Talent at Japan's Biggest Agency to Pledge Not to Work With Yakuza

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Tokyo

15 comedians at Yoshimoto Kogyo have been suspended over being paid to appear at events held by organized crime groups.

Japan's giant Yoshimoto Kogyo talent agency is to make its entire roster of more than 6,000 entertainers sign pledges that they won't do any work related to yakuza gangs or other organized crime groups. The action comes after 15 of its comedians were suspended, after two separate incidents, for attending parties held by criminal groups.

Yoshimoto is Japan's largest agency and specializes in comedians but has branched out into film production and expanded overseas. It signed a tie-up with Creative Artists Agency in 2008 and a content deal with Netflix in 2015. Its talent appears on numerous television shows every week.

At the end of last month, it emerged that 11 Yoshimoto comedians had performed at a party held by a telephone scam gang in December 2014. The appearances were arranged by two more Yoshimoto artists, who received $9,200 (¥1 million) and $4,600 for doing so. The comedians received less than $1,000 each for their appearances.

Telephone fraud gangs target the elderly in Japan, often posing as young relatives in financial trouble. The group in question is estimated to have earned $37 million (¥4 billion) through such scams.

"These entertainers ended up receiving money that had been swindled from elderly people. They're extremely stupid," Yoshimoto president Hiroshi Osaki told the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper this week.

The incident was followed by revelations that Ken Maeda and Masanari Uchima of Yoshimoto comedy duo Slim Club had been paid to attend a birthday party organized by a crime syndicate. They were indefinitely suspended by the agency.

Television and film companies in Japan frequently ditch programs and movies featuring appearances by scandal-hit actors, and public broadcaster NHK has announced the cancellation of two programs in which two of the comedians were set to appear.

Yoshimoto said it would make all its entertainers sign letters by the end of July promising to inform the agency of all offers of outside work and to not work with anti-social groups, a euphemism for organized crime.

In 2011, Yoshimoto talent Shinsuke Shimada, one of Japan's most famous TV presenters, was forced to resign after links to a mob boss came to light.

There are long-standing links between the Japanese entertainment world and yakuza crime clans, though they have been weakened in recent decades by laws making it an offense to have any business dealings with the gangs.

When Yoshimoto was bought by a consortium of the major TV networks in 2009, there were rumors that one reason was to sever links with the yakuza.

Many of the agency's junior comedians and other performers are paid poorly, making them more susceptible to getting caught up in questionable activities.