Japan's Biggest Talent Agency Gets Caught Up in Yakuza Insurance Fraud

Getty Images

10 comedians represented by Yoshimoto Kogyo claim ignorance of the $1 million scam run by gangsters.

At least 10 comedians from Yoshimoto Kogyo, Japan's biggest talent agency, have been caught up in a scheme by a yakuza gangster that defrauded Japan's public health insurance system of at least $1 million (¥120 million).

By far the best-known agency in Japan, Yoshimoto Kogyo inked a cooperation pact with CAA (Creative Arts Agency) in 2008, was taken over by a consortium of local media companies, including the major TV nets, in 2009, and this year signed a content deal with Netflix.

The comedians from the agency claim they were told they could get free massages at orthopedic clinics and had no knowledge of their insurance details being used for fraudulent claims.

"We believe the performers' version of events is true and that they knew nothing about what was happening," a Yoshimoto Kogyo staffer told The Hollywood Reporter. "We are cooperating fully with the police investigation."

Tokyo Metropolitan Police's anti-organized crime division on Friday issued arrest warrants for 14 people previously detained in connection with the scheme, including the comedians, as well as for five additional yakuza members accused of involvement.

The first group of suspects was initially arrested in early November in connection with $20,000 (¥2.5 million) of treatment at an orthopedic clinic in Tokyo between 2011 and 2013. Police investigation since discovered a larger scheme involving $1 million (¥120 million) of payments dating back to 2009 and put through other medical facilities, including a dental clinic.

The scheme was allegedly run by Keitaro Mito, 50, the boss of a gang affiliated with the Sumiyoshi-kai, one of Japan's biggest yakuza federations. Fake claims for health insurance are reported to have been made in the names of hundreds of people.

Local tabloid Sports Honchi named Yoshimoto comedian Shiatsu Yaro as the recruiter of the other performers from the agency, suggesting he likely knew about the link with fraudulent claims. Some of the comedians allegedly received small payments, amounting to tens of dollars, for attending the clinics.

The links between Japan's gangsters and the entertainment industry are long, dating back to when yakuza would sponsor traveling theatrical groups. The authorities have clamped down on the yakuza in recent years, making particular efforts to push them out of show business.

Back in 2011, Shinsuke Shimada, a leading TV host repped by Yoshimoto Kogyo, was forced off the air after his links to an underboss in the Yamaguchi-gumi were revealed.

Yoshimoto Kogyo was long rumored to have historical links to the Yamaguchi-gumi, the biggest yakuza federation, though the insurance scam involved the Sumiyoshi-kai, its biggest rival.

Twitter: @GavinJBlair