what is referred to in Japan as anti-social forces, meaning a criminal group.

The agency's handling of the scandal raised further questions about what's going on in the world of Japanese comedy.

The eye of the storm

The story broke in a weekly magazine report in June stating that several Yoshimoto comedians had attended a party thrown in late 2014 by a group linked to bank transfer fraud. It was later learned that each had accepted payment ranging from a few hundred dollars to about 9,200 dollars.

Yoshimoto said it had terminated its contract with the performer who was arranging such "side jobs" for fellow comedians.

Then, Hiroyuki Miyasako of the popular Ameagari Kesshitai comic duo, admitted in a Twitter post that he had attended the said event but he denied receiving payment. Another popular comedian, Ryo Tamura, in the group London Boots Ichigo-Nigo, also denied receiving money for attending the party.

Later that month, Yoshimoto suspended both performers, saying they had retracted earlier denials and admitted to accepting payment.

Public criticism of the comedians grew. Demands arose that they meet with news media and explain themselves.

Yoshimoto announced on July 19th that it had terminated its contract with Miyasako. It stated that it found it difficult to continue representing him in view of the circumstances.

Comedians expose the inside story

The following day saw another major development in the scandal. Miyasako and Tamura held their own joint news conference.

"I want to offer my apology to the victims of bank fraud. I'm truly sorry," said Miyasako. Tamura said he wanted to apologize "for causing people to feel unpleasant."

Miyasako and Tamura at a news conference apologizing to victims of fraud by the anti-social group they entertained.

"The issue has developed into a huge scandal that started with my lie, a lie I told out of desperation to save my career," said Miyasako. "I take all the blame."

He then went into detail about the payment he received and how he had instructed Tamura and the other comedians involved to lie and say they hadn't accepted money for the job.

The two also revealed how the agency had mishandled the affair. They said they had expressed their desire to hold a news conference right away, but Yoshimoto wanted to wait and see what happened.

They said they had met with Yoshimoto President Akihiko Okamoto and that he had asked them if they were recording the meeting. They said he told them that he could fire them all, and that if they talked with news media, all the comedians implicated would lose their jobs.

"Yoshimoto said they regarded the agency as a family," said Tamura. "But ...trying to stop children from apologizing for a wrong deed is not something a parent should do."

The two hired a lawyer. They said they had received a letter from the agency asking them to choose between two options: have their contracts terminated or hold a news conference to announce their retirement. Miyasako and Tamura said they decided to quit and hold their own news conference.

Yoshimoto president meets news media


On July 22, Yoshimoto Kogyo President Akihiko Okamoto held a news conference in response. Hundreds of reporters converged on the company to hear what he had to say. A teary-eyed Okamoto apologized for his handling of the matter.

"I apologize deeply to those two [Miyasako and Tamura]. I will retract our decision on Miyasako," he said. "If he agrees to come back, we'll do all we can to support him. I will sit down with the comedians to listen to what they have in mind and figure out the best way to resolve the issue."

Okamoto's comments seemed to reveal a gap in perception between himself and the comedians. Asked why he wanted to know if Miyasako and Tamura were recording their meeting, he said he was joking.

He said the agency is like family, and that he regretted the way he had spoken to the two comedians and had given them the wrong impression.

Yoshimoto Kogyo President Akihiko Okamoto.

He said that he and other officers of the company were shocked to find out that their comedians had received money from such groups. He said they panicked and didn't act properly.

He announced that he and the chairman would be taking a 50-percent pay cut next year.

Yoshimoto Kogyo runs the Namba Grand Kagetsu theater, which holds daily comedy shows called "Shinkigeki," considered Japanese comedy central.

People in the neighborhood expressed anger and disappointment about Okamoto's news conference.

"It looks like Yoshimoto is a black company forcing harsh conditions on its workers," said one man. "I think the agency made a pathetic about-face," said a woman.

Legal expert offer his view

Toshiaki Yamaguchi is a lawyer specializing in corporate compliance.

"Apart from the fact that comedians under his management received money from anti-social groups, Okamoto made no acknowledgement that they provided entertainment to such groups," he said. "His reasons for retracting the decision to terminate Miyasako were vague and lacked substance."

He said Okamoto's threat to sack the comedians if they held a news conference constitutes power harassment. He said this cannot be dismissed just because Okamoto said he was only kidding. He said Yoshimoto needs to review its practices in accordance with workplace reform and legal compliance. The company currently has no written contracts with its comedians.

"In managing entertainers, the agency should have written employment contracts stipulating the rights to be protected and the rules to be followed," said Yamaguchi. "I believe a company should be accountable for each action it takes."

Toshiaki Yamaguchi, a lawyer specializing in corporate compliance, calls Yoshimoto President Okamoto's behavior "power harassment."

The scandal broke with the revelation that Miyasako and others had received payment from an anti-social group and lied about it. They continue to face criticism for this.

The affair has shed light on a number of problems in the entertainment industry: the apparent connections to organized crime and the tendency to cover it up, the issue of power harassment and lax management by companies.

"We all joined Yoshimoto because we love laughter," said Hitoshi Matsumoto of the comic duo Downtown. "Yoshimoto as it is will break down."

The day after Okamoto's news conference, Matsumoto called out to his fellow comedians in this tweet: "Let's get through this with our professionalism. We were born funny."

Can Yoshimoto change? It's actions at this time are crucial and will determine whether it continues to be at the center of Japan's "laughter" industry.