Japanese TV Host's Resignation Shines Light on Showbiz Mob Ties

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Shinsuke Shimada announces his retirement Aug. 24.

The yakuza have strong links to the entertainment biz, but the times may be changing as the government cracks down on gangs.

TOKYO -- The sudden retirement of Shinsuke Shimada, one of Japanese TV’s biggest stars, on Aug. 24 after links to a boss in the largest yakuza gang were exposed is bringing attention to the long and deep ties between organized crime and showbiz.

‘Various parts of society have made active efforts to eradicate links with crime syndicates, but the entertainment world is yet to follow suit," opined an Aug. 30 article in the Daily Yomiuri, the English edition of Japan’s, and the world’s, biggest newspaper by circulation.

Police are now asking for an explanation of the underworld ties from Shimada’s powerful agency, Yoshimoto Kogyo, which has been rapidly expanding overseas in recent years, signing deals from Hollywood to Shanghai. 

Shimada hosted no fewer than six weekly TV shows on some of Japan’s biggest networks until it emerged that a weekly magazine was about to run an article detailing his friendship with Hirofumi Hashimoto, head of the Kyokushin-Rengo, a gang affiliated to the huge Yamaguchi-gumi.

Shimada’s troubles started 10 years back when, during a variety TV show, he compared the chrysanthemum-shaped symbol of an ultra-nationalist group to a certain nether region body part. With the chrysanthemum also being the symbol of the Japanese imperial family, the extreme right-wingers were not amused. They sent sound trucks blaring out abuse about Shimada -- a standard modus operandi of Japanese nationalist groups --- to his house, the offices of Yoshimoto Kogyo and the TV station in Osaka.

Using an ex-world boxing champion with gangster links as an intermediary, Shimada turned to the gang boss to help fix his noisy problem with the ultra-rightists, many of whom have close ties to the yakuza. The two remained friends and exchanged text messages, and the gangster frequented a restaurant run by Shimada.

Cavorting with gangsters may have gone to Shimada’s head, and in 2004 he beat up a female employee of Yoshimoto Kogyo who he felt had failed to greet him with proper respect. He was fined 300,000 yen ($3,750) by an Osaka court; the woman later won 10 million yen ($130.000) in a civil case against Shimada and the agency.

The openness with which Japan’s yakuza gangs have been permitted to operate in Japan is often difficult for Westerners to comprehend. Membership of the self-styled “chivalrous organizations” is not illegal: They have registered offices and can be found in the phone book.

The Yamaguchi-gumi gang federation in which Shimada’s tattooed acquaintance was an underboss is estimated to have around 40,000 members, accounting for about half of Japan’s yakuza.

Gangsters from another Yamaguchi-gumi group, the Goto-gumi, slashed the face of renowned director Juzo Itami in 1992, angry at the depiction of the yakuza as clowns and bullies in his film Minbo no Onna (Minbo is the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion). When the director jumped to his death five years later, many suspect the yakuza provided a helping hand.

In 2007, in an episode that could have been written for a comedy crime film, a detective in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department was downloading porn onto his computer when he accidentally shared a gigabyte of police files. The files listed front companies for the Yamaguchi-gumi and Goto-gumi and included the name of Burning Productions, one of Japan’s major talent agencies.

Although the files spread around the Internet like wildfire, no mainstream media organization -- most of which have major interests in TV and movie production -- named the agency in their reports of the story.

“Everybody in the business knows about Burning, it’s a kind of open secret,” said an industry source who asked not to be identified.

Ironically, a penchant for mixing with stars and attracting excessive media attention led to the downfall of Tadamasa Goto, the leader of the Goto-gumi. Following a celebrity-studded birthday celebration and news that Goto had done a deal with the FBI to get a liver transplant at UCLA Hospital in California, he was driven out of the Yamaguchi-gumi.

Goto has now supposedly become a Buddhist priest, but there are rumors that it was he who leaked the information to the media about Shimada’s links to the underworld. Goto felt that Shimada had been disrespectful to him in the past and described the TV host as a "chimpira" (low-level punk) in his autobiography.

In recent years, the National Police Agency, under the leadership of Takaharu Ando, has finally made serious attempts to curtail the power of the yakuza.

"We want them to disappear from public society," Ando told journalists in Tokyo last year after a meeting of police chiefs from across Japan that he called to discuss anti-gang strategies.

In October, a new law banning all interaction with gangs comes into effect, and this may have prompted Yoshimoto Kogyo, Shimada’s agency, to force his resignation, despite the big financial hit it will take from his departure. The agency, Japan’s biggest, was taken over in 2009 by a consortium of all the major TV networks.

“One of the reasons for the takeover may have been an attempt to cut out the influence of the yakuza, which has long been rumored to have links with company,” said a Yoshimoto Kogyo staffer.