Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe appears in a comedy show at the Namba Grand Kagetsu Theater with the Yoshimoto Shinkigeki modern comic troupe in Osaka on April 20. (Sayuri Ide)

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  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

An unknown young comedian jumped at a job assignment from major talent agency Yoshimoto Kogyo Co. that required 12 hours of his time. He said pay was 300 yen ($2.70) an hour.

“This was good,” he said uncomfortably. “It could be worse.”

One payout was indeed worse. Yoshimoto-affiliated comedian Atsuhiro Nishida of duo Kinboshi on July 22 posted a picture on Twitter of a statement showing he had received just 1 yen for a performance.

“It may have been acceptable if (the company paid me) 1 yen out of 2 yen,” the comedian wrote, suggesting the payout was not a 50-50 split.

A scandal initially involving Yoshimoto Kogyo comedians attending a yakuza-related party has now shed light on the lack of bargaining power of individual performers, even those who are household names, in Japan’s entertainment industry.

Since the friction between the powerful talent agency and its box-office comedians became public, Yoshimoto-affiliated performers are expressing grievances about the tough realities they face.

Another comedian tweeted that a guaranteed fee for work requiring a one-week engagement was 10,000 yen.

Calls are growing for improved working conditions and unionization of performers so that they can actually make it in the show-business world.

‘NOW’S THE TIME TO UNIONIZE’

Typically, in the Japanese entertainment industry, known as Geinokai, a talent agency and a performer sign a consignment contract. Under this arrangement, performers are not considered “laborers” in the employment relationship. Instead, they work as “freelancers” and directly take on assignments.

That means the entertainers, called “tarento” (talent) in Japan, are not protected by the Labor Standards Law. They are not even guaranteed the legal minimum wage.

“They should unionize and fight united,” said Takeshi Suzuki, chief of the Tokyo Managers’ Union, a labor union open to anyone who works in Japan.

“The grievances of tarento have been suppressed by the talent agencies,” Suzuki said. “But now, with social media, they can express them openly.”

Suzuki thinks now is a good time for unionization because, he said, “The long-held notion that ‘the entertainment industry is exclusively unique’ has started to crumble down.”

Freelancers whose rights are not properly protected can organize an industrial union in Japan. Once unionized, freelancers have the right to collective bargaining and can go on strike.

In Hollywood, any performer who meets the eligibility requirements can join a union called the Screen Actors Guild--American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA).

Its members are entitled to a variety of benefits, including a guaranteed minimum wage and working hours.

“Performers in Japan have begun voicing complaints, but nothing will change unless they themselves rise up and fight,” said Yamato Sato, a lawyer and co-representative director of the Entertainers’ Rights Association.

Sato said the Japanese show-business world remains filled with “pre-modern family values that consider an agency a ‘parent’ and its tarento as ‘children.’”

Sato also said Japanese entertainers also have a long-rooted fear that their agencies can take work away from them.

In recent years, however, the Fair Trade Commission has started seeing problems with the dynamics between performers and their management offices.

An FTC advisory panel released a report in February 2018 that described entertainers as the “sole proprietors” and their work with affiliated agencies as “business transactions.”

If the management offices use their powerful positions to make unreasonable demands on their entertainers, such action could be considered an abuse of a dominant bargaining position, a violation of the Anti-Monopoly Law, the report said.

Hiroyuki Miyasako and Ryo Tamura, two well-known comedians who were paid to attend a party hosted by an organized crime group with 11 other comedians, held a news conference on July 20 to apologize. They also suggested that Yoshimoto Kogyo had abused its position with its entertainers.

They said that Akihiko Okamoto, president of Yoshimoto Kogyo, threatened to fire them if they went public with the scandal.

Okamoto held a news conference on July 22 to address the scandal and to announce that he has retracted his termination of the agency’s contract with Miyasako.

But those two news conferences revealed that the talent agency does not exchange written contracts with its entertainers.

At another news conference, on July 24, Akinori Yamada, secretary-general of the FTC, said the absence of written contracts is “problematic.”

With no written contract, entertainers do not clearly know how much they will be paid and what type of work is expected of them.

The entertainers are put in a vulnerable situation in which management offices can demand that they accept extremely low pay, a violation of the Anti-Monopoly Law.

After Yamada expressed his concerns, Yoshimoto Kogyo announced that it would exchange written contracts with its entertainers--if they want such deals.

EXPLOSIONS AND LOW PAY

Currently, 6,000 entertainers are affiliated with Yoshimoto Kogyo, the Osaka-based show business empire.

Those who are not as famous as Miyasako and Tamura may have it worse under the system.

The comedian in his 20s who accepted the 300 yen an hour job said he occasionally receives work offers via e-mail from Yoshimoto Kogyo. Sometimes it is an appearance as an extra. Other times, it is behind-the-scenes work, such as setting up a stage.

He said he has also been asked to work in rehearsals that involved explosions.

“There is a risk of getting injured, too,” he said.

Three years ago, he graduated from NSC, a training school for entertainers that Yoshimoto Kogyo operates nationwide.

At NSC, the comedian said he learned how to dance and act and took classes taught by broadcast writers and veteran entertainers.

Upon graduation, he received the following words of advice from Yoshimoto Kogyo: “If you want to stay in this industry, register your e-mail address.”

“With hindsight being 20/20, that could be a contract,” he said.

He currently works part-time as a security guard and at an “izakaya” Japanese-style bar to make ends meet.

At the same time, he performs on stage at events hosted by Yoshimoto Kogyo--without pay.

Until he makes the audience laugh, he cannot take a “step up” in the system, he said.

“I am not popular. That’s why I don’t get paid. It is reasonable,” he said.

But Yoshimoto Kogyo’s handling of the yakuza-related scandal and the public’s scorn toward Okamoto after his news conference have made the aspiring comedian question his industry.

“Yoshimoto Kogyo’s notion of common sense is out of touch. That’s what I thought,” he said after watching the agency president’s news conference. “Is Yoshimoto Kogyo a toxic corporation?”

(This article was written by Natsuki Edogawa and Hiroshi Nakano.)