In Japan, celebrities often vanish from public view in a blink of the eye without any explanation of what happened. Last year, Space Shower TV host Brian Burton-Lewis’s sudden disappearance befuddled me, and only later did I hear through the grapevine that his jimusho put him on voluntary “vacation” after an incident involving drunken fighting (or something). The artist management companies often use this voluntary blackout method as if to quickly plead nolo contendere and get the artists out of the hot seat. Last year, the powerful Up Front Agency put Morning Musume alum Abe Natsumi on suspension when the media revealed that her book of poetry was mostly plagiarized from other sources.
In a certain light, these voluntary career halts seem to be a rather responsible way to deal with wrong-doing, but the extreme solutions to more severe incidents demonstrate the inner workings of the industry. For example, in the ’70s popular singer Ken Naoko was arrested for “suspicion of marijuana possession” — not even possession — and only returned to her normal career after a withdrawn period of public apology and self-remorse. (Others tied up in the arrest were permanently blacklisted.) Even worse, when police stormed into popular singer Makihara Noriyuki’s apartment in 1999 and found him doing meth with his boyfriend (!), he wasn’t just placed on a temporary leave — Sony decided to immediately recall his albums! (If they had to recall all the works by artists arrested for drugs in the States, there wouldn’t be a music industry.) After a long hiatus, Makihara is now back on the charts, but the model at work here is: Artists are products, and when those products go defective, they need to be recalled.
These stories illustrate how the Japanese music industry still maintains a 1950s American vanilla wholesome image, but the king of all disappearing stories is Suzuki Ami. When her artist management firm AG Communication (a Burning subsidiary) was prosecuted for “tax evasion” in 2001, Suzuki’s parents demand that she be able to get out of her contact for fear that the jimusho’s reputation would ruin her career. Even though her request was perfectly legal, the firm and its parent organization could not believe the parents’ audacity and promptly blacklisted her from the entire industry. At her peak as an artist/product, she instantly became a pariah without having done anything wrong. Here was this cash cow waiting to be milked and no one would touch her with a stick.
The traditional explanation for why cartels don’t work is that someone will always have great incentive to cheat and go around the informal rules, and thus, I wonder, how great was the punishment for spurning the blacklist? How can one jimusho have so much power to override everyone else in the whole industry’s most basic profit-motivations?
While most of the record industry went totally silent on the logistics and circumstances of Suzuki’s disappearance, I obtained this information from Steve McClure’s critical December 8th, 2000 article for Billboard on the event, which industry insiders warned him not to publish.
Our love of gossip bursts from an unbridled desire for perfect information, and I am often frustrated with the secrecy and lack of public accountability in the Japanese business world. Moreover, blacklisting is inherently anti-free market. In a world of expanding communications and media possibilities, I find it hard to believe that the industry players still have so much power that they can disappear their own artists and make sure no one asks why.