Each country or cultural region has a uniquely-structured industry responsible for producing, promoting, and distributing the products that make up what we consider “pop culture.” In the case of Japan, there is a single organizational category most responsible for the form and content of pop culture: the artist management company, called colloquially jimusho (“office.”) The jimusho wield a powerful cultural influence on all fields that require performers — television (variety and drama), advertising, music, modeling, gravia, and films.
I will argue in this series that much of the content produced in these specific fields conforms to the business needs of artist management companies much more than it is created in response to audience desires. The opposite is also true: Non-jimusho controlled fields such as manga and indie music have enjoyed much more freedom of expression. In the case of manga, placement of certain titles within magazines is often tied directly to consumer feedback, meaning that competition is alive and well and consumers play a large role in guiding the industry.
With this in mind, we aim here to get a full understanding of the jimusho system in order to understand the structure in which Japanese popular culture is produced. Seeing that there is little written formally about the jimusho, we offer this multi-part series on Japanese artist management companies.
A note: This series is not meant as an “exposé” but a collection of the most reliable information about a relatively secretive industry for the purpose of sociological and business analysis. We welcome any corrections and additions.
Part I – What are the Jimusho? Roles and Labor Relations
The main role of the jimusho is essentially to “manage” the careers and schedules of artists, entertainers, athletes, and celebrities. They, however, claim a much deeper hold on the industry than simple management. The jimusho create stars much more than they just help maintain their fame. The stronger jimusho plan out every part of the performer’s persona, style, mannerism, and career. Most jimusho also have publishing wings, creating long-term revenue streams from songwriting related to their stars. Many idol management companies — such as Johnny’s Jimusho — finance and produce the master recordings of their singers, relegating record companies to pure distribution roles. This also means the jimusho can capture a large percentage of money made from CD sales.
The first important thing to understand about Japanese jimusho is the relation between labor and management. These companies are sometimes called “agencies” but they do not normally use “agent relations” — i.e., where stars hire the jimusho to act on their behalf. In the United States, William Morris and CAA perform agent services for 10% of the deals they broker, but stars have the ultimate power in that specific relationship as they are allowed to change agents or agencies at any time.
Japanese jimusho, on the other hand, hire their talent as salaried workers. They pay their “employees” a monthly salary, which usually starts at the relatively low ¥200,000 and can be re-negotiated on a yearly basis. (That being said, many famous stars have not been able to significantly raise their salaries to match the revenues they have brought to the company.) In exchange for the salaries, the artist relinquishes rights to 100% of their media appearance fees, copyright royalities, publishing payments, and any other income. Yes, 100%. If an artist secures a lucrative commercial contract, for example, this will not be reflected in his/her salary as any kind of bonus.
Management companies claim rights to this income, however, on the logic that they invest large sums in building up a young star. Hiroshi Aoyagi, author of Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Symbolic Production in Contemporary Japan notes that the price of producing an “idol” singer can cost upwards of ¥30-40 million. The companies provide new talent (although most often charge for) lessons in singing, acting, dancing, manners, speech, and other skills required for celebrity status. Jimusho create appealing stage names, change appearances (sometimes even fronting money for plastic surgery), and provide clothing and cosmetics most flattering to the talent. Only when the talent makes their formal debut does the company see any returns. Therefore this high risk business model requires that all eventual income go directly to the management company.
Now many stars are able to negotiate an income increase in light of greater sales, but those who cannot unfortunately are not able to move to a different management company. While stars in the United States can change their agents and personal managers at a whim, Japanese stars cannot freely move management companies. In my own survey of 1300 popular musicians between 1985 and 2004, only around two dozen changed management companies. In other words, it is not a free market where Japanese stars can look for the best management deal. It is a “closed system.”
How do the jimusho keep stars in their stables? As a way to ensure that talent do not leave for other agencies for better deals, the jimusho have informal agreements to blacklist any talent who “defect” to other companies or go independent. With each star being an “investment” — both in terms of training but also of use of the management companies’ established media and industry connections to become famous — the jimusho have an economic incentive to curb their talent’s mobility. This secures profitability for their initial investment.
There is only one accepted way of changing jimusho: moving up to a more powerful organization. Horizontal movement or going independent are essentially verboten. Larger jimusho, however, can steal talent from smaller ones. We saw this with Kanno Miho, for example, leaving the small Tani Promotion to enter big player Kenon.
Like most aspects of the “closed” jimusho world, this blacklist is rarely detailed in specific terms. The case of mega-star Suzuki Ami, however, offered a very strong example of the blacklist in action. As reported by Steve McClure in Billboard, Suzuki attempted to leave her management company AG Communications after its CEO Yamada Eiji was arrested for tax evasion. Her parents cited “damage to her reputation” and received legal approval to break her contract with AG. Despite the legal right to go independent, the industry appeared to have conspired behind-the-scenes to punish her actions. All her advertising contracts mysteriously dried up, and later when she released her own music, she could not find basic distribution for the CDs nor television airplay. In effect, she was frozen out of the industry. She only came back in once she signed a new deal years later with Avex Entertainment. Not all blacklists are permanent, but they can “disappear” a star right at his/her peak, which is normally a death blow to a long-term career. Suzuki Ami never really recovered.
Cabal-like blacklists like this fail in most markets because there is such high incentive for companies to “break” the agreement and steal the profitable talent. The strongest jimushos’ power over the market, however, may be adequate to scare away anyone who wishes to scoop up ronin talent. And the blacklisting may not require wholly negative action. For example, YouTube star Magibon recently made allegations that her former jimusho would call up and offer Magibon’s clients their pick of the agency’s stable of famous stars to work in the place of Magibon. This could be considered a “positively-reinforced” blacklist.
The end result of this labor relation between talent and their jimusho is that the management company has full control over their salaried employees. And with the jimusho world working together to discourage movement, talent cannot use labor mobility as a way to break the agencies’ power. And with investments into master tape production, jimusho do not just hold power of their talent but within the industry as a whole. We will look at the source of jimusho power in later installments.
Next time we will look at broader organizational characteristics of jimusho: specifically, small size units structured into keiretsu hierarchies with a single company at the top of the ladder.