Participants show their traditional Japanese tattoos related to the Yakuza during the annual Sanja Matsuri festival in the Asakusa district of Tokyo on May 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Behrouz Mehri
Men show traditional Japanese tattoos related to the yakuza during the annual Sanja Matsuri festival in the Asakusa district of Tokyo on May 20, 2018. Photo: AFP / Behrouz Mehri

Japan has made hundreds of yakuza films but few of them are comedies. No one was laughing when last week a tabloid magazine revealed that several of Japan’s top comedians had made money entertaining “anti-social forces” – that is, the yakuza. The punchline was their agency fired them or suspended them.

Yoshimoto Kogyo, one of Japan’s major talent agencies, famous for its portfolio of comic talent, publicly disciplined 11 of their comedians this week due to conducting “underground jobs” and attending a party hosted by an organized crime group.

The agency, in its announcement, seemed to emphasize that the comedians had really gone astray by not consulting with the agency first. Which does make one wonder if they would be off the hook, if they’d just split the money with the agency.

Indeed, Yoshimoto Kogyo has a long history of involvement with organized crime, dating back to the 1960s. One of their top comedians, Shinsuke Shimada, was effectively banished from show business in 2011 after it became clear that he had tight relations with a faction of Japan’s largest crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi. Those relations even included real estate transactions and other close dealings that were no longer acceptable after Japan’s organized crime exclusionary ordinances went into effect.

The incident in question took place roughly five years ago, when popular comedians Shinya Irie, Hiroyuki Miyasako, and Ryo Tamura, attended a  “Forget The Year” Party held by a large group of con artists. The group of con artists, numbering 40 people, was tangentially backed by one faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi. They defrauded over 1,000 people in 17 prefectures out of more than US$19 million. The group had a hardcore team of members calling selected targets and would sell their victims Solar Power company bonds, or accuse them of using adult services without paying for it, and demanding compensation among other criminal activities. Swindling old people out of their life savings doesn’t come across as living up to the chivalrous standards yakuza supposedly uphold.

The comedians claimed to have been unaware they were attending a party for predators and puerile conmen. However, when it was reported that the partygoers had been paid large amounts for their participation, Yoshimoto Kogo was ostensibly appalled. They fired the comedian who they say brokered the deal. Miyasako who was one of the hosts of the popular series Legal Offices So Popular People Line Up For Them was taken off of the program. Apparently, he hadn’t learned during his tenure that it’s illegal in Japan to profit from the yakuza or pay them off.

In his public apology, Miyasako said: “I deeply regret accepting the money [from criminal elements], even if it was indirectly.”

Broadcasters with variety programs featuring the suspended comedians have edited them out of scenes, put shows on hiatus and generally acted appalled. Japan’s state television, NHK stopped airing programs with the comedians.

Still around

Just as in the old days of Hollywood, where the mob exerted major influence, Japan’s organized crime groups or “the yakuza” still wield tremendous influence in the entertainment industry.

In leaked police files from 2007, several of Japan’s most powerful talent agencies were written up as “clients” of organized crime.

In his hey-day, notorious yakuza boss, Tadamasa Goto, ruled over Tokyo’s talent agencies and film studios with an iron fist and even the police knew it. This proved to be Goto’s undoing. In October 2008, weekly magazine Shukan Shincho published photos of his birthday bash in which Goto and some of Japan’s most famous celebrities were seen hobnobbing. One of those who attended was an actor famous for playing yakuza in films. Clearly he was a fan of method acting and seemed to be using Goto as a role model.

The response of the television industry and Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, was to feign horror and shock, and promptly ban the birthday party participants from the airwaves.

The Yamaguchi-gumi reaction was to fire Goto for embarrassing the organization. The revelations of him betraying his group to the FBI had already made the top management furious with him and drawing unwanted public attention was the final straw.

There was a time when yakuza movies were big business in Japan, especially in the 1960s, when yakuza numbers swelled to 184,000.

One of Japan’s most beloved actors, Ken Takakura, made a name for himself playing on the myth of the yakuza as stoic principled warriors. The films often portrayed the gangs as noble outlaws, preserving Japanese tradition, protecting the weak from the strong.

The Yamaguchi-gumi even owned their own talent agency, Kobe Geinosha. When the police forced the company to shutter its doors, the wife of the third generation leader quietly took a role in the management of Yoshimoto Kogyo according to a seminal book on the industry.

The glut of gangster glorification continued until 1992, when iconic director Juzo Itami made a film portraying the yakuza as they really are: predatory extortionists, fraudsters, and violent racketeers. The film, a dark comedy, The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion, was the first of its kind to show all the yakuza as bad guys and make heroes out of the lawyers, civilians, and police officers fighting against them.

Gangster Tadamasa Goto did not find the film amusing. Several of his men attacked the director, Itami, at his home, carving up his face slowly like a jack-o-lantern to leave scars and make a point: yakuza do not have a sense of humor.

In his autobiography, Goto claimed that the majority of the underworld approved of the attack, but public reaction was extremely negative. The police ramped up their crackdown on the yakuza, and in some ways, the current decline of the groups can be traced directly back to his actions.

Ironically, in 2018, Goto spent $4 million of his own money to have a bio-pic made which glorifies his early days as an up-and-coming hoodlum. It is based partly on his autobiography but while filming is ended, there is no company that will distribute it and no theatre that will show it.

Abe linked to agency

The yakuza, because they are opportunists, are not only embedded in the entertainment industry but also in the political sphere as well. One might add that Japanese politics can actually be entertaining.

The timing of the suspensions hasn’t been a boon to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as the Upper House Elections draw near. Yoshimoto Kogyo has very cosy relations with the PM. Abe recently even made a surprise appearance in one of their comedy shows. He may not be laughing now.

Abe’s reputation has been tainted in the fall-out of the latest scandal. It has brought up some past issues.

Abe himself has been accused of having used the yakuza to further his own ends when convenient. Photographs with him and a Yamaguchi-gumi top-boss circulated in 2012 and were written up in domestic and international media. In 2018, two journalists published a detailed expose accusing the Prime Minister of hiring a yakuza associate, Saichi Koyama, to destroy a political rival. When Abe allegedly reneged on the promised payments, Koyama worked with yakuza to firebomb Abe’s home and office.

Abe’s close friend and former Education minister Hakubun Shimomura was forced out of office when among many other scandals, it was reported that he had been bankrolled by a notorious yakuza associate.

Of course, there have been other prominent politicians in Japan embarrassed by past yakuza connections. The reported links between the Democratic Party of Japan appointed Minister of Justice Tanaka Keishu and the Inagawa-kai crime group, in 2012, resulted in the elections which ultimately put Abe back into power.

If you can’t get the yakuza out of politics, it may not be easy to get them out of show business either. Especially when they are still sort of popular — on screen at least, including computer screens. The Yakuza game series (Ryu Ga Gotoku in Japanese) has sold millions of copies worldwide. Some of the actors doing the voices also have alleged organized crime ties.

And although the number of yakuza in Japan is going down every year, there still are hardcore fans of yakuza films. They do make great villains and anti-heroes. There’s allegedly a kind of boom in movies and TV series that delve into the world of Japan’s gangsters.

In fact, there is also Takara-gumi, a talent agency in Tokyo mostly staffed by former gangsters, which provides “authenticity” to every film in which there are roles for tattooed heavies.

If the yakuza someday no longer control Japan’s show business and people associated with them are also getting kicked out of the entertainment world, perhaps the unemployed former gangsters can make money from show business by becoming a legitimate part of it. Because these days, on screen is probably the only place where they are welcome to show their tattoos, and partially-severed fingers.

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