The Jimusho System: Part Two


Part Two: Organizational Characteristics of Jimusho — Size and Keiretsu

In Part One we looked at labor relations within Japanese entertainment industry management companies. This time, we will look at the jimushos’ relations to each other. As we will see, the industrial field of Japanese entertainment offers less than perfect transparency, and our general understanding must come from a mix of industry accounts backed up by third-party verifications — where available.

Small size firms

For being so powerful within the entertainment industry, most jimusho are relatively small companies. For example, moderate-sized record label EMI Music Japan (formerly Toshiba-EMI) has over ¥1.667 billion in capital. Meanwhile, Burning Production — the management company said to dominate the industry — only has a mere ¥20 million (source here as the current corporate website for Burning lacks almost all company information). Burning Production itself has a very limited number of talent, almost none of whom are particularly young. It is almost fair to say that Burning’s talent list appears at first to be a bit underwhelming for an agency reputed to be so powerful.

Another key characteristic is that almost all jimusho are privately-held companies, with the exception of Avex, Hori Pro, Amuse, and Yoshimoto Kogyo (which the major TV stations will soon buy out together). Without being publicly-traded on stock exchanges, the companies have no legal impedance impetus to reveal information about earnings. We have no way of knowing how much money is coming in and out of these companies. For example, despite decades-long domination of the pop charts and television dramas, young male idol purveyor Johnny’s Jimusho still controls its image as a mysterious, family-run enterprise with only the slightest presence as a “business” — one with growth, acquisitions, etc.

So there are thousands of relatively tiny privately-held artist management companies across Japan, with Hiroshi Aoyagi (author of Islands of Eight Million Smiles) estimating 1,600 in Tokyo alone. Oricon Nenkan 2005 listed 975 operating in Eastern Japan. We can easily say there are around 1,000 in the country who do significant levels of business within the industry.

The keiretsu system

1,000 firms makes the Japanese entertainment management business sound like an industrial field with heavy levels of competition and diversity. This number, however, is a misleading figure. Although most of these companies appear to be independent, they are in reality organized into very hierarchical keiretsu-type organizations.

The keiretsu are the key to understanding the jimusho system, but unfortunately, this is also the most oblique characteristic of the field to measure and observe. While some jimusho openly admit formal subsidiaries (Topcoat, for example, is part of Watanabe Productions), in the vast majority of cases, there is no official or otherwise publicly-revealed relation between companies in the same keiretsu. This becomes a major problem for objective reporting and analysis. Insiders and insider publications like Cyzo refer to certain talent agencies as being part of the Burning Keiretsu, for example, but there is no evidence on paper or public pronouncements from Burning itself that this corporate group exists. And most actors and models within these agencies may have no idea that their small firm answers to a larger one.

Wikipedia Japan in the past had a long internal debate as whether to acknowledge the mythic “Burning Keiretsu” or not. In the end, Wikipedia editors killed the article as the mass media has never confirmed its existence. Yet, most industry insiders — and talent in my acquaintance within the jimushos alleged to be in the Burning Keiretsu — talk about the Burning Keiretsu being real. For example, Fujiwara Norika of agency Someday is widely understood to be part of the Burning group. Same goes for Nakayama Miho of Big Apple or Mizukawa Asami of Atlantis. Without this knowledge, all of these firms look to be independent, and therefore, in heavy competition. Yet, the real structure is that the boss at the main agency at top of the keiretsu doles out work to each of the subsidiaries and makes final decisions about which talents get what projects.

The best insider account of how these jimusho are organized into hierarchies was a website called Geinokai Sogo Kenkyujo. Unfortunately the site went dark a few years ago. (A cached copy here). Many of the site’s allegations about the Burning Keiretsu, however, can be confirmed by looking at publishing rights transfers or cataloging the specific jimusho who use Burning’s official subsidiary Proceed to build their web pages. On the other hand, many claims — such as the idea that Nagara Production controls a group overseeing most Visual-Kei bands and the Being/Giza group — have almost no public record and are essentially insider information that we must judge by our assessment of the author’s credibility.

According to industry contacts, membership to a keiretsu can also be set by a simple phone call: the “boss” from the parent company calls a new management company and asks whether the new jimusho is in the group or out. Most subsidiaries, however, are formed by managers inside the group branching out and opening up their own agency.

What does a small company get in return for being in a part of the keiretsu? Being in a keiretsu means use of the larger company’s network and power — at a price. Without any formal capital relations, we can only speculate on the nature of “payback” to the parent company — anything from complicated “consulting service” schemes to cash in envelopes to the more common and (completely legal) transferral of publishing rights. This is not to say that the relationship is necessarily illegal, but we in the public have little way to measure how the companies interact.

Proving the keiretsu exist

So how can we prove the insider accounts that these keiretsu do exist? The most effective way is to look at the transfer of publishing rights in the record industry. Many small companies alleged to be part of a larger organization will give their talens’ publishing rights to the “parent” company. Oricon shows that most of the alleged members of the Burning keiretsu did give Burning Publishing their rights back in the 1980s. (For whatever reason, this practice stopped or stopped being recorded by Oricon in the 1990s.) Southern All-Stars’ jimusho Amuse famously gave the band’s early publishing to Burning, which was speculated as a way to be “let inside” the industry. Amuse is no longer part of the Burning keiretsu, but Burning still owns the rights to “Katte ni Sinbad” and other early SAS songs.

Let’s take the example of Avex Trax — the incredibly popular record label with a management company wing. Geinokai Sogo Kenkyujo alleged that Avex was a member of the Burning Production keiretsu, which seems odd in that Avex is a much larger company than Burning on paper. Why would Avex need to be in Burning’s group? This seems like a ludicrous claim when viewed from outside the industry.

The publishing rights database on JASRAC, however, reveals how the relationship between the companies may possibly work. Burning owns an enormous number of songs from artists in the Avex management company, including mega-hits from Hamasaki Ayumi and Every Little Thing. (Here is a list of all the artists Burning owns publishing from.) From a purely rational business perspective, Avex should have no reason to give up publishing rights, in that it has its own highly-profitable publishing company. This transfer of rights best makes sense as a “tribute” to the top company in its hierarchy. (Another strange thing is that Burning’s ownership of these Avex rights has never been disclosed on the Oricon charts, which always prints the owner of publishing during the time of the song release.)

The “odd” behavior of keeping firms small and separate

So why do the major jimusho in the industry work in this non-transparent, small-firm structure rather than just expanding the size of their own firms? This is not behavior seen in most industries where firms want to grow in size, hold an IPO to raise cash, and possibly acquire other firms.

The small size has certain perks. In a private email exchange, Néojaponisme commenter Mulboyne pointed out that the Japanese tax code generally encourages company formation rather than corporate expansion and that the service sector suits a multiple-company structure. Having this structure helps the main company avoid paying tax. This does not necessarily mean that the companies are engaging in tax evasion, but it lessens the tax burden. This, however, puts them on a different level of corporate legitimacy than, say, Sony, Toyota, or Nintendo.

This structure also allows the major jimusho to control the industry without audiences having any idea of what is happening. For example, the three main models of magazine CanCam during its peak in 2007 all came from the K-Dash keiretsu, but on paper Ebihara Yuri and Oshikiri Moe were from Pearl while Yamada Yu was from K-Dash proper. This arrangement made it look less like a monopoly to people outside of the industry.

The small size also fits with the somewhat unique jimusho culture of avoiding the public eye. In general, the giants of the industry, who sit atop the keiretsu structure, rarely give interviews to the media, show up in front of the camera or otherwise leave traces of their existence. There are basically zero public photographs of Suho Ikuo, the head of Burning Productions and so-called “don” of the industry. (Lately, a single grainy image has appeared on the net.) Same goes for Tetsuo Taira, once of Rising Production (now Vision Factory), who spent some years in jail for tax evasion. Johnny Kitagawa of Johnny’s Jimusho is also famously reclusive. (Tatsuo Kawamura of entertainment group K-Dash — and pro wrestling management — tends to appear in public more often than his peers.) These business leaders tend to fit the image of the kuromaku — the man behind-the-curtain. This is a very different culture than Hollywood’s extravagant industry moguls like David Geffen. But even holding for American ego-centricism, there is something a bit eerie that the Japanese industry’s most powerful men (and they are almost always men) work so hard to make sure the public does not know who they are.

What the keiretsu structure means

If we go ahead and assume that the industry is run in these keiretsu groups, we then can understand how there can be heavy oligopoly even in a field with a large number of firms. Essentially, only the top jimusho groups have access to placing talent on TV shows, in commercials, and in other high-profile work. As I stated above, the main bosses of about a dozen groups dictate to the media and advertising agencies whom from their keiretsu they want used rather than having an open audition process, where even small firms can provide upcoming talent. (Even the bit roles in Japanese TV shows are usually fleshed out by junior members of the stars’ agency.) The keiretsu arrangement allows the jimusho to control access to hundreds of celebrities, which in turn gives them market power in transactional relationships between themselves and the media. If the media does not want to use a new star, the boss can then threaten to pull all of his talents from use in that media.

The end result is that new stars who score big advertising campaigns or TV spots for their debut singles almost exclusively come from one of the big jimusho groups. This means that independent jimusho who are not aligned with one of the big keiretsu are essentially locked out of the more lucrative parts of the industry system. There are always spots on TV for “popular” talent who come from outside the keiretsu system but they are always “last hired, first fired.” In other words, they only get access to the media after they have proven success at a grass-roots level, and they are not invited back if they cease to show popularity.

The end result is that innovation or change in talent type must come from the big groups, and ultimately, the men at the top of those few companies make the decisions about which entertainers appear in the industry. Deductively-speaking it does not make sense that the jimusho would launch stars who would pose a threat to their business model.

Next time, we will look why the jimusho have become so powerful and how the system’s needs — rather than the market’s — determines what kind of star the jimusho pushes.

Click here for The Jimusho System Part Three.

W. David MARX
June 29, 2010

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

62 Responses

  1. W. David MARX Says:

    The Jimsusho strucuture is actually starting to look like the media structure of the United States

    Maybe in an incredibly abstract rhetorical way. This is a blunt observation without much practical application when you look at specifics, which is exactly what I am trying to do in the actual essays.

    A more useful comparison is with the US music industry, where major labels dominate, but sociologists have shown that the “label” system allows a lot of diversity in the system. Johnny’s Jimusho only makes Johnny’s acts. Sure, they change slightly but in the wider scheme of things, the difference between Nirvana and Whitney Houston is about 1,000x greater than between SMAP and Hikaru Genji.

    Americans may not care about the internal properties of the 2 wars sold to them

    These aren’t really cultural products, and I am not sure I intended for my observations or model to be applied to the way wars are consumed.

  2. M-Bone Says:

    “Chomsky explicitly states that public apathy, to the extent that it exists is not divorced from the way information is diseminated – Chomsky explicitly argues that consumer orientation is crafted, manufactured, attention diverted to other issues, etc.”

    Sure, he explicitly states this. He doesn’t prove it, however. In fact, throughout his work, he isn’t much interested at all what news consumers think. Chomsky, come to think of it, got in trouble with universalism in his linguistic work. I don’t think it any surprise that he was attracted to universal arguments in Marxism.

    “American govt has its peculiar structure because of peculiar features of American society – business and media interests”
    This is the same as the Frankfurt school’s pre-Althusserian Marxism. Althusser makes a good case for why we need to think deeper than this and similar points exist in the work of Richard Hoggart, (especially) Stuart Hall, and Raymond Williams.

    “viable antiwar movement until recently supports this”

    There is a viable antiwar movement!? I see a viable “let’s bring out boys home” movement….

    In any case, I think very highly of Chomsky. He’s interested in changing minds, not conjuring up rock solid proof to meet the Birmingham Cultural Studies challenge. What he is doing is much more important. Important doesn’t necessarily make you irrefutable, however.

    Anyway, you gotta love a discussion that features both Althusser and Hikaru Genji.

  3. W. David MARX Says:

    NHK canceled the coverage of the sumo tournament.


    (1) The public has a vague idea of links between sumo and yakuza.
    (2) The lack of public proof means NHK has a plausible deniability.
    (3) Proof emerges.
    (4) The public is very angry.
    (5) NHK loses the plausible deniability and has to cancel their airing.

    This pattern is the most common pattern of public outrage about these matters that are usually in a gray zone. Same happened with the natto diet case.

    (1) The public has a vague idea that variety show health claims are bullshit
    (2) The lack of public proof means TBS has a plausible deniability.
    (3) Proof emerges.
    (4) The public is very angry.
    (5) TBS loses the plausible deniability, has to cancel the show and apologize.

  4. Rose Says:

    Brilliant article. I’m looking forward to future installments.

    I’d also be interested to know how (since it’s not really a question of “if”) the jimusho structure/culture affects the theatre world as well, what with the mega content producers Takarazuka, Gekigan Shiki and Toho.

  5. Rose Says:

    er, Gekidan.

  6. Mulboyne Says:

    Slightly off-topic but I noticed there’s a small discussion above about how the Japanese entertainment world is treated in journalism and academia, I think it’s worth noting that there’s a considerable amount of work in English on Japan’s media industry produced by business analysts. A lot of it, however, is specifically for deals so it isn’t always made public.

    You can date the interest directly back to the late 80s & early 90s, when Matsushita, Sony and Pioneer went shopping for music & film assets overseas. Those investments raised the question of how much Japanese companies might be prepared to pay. An important component of that calculation was the valuation of comparable domestic assets.

    Certainly, there were many business ties between overseas media groups and Japanese media groups dating back further but those overseas investments specifically prompted financial analysts to get on the case. Up until that time, stock exchange-listed media companies were mainly of interest only for their real estate and financial assets, not for their operating businesses. Unlisted companies had been largely ignored.

    The next wave of interest was sparked by some moves by Rupert Murdoch which history has largely forgotten. In 1996, he partnered with Softbank to buy a 21.4% block of TV Asahi shares (which they sold 9 months later). Around the same time, he took a small stake in Avex, then still a private company. To cap it all, News Corp provided funding for TK News, a venture with Tetsuya Komuro, to develop talent in Asia.

    This all came out of the blue and caused a rush to map Japan’s media landscape. Later, it transpired that Murdoch hadn’t known what he was doing but we were only a few years from the first internet boom which created another wave of interest, pretty much lasting until today.

  7. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    About Anno and Rei—dunno, I might be over-reading it, but I always thought Rei was a kind of insider pastiche/critique. I mean, Evangelion was one of the first anime to have characters that act like human beings, not archetypal, superflat “anime characters”—except Rei (and Kaworu). Rei is presented as a kind of lifeless erotic doll on which you can project anything (in fact the world “doll” is used to describe her relationship with Gendo). This point is driven home by the fact that Rei (and Kaworu) is the only character to have anime hair, anime eyes, and of course being non-human. Shinji, the first otaku to be portrayed in anime, eschews the adult, mature-sexual woman with her all-too-human problems (messy, beer-drinking Misato) favouring instead a perfect submissive livedoll fantasy. It makes me think of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (where the object-woman fantasy and subject-woman reality are played by the same actress in two parallel narratives).

    Next to the end of the series, right before the whole “giant robot space anime” thing is entirely dismissed, Rei actually rejects her “doll” role and finally asserts some personality. Of course, what happened is that otakudom completely ignored the point and objectified Rei even MORE, which seems to be what Azuma discuss. So Anno made End of Evangelion, which is even more critical of otaku. Which caused even greater misuderstanding and widespread criticism like that of Nobuhiro Watsuki (“it was obvious that the people who created it didn’t love the story or the characters […]”—but exactly this love is what Anno’s talking about, and it’s a love whose nature is shown in Shinji’s masturbation scene). At the end of the day the ends of Evangelion disturbs otaku for the same reason Metal Gear Solid 2 disturbs gamers—even if they can’t read the criticism, they have their expectations of a “proper anime” or “proper game” frustrated.

  8. M-Bone Says:

    “Shinji, the first otaku to be portrayed in anime”

    Oshii was all over this in the 80s with Megane in Urusei Yatsura. Also – “Otaku no Video”.

    “favouring instead a perfect submissive livedoll fantasy.”

    This, I think, is reading Eva from 2010 rather than 1995. First up, Asuka becomes Shinji’s “love interest” – and she’s even more self-interested and aggressive than Misato. Second (and there are reams of Anno interviews to back this up) Rei began more as a wounded flower to support Shinji’s martyr/victim self-narrative than an otaku consumption trope. The anime-character fantasy really only comes in the last episode during Shinji’s extended reflection when Rei appears running to school with a piece of toast in her mouth. THIS was the moe archetype in 1995 (and it is still more typical of “chara” now) and Anno put it in, according to Azuma, in reaction to fans taking her in this direction before the series was even a quarter over. The “ghostly pale bandaged waif” did become a 病弱萌 thing later because of Rei.

    “where the object-woman fantasy and subject-woman reality”

    Asuka is used this way thematically in the 90s film version.

    Well, Metal Gear Solid 2 (and FFVII, and Xenogears, etc.) all rip off Eva.

  9. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    Oh, I didn’t want to bring Asuka into this for fear of going even MORE off-topic. Yes, she’s exceedingly human—I’d even risk saying a stab at Jump! ethics; she tries to live like a Jump hero and fails repeatedly. That Shinji ends up with Asuka is one more of these points people ignore. It’s like Rei becomes such a big thing she dominates everything and … … oh.

    > Well, Metal Gear Solid 2 (and FFVII, and Xenogears, etc.) all rip off Eva.

    We tend to call it a “tribute” around here 8) (but I do think MGS2 is really a notch above FF/Xeno as far as meta-discussion goes, anyway).

  10. M-Bone Says:

    My feeling is that Anno had Rei as a sort of well-designed MacGuffin (Evangelion is like a cross between “2001”, “Laputa” “Ultraman” and “The 400 Blows” where everyone has a version of the briefcase from “Pulp Fiction”) and the fans ran with her in different directions.

    Asuka, however, is supposed to be a real “character” – she learns. I’m not sure that she was supposed to be a JUMP hero for the most part, however. JUMP (aside from Kenshiro and Goku) was always about 努力 and 友情. Asuka is a 努力しない天才 in the beginning (ie. Sunday). She and Shinji do follow the JUMP pattern in the happy episodes between the “Shinji riding around on a train staring at his hand” part of the series and the “OMG lost a leg, charred corpse, Kaji!, EATING the angel, head falls off and classical music” part of the series, you know, the middle part that otaku actually remember. Honestly, that’s probably the best fun anime arc ever – Anno did it so well that all that remained was to do it over and over again until he hung himself at 51 or bring it all down in flames, making it safe to play with again.

    “It’s like Rei becomes such a big thing she dominates everything and … … oh.”

    It’s funny, but if you’ve followed Eva’s devolution from masterpiece to way of promoting slot machines, I think that Asuka has found a new semi-mainstream popularity with the Yankii crowd.

    “but I do think MGS2 is really a notch above FF/Xeno as far as meta-discussion goes, anyway”


  11. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > 努力 and 友情

    Yeah, that’s precisely how I saw her. Jump is always about 努力 and 友情 being necessary conditions to achieve 勝利 (a morality that is subtly averted in Death Note, I think, if you read between the lines…). Often in Jump manga you have a “loner genius” character who nonetheless find out even geniuses need comrades and hard work (like Naruto’s Neji). Asuka follows this trajectory, like in the memorable dance episode (which could have come straight from Jump pages)… but then she loses. And she tries even harder, and keeps losing. Then she sinks into depression. (I recall how surprised I was when I first watched this; I was like wtf, there’s something wrong; this wasn’t supposed to happen!). Anno does the same kind of subversion again in the movie, when she goes all Saint Seiya with her mother’s support and appears to wipe out her enemies, and then suddenly loses again. All the 努力 and 友情 only result in 敗戦. Nothing could be further from the usual shōnen trope, but that’s what gives her depth; if she was just spirited and strong-willed, she would just be a regular tsundereish archetype; but through her failures you can feel there’s someone living under the shell.

    …Now I’m feeling bad for contributing to the perception that people are only interested in anime and not in the structure of Japanese mass entertainment and whatnot. I’m not an academic grant agency, but FWYW I assure Marxy this work has my deep admiration (and the discussions you guys have in the comments never fail to inflate my Amazon wishlist).

  12. M-Bone Says:

    I’m thinking that the only manga that can really be said to conform to the old JUMP way of doing things is “Once Piece” – Bleach and a lot of other other new ones (Naruto to a certain extent as well) just don’t have a lot of training like they used to. As soon as they started introducing characters like Kenshin (who actually gets less strong after a point and just seems to sit around drinking tea all of the time) it is no longer so easy to talk about the JUMP pattern which is more 80s.

    “Loner Genius”

    Yeah, Hiei in “Yu Yu Hakusho” is the archetype.

    In any case, aside from the dance episode, I don’t see a lot of yujo from Asuka – just a lot of putting Shinji down. The general plot trajectory for her that you outline is okay, but I feel that it gets constantly undermined, rather than done in in one big go. There are really only 2 episodes where she and Shinji are happily cooperating (and one of them has her competitive school angst as a sub plot) and even in those two episodes, she seems to hate Rei just because.

    “she goes all Saint Seiya with her mother’s support”

    I didn’t really get that vibe. I think that was just supposed to be repeating what Shinji had already experienced (definately not Saint Seiya).

    “if she was just spirited and strong-willed”

    I think that you also have to consider how flat out cruel she is. The genius characters in JUMP tend to be more “aloof”.

    In any case, the general path of the character mirrors Shinji’s in an important way as a look at the consequences of tying one’s identity up with a single thing (which is Anno’s main dig at being an otaku).