TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 20: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Comedians Hiroyuki Miyasako (L) and Ryo Tamura (R) attend a press conference at Fuji Television on July 20, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. A weekly magazine has been reporting that comedians were paid to attend a party held by an organised crime gang. Miyasako was fired after reports emerged that he and another comedian, Ryo Tamura, 47, of duo London Boots Ichi-go Ni-go attended the party in 2014 and were paid by the organized crime group. Tamura was disciplined by the agency but his contract was kept. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
Hiroyuki Miyasako and Ryo Tamura were two of Yoshimoto Kogyo's comedians who were paid to attend a party held by an organised crime gang © Asahi Shimbun/Getty

When a summer workshop by Japan’s most famous comedy agency hastily has to reassure applicants that — this year — none of the activities are potentially life-threatening, you know something is up.

There are other hints of crisis in Japan’s laughter industry. Tear-soaked press conferences last five hours. Superstars are sacked then reappointed. The Fair Trade Commission identifies contracts as unfair and declares current practices may violate monopoly laws. Labour lawyers rail that certain documents do not treat comedians as humans. Worst of all, the whole cheerless debacle has yet to produce a single decent joke.

The problem centres on Yoshimoto Kogyo, a comedy talent agency that, like a few other Japanese institutions involved in entertainment, enjoys distended back-room power and is subject to stunted public criticism. The Osaka-based company represents a dominant 6,000 comedians in nearly permanent deployment across Japanese TV schedules now unmistakably starved of cash, ideas and verve. It is a ruthless carpet-bomber of the airwaves; its constantly replenished payload of clowns, raconteurs and satirists forms the fabric of what feels like everything apart from the news and cartoons. On an average day, Yoshimoto is involved in 14 shows broadcast on Japanese terrestrial TV.

Yoshimoto’s recent undoing, which may prove only temporary given its clout, arises from revelations in June that some 13 of its indentured jesters — several very famous indeed — were paid between £8,000 and £800 apiece to attend a party thrown by a gang of organised criminals who specialised in scamming the elderly.

Not a good look in the world’s fastest-ageing society. Yoshimoto’s connections with the underworld have bubbled up as rumour in the past and the paid partygoers should certainly have known better than to attend. Cue a painfully public bust-up between the comedians and the agency and an ultra-rare airing of dirty laundry.

The most striking thing about all this, though, is the interpretation and sympathies it has provoked. Comedy has held up a lens for Japan to gawp at itself through in horror, only this time not intentionally. There have been three big, laugh-free revelations.

The first is the misappropriation of “corporate governance” — the term used by the head of Yoshimoto during his belated apology. It’s weaselly stuff, and others will surely emulate. Yoshimoto has worked out that, given its buzzword status, corporate governance makes a brilliant, details-lite scapegoat for everything. Most of corporate Japan is guilty of some variety of corporate governance failure, so a mea culpa citing it can, in skilled hands, mean precisely nothing.

The second, much greater, effect of the scandal has been to encapsulate for the general public shifting Japanese attitudes on the balance of power between employees and employers, and the pinpointing of abusiveness in the labour market. The scandal seemed to underline — in colourful, easy-to-grasp ways — the formidable power that convention, unwritten rules and paternalistic structures have in the workplace.

Early in the imbroglio, it emerged that Yoshimoto does not enter into written contracts with its comedians. (The application to the summer comedy camp, which forced participants to accept Yoshimoto bore no legal responsibility for death or injury, was a notable exception). TV viewers can see — nightly — just how formidably hard-working Yoshimoto’s comedians are. Many have guessed, from their own experience, the coercion and arbitrary pay involved.

The third effect of the scandal has been to demonstrate once again where Japan draws its lines. Yoshimoto’s comedians may be omnipresent in the schedules and even overexposed but they are also very, very funny. For all its faults, Yoshimoto’s dominance has given Japan a comedy infrastructure that perfectly fills the role of court fool and where nothing is off-limits.

Except, it seems, comedy itself. Shortly after the scandal broke, a pair of comedians ventured a dismal gag that played on the shared surname of the Yoshimoto chief and a baseball star. Beyond that and a few viral tweets, the joke-count at Yoshimoto’s expense has been almost zero. Finally, it seems, Japanese comedy has found its taboo.

leo.lewis@ft.com

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