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Yakuza intractable in Japan showbiz

Veteran comic's admission sheds light on ties

TOKYO — Six months ago, Shinsuke Shimada, a comic who hosted several big primetime shows on Japanese TV, admitted ties to organized crime and resigned from showbiz. His abrupt departure caused a media sensation as it shone a harsh light on the mob’s influence on the industry, and new ordinances went into effect in Tokyo and Okinawa in October making it a crime to pay off the yakuzaJapan’s mafia — or profit from dealing with them.

But if anyone expected these “startling” events to bring significant changes, they’ve since been disappointed.

“The yakuza (Japan’s equivalent of the mafia) have run Japan’s entertainment industry since the end of (WWII),” says Jake Adelstein, a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper for 12 years. While many in the industry disavow any connections to the yakuza, Adelstein — who also authored “Tokyo Vice” about his underworld adventures — sees no real lessening of gang ties.

The Japanese entertainment industry has its roots in a vast night world of clubs, cabarets and bars, which have connections with the yakuza that go back centuries and are still pervasive, despite efforts by the police (who call the thugs boryokudan, meaning violence groups) and the biz to sever them.

The gangsters provide “security” for these venues, a protection business that keeps other gangs away, but requires a payoff.

As one veteran reporter, who covered politics for a major national newspaper, put it, “Boryokudan are regarded as a necessary evil in this society. … For businesses, they function as a sort of private police.”

Talent agencies scout and train talent in these venues. For instance, giant talent shop Yoshimoto Kogyo maintains its own school for budding comedians, as well as it own chain of theaters where young comics polish their chops on live audiences. Johnny & Associates, a similarly big shop that specializes in male singing groups, also recruits its talent at a young age and trains it through live appearances as well as TV dates. But the biz’s top stars, who may have started their careers as singers or comics, branch out into TV and film, and — a measure of success for talent and their agencies — gain endorsement deals in ad campaigns.

Agencies, including Yoshimoto Kogyo, which repped Shimada, publicly deny dealing with yakuzas. In fact, Yoshimoto has long had a no-gang-contact policy for its 700-plus artists, and says it hasn’t found anyone flouting it since Shimada’s departure.

“We haven’t made any major changes (to the policy), though we have been studying ways of keeping such a problem from happening again,” says Yoshimoto’s Takashi Watanabe, general manager of the company’s legal department.

However, that anti-gang policy was cast into doubt last month, when Yoshimoto prexy Hiroshi Osaki said at a press conference for the company’s 100th anniversary that he regretted the loss of Shimada’s talent and hoped that he would someday return to the company.

This stirred up a media storm of speculation about Shimada’s comeback, but Watanabe explained that “the president was expressing a wish. … Shimada cannot come back until society forgives him for what he did, and we do not see that happening any time soon.”

Despite stories in the tabloid weeklies detailing his long, deep relationship with the Yamaguchi-gumi — Japan’s largest and most powerful gang — Shimada has yet to be charged with a crime.

At the press conference announcing his retirement, Shimada claimed his only sin was asking a gang boss, through an associate, to help resolve a long-simmering dispute with a right-wing group, while denying doing any significant favors in return.

Adelstein alleges the Yamaguchi-gumi even set up its own talent shop, Kobe Geinosha (Kobe Performing Arts Promotion), registered under the name of its then boss, in 1957. The company was later dissolved under police pressure, but the Yamaguchi-gumi has kept its hand in the biz, especially in the western cities of Kobe and Osaka, which have long been its base.

In 2008, the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho reported that five popular singers took part in a golf competition to celebrate the birthday of a Yamaguchi-gumi boss. The resulting scandal sped the boss’s exit from the gang, but the singers kept working.

One, actor-turned-crooner Akira Kobayashi, publicly asked, “So I played golf with the yakuza — who am I hurting?”

“One of the things that keeps the yakuza and entertainment industry ties solid is that the yakuza are adept at blackmail,” Adelstein explains. “Any talent agency that tries to cut ties to the yakuza risks having very embarrassing information leaked to the press about their executives and their stars. The yakuza also use the fact of their long-standing relationships with a talent agency to blackmail it into not cutting those ties.”

Talent shops are not the only ones for whom the gang taint has proven hard to scrub away. Following Shimada’s resignation, pubcaster NHK vowed to keep gang-associated talent out of its shows.

But when it announced the lineup of top musicians for its annual New Year’s Eve “Red-and-White Song Contest” special, watched by millions, it contained several names the media had outed for yakuza ties, including veteran stars in the enka (Japanese ballad) genre and favorites of the show’s increasingly older aud. The show went on as scheduled, without repercussions

Taro Furuya, head of NHK’s entertainment program division, told the media, “We can’t allow anyone with gang connections to appear, but we did not find anyone who had to be rejected for that reason.”

Meanwhile, National Police Agency chief Takaharu Ando lamented last year that Japanese TV celebrities “continue to have deep relations with organized crime,” and offered police help to cut the ties.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police formed a 50-strong task force to probe yakuza links with the biz, but the crackdown has yet to yield concrete results.

“The (show business industry) reforms are cosmetic at best,” claims Adelstein. “Nothing will be done until the new organized crime exclusionary ordinances (passed in Tokyo and Okinawa in October, which make it a crime to pay off the yakuza or profit from dealing with them) are used to publicly out a talent agency. Yoshimoto Kogyo may win that dubious honor.”

But far from limiting gang influence, the ordinances have drawn protests from a group that includes prominent writers, directors and journalists, who came out with a statement saying the new laws would infringe on freedom of expression, citing moves to shut out books about the yakuza from bookstores and pics about the yakuza from theaters.

While admitting that the talent it represents is only human and sometimes gets into trouble,” Watanabe denies that Yoshimoto has a deeper organizational issue with the gangs.

“Don’t believe the weeklies,” he says, referring to the country’s tabloids. “They print lies.”

But given the revelations and rumors about the 55-year-old Shimada’s and his fellow celebs’ yakuza links, going back decades, many see the disgraced comic as not a remnant from a dying era, but a symptom of a wide-spread disease.

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