Over the previous three installments (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) I have attempted to show that artist management companies — known colloquially as “jimusho” — are the dominant power in the Japanese entertainment industry due to their power to exercise labor control over performers, their organization into larger and secretive keiretsu groups, their ownership of master and publishing rights, as well as probable associations with organized crime. The remaining issue is this, what is the effect of the jimushos’ power on the actual content produced in Japan? And how do the particular business needs of the jimusho change the kind of talent they groom and debut?
The Jimusho Control Who is on TV, Therefore Who is Popular
Terrestrial television (地上波) has been, hands down, the most powerful and influential medium in Japan for introducing new entertainers and performers to the wider public. Stars who appear on variety shows on a constant basis are the ones understood as “popular.” In the case of music, TV has been mostly responsible for directly driving sales. In the Recording Industry Association of Japan’s 2004 music media user survey, the top four “information sources leading to purchase” were network TV programs, TV dramas, TV commercial songs, and TV commercials for music, respectively. In the market’s peak of the 1990s, especially, songs repeatedly heard on TV became hits. While the decline of the music market has changed this to a certain degree, jimusho still greatly depend upon TV stations in order to turn unknown talent into profitable stars.
This seems like it would create a symbiotic relationship between television and management companies, but jimusho retain the decision-making power about which performers appear on which TV programs. This mainly goes back to their ability to leverage access to their most popular stars. Use of established artists becomes conditional on TV station support of new and upcoming ones. This gets to the point where there basically is no “open casting” in Japan and top stars such as Kimura Takuya have shows built around them.
In my own Master’s Thesis research on the effect of jimusho collusion with TV music programs on the Japanese music market, I found that the vast majority of stars appearing on network music programs Music Station, Hey Hey Hey Music Champ, and Utaban came from the top jimusho keiretsu. Competition should be fierce for appearance slots (only 4-6 per week) as the shows have traditionally been the number one driver of sales. But since the TV stations need actors, models, and performers to appear on their other programming, the larger jimusho have an upper hand in placement. This gives them the most leverage in demanding appearances. You can see this clearly in the link between music show guests and the program’s hosts. For Hey Hey Hey Music Champ, comedy jimusho Yoshimoto Kogyo — a company that produced no talent directly for the music industry until the launch of the show — secured 125 artist slots from around 2,000 up until 2004. Now with the power to launch musical talent, Yoshimoto created musical talent. This ended up blocking 125 other artist appearances from companies focused specifically on music.
So overall, in the case of Music Station from 1988 to 2004, the top five jimusho keiretsu (in this case, Johnny’s Jimusho, Burning Productions including Avex and Rising, Up Front Agency, Sony Music Artists, and Nagara Production Group including Being) made up around 50% of all appearances (2692 of total 5212 slots). This generally held true for the other shows as well. In other words, over half of TV appearances are doled out semi-automatically to the most dominant players and a great majority are doled out to the top dozen jimusho groups.
When you then compare these appearance numbers with Oricon yearly chart hits, the number of music show appearances almost perfectly correlates with chart hits. Simply put: The more you are on TV, the more you are likely to have a hit record. And with dominant jimusho having a lock on the few artist appearances available, this means they generally can also control who gets a hit and who does not. And even when a jimusho produces no hits in a year they still receive preferable placements on TV shows than smaller companies with hits. Johnny’s Jimusho acts failed to have a single chart hit in the early 1990s yet continued to appear on Music Station week after week.
Of course artists from non-major jimusho do get hits once in a while, but the constancy of major jimusho acts appearing means that independent artists become essentially “short-term successes” rather than long-term ones. In my data set, I found that when a new artist from a large jimusho got a chart hit, the average number of hits for that artist in the next two years was around 3 — compared to only 1 for an artist from a small independent jimusho. This is likely related to the fact that the large jimusho new artist on average got 8 TV appearances in the next two years after his/her hit, compared to only 1.8 for the small jimusho artist.
The data in my research strongly suggested that control over TV appearances helped major jimusho keep a strong position in the Japanese music market. Although I have not done the same kind of data-based research on other fields, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that this jimusho dominance carries over to fashion magazine covers, variety show appearances, and other core categories of the mass media. So the question is now, if only a few firms control the Japanese entertainment world, what kind of talent are they choosing to create and debut?
What kind of performers do the jimusho create?
The first thing to remember is that the jimusho create idols and talent rather than just manage successful performers. In other words, jimusho scout unknowns and then “debut” them to the public with a intentionally crafted look, personality, and style. Model Marie was positioned as “model from a rich family” like Paris Hilton, while Nishikawa Ayako is the “cosmetic surgeon talento.” For Yoshimoto Kogyo, the company has been debuting a never-ending list of “one-gag” talent who are given a particular persona and a single joke.
Jimusho also play a big role in the determining the kind of talento that are tolerated in the market. Johnny’s Jimusho has been able to effectively stop any other company from producing boy idol groups. With Johnny’s boycott power in effect, even the major jimusho Rising Pro (now Vision Factory) had a hard time making their acts Da Pump and w-inds big players in market.
The jimusho system is a closed world of small firms, most of which have long-standing position within the entertainment world. In fact, most of the senior people working within today’s management companies helped produce enka singers in the 1960s and 1970s. Enka singers, as documented by Christine Yano in Tears of Longing, have also been openly “crafted” singers rather than self-created. The general industrial structure of the jimusho world — especially the fact that new firms have a hard time entering — means that essentially the same people have been responsible for crafting new stars decade after decade. Japanese pop is often criticized for churning out “generic” idols and pretty faces who act in a certain way, and we can assume that the consistency of personnel behind these idols is a strong factor in the industry’s conservatism. Johnny Kitagawa — age 79 — still plays a hands-on role on the output of Johnny’s Jimusho acts. (Needless to say it’s hard to find a parallel to this in the U.S. market.) AKB48 are incredibly close in nature to ’80s idols Onyanko Club, mostly because they have the same creator Akimoto Yasushi. Despite 25 years of cultural change, basically the exact same people have the keys to the J-Pop kingdom.
Regardless, there is a stronger economic logic at work in the industry’s preference for “created idols” rather than managing more independently-minded stars. Most jimusho handle multi-field performers, ones who are likely to put out music, appear in bikinis on the cover of Weekly Playboy or Shonen Jump, banter on talk shows, and act in the occasional TV drama or film. The fees from these activities can add up to a nice source of income, and in the case of music, a million-seller can be extremely lucrative.
Yet none of these particular activities tops the greatest income stream: corporate/product sponsorship and promotion. Appearing in a single ad campaign for Coca-Cola or 7-11 will guarantee an extremely high source of revenue for the jimusho through a relatively small amount of work. Compare this with the hard-to-obtain music hit: promoting singles takes millions of dollars in marketing to the public. An ad sponsorship, meanwhile, only takes buttering up Dentsu and Hakuhodo and a few key corporate executives. The rate of investment for an ad campaign is much higher than other activities.
This has always been true, but in recent years, the crash of the music market and decline of TV viewership means that jimusho have more reason to pursue advertising work over payment for actual “performance.” In most cases, the actual performance work should be understood as promotion for the star to eventually secure advertising deals; acts usually have to prove popular before becoming a viable spokesperson for a consumer brand. AKB48, for example, are finally reaching peak profitability now as they move beyond their Akihabara theatre and record sales into dozens of product sponsorships. As the jimusho makes almost all the money from the star’s total body of work, rather than just a single field of artistic endeavor, the industry as a result moves towards explicitly commercialized pursuits rather than artistic ones. You can argue that a pop song is also “commercial” but at least the vehicle is melody, harmony, and rhythm — and not a placard upon a vending machine. Culture is not just a body of ads. But the jimusho’s true business goal is creating a body of ads for their performers.
If the ultimate economic goal is a strong line-up of promotional deals, what kind of talent do jimusho prefer? The firms have a clear logical reason to push stars who lack any barriers to becoming national spokespeople for firms. This obviously tilts the balance towards “nice” female idols. And when making a decision among which newcomers to push, the jimusho will not particularly value inherent or learned talent — a strong voice, skillful dancing, acting chops — as these are only indirectly related to the most profitable work. When you have a singer who is only a singer, promotional work can get in the way of their reputation. While plenty of talented performers end up doing ads — Shiina Ringo, Southern All-Stars, even Oyamada Keigo — they are much less likely to do every ad the jimusho requests and may get in trouble with advertising clients for exerting too much personal opinion/attitude into their work. Their appeal is also limited to a smaller audience interested in their body of work rather than their fame itself.
But general “talento” are expected to do this kind of promotional work, and it’s most lucrative for the jimusho to focus on performers who are not too specified. And for the music market, the main TV shows spend as much time interviewing the stars and probing their personalities as actually seeing them perform their songs. The end is result is that the jimusho allow big stars to be poor actors, bad singers, and pathetic dancers, but they can certainly not be controversial, unattractive, or otherwise disruptive. Jimusho face major repercussions when their stars get in trouble for personal scandal — first and foremost because companies have invested massively in using their “clean” image to promote their products. This is why “uncontrollable” talent such as Sawajiri Erika become toxic within the industry. (Although the constant advertising deals of Tsuchiya Anna are a true mystery…) Sakai Noriko’s recent drug scandal seemed tame compared to Hollywood foibles but after years of her corporate sponsorships, there was serious industry reputation at stake. Jimusho supply Japanese corporations with promotional vehicles, and Sakai turned out to be highly defective. Best not to push stars who are likely to generate this kind of business risk.
Even when stars do possess levels of talent, jimusho schedule their activities disproportionately towards promotional work rather than the artistic side of their duties. For example, most TV shows are shot in a “one-take” style as performers do not have time to dedicate their full schedule to the show’s taping. As long as there were no major mistakes, dramas take only one cut of every scene. The business logic is solid here — time should be spent on pursuing promotional work for big companies — but the overall “craft” in Japanese entertainment takes a hit.
So economically-speaking, artist management firms in search of profit pursue advertising deals over performance fees within this particular Japanese industry framework. The end result, however, is that these firms (1) promote “created” idols over self-motivated talent (2) emphasize pleasant looks and demeanor over artistic talent (3) invest most time and resources into lucrative advertising deals rather than creating “culture.”
Every pop culture system focuses on commercialized culture — in other words, crafting pop songs with the greatest chance of broad audience and high sales — but I would argue that the Japanese system, due to jimusho business logic of having performers organized inside companies, goes one step further in direct commercialization (advertising) over creative works (the culture itself).
The missing equation in this, however, is the audience. Japanese consumers have every right to reject this model and demand culture that is “cultural.” There have been times in Japanese history where the public rejects “idols” and its related culture for something more “real.” The most famous was the Band Boom of the late 1980s when Music Station and other standard music shows lost their audiences to live houses around the country. While this was ultimately good for the music market, it was not good for the jimusho system as these bands were less suited towards product promotion than idols. The industry, however, adapted towards the more “real” style to win back the audience, and once they had them back at the same media points (Music Station), they slowly moved the audience back to an idol model in the mid-1990s. There are socio-cultural reasons why the Japanese audience prefers “what is popular” over “what is unpopular but well-crafted” and the jimusho’s control of this system means that they have very strong influence on the long-term state of Japanese cultural tastes.
Yet in the 2010s, as the music market implodes, TV viewership becomes marginal, fashion magazine readership declines, and youth-oriented “popular culture” generally loses its influence among the Japanese psyche, the jimusho are likely to face an existential threat. That being said, small firms are most likely to be first to take a major hit. TV stations will cut budgets on shows, but make up for it with more variety programming — which of course need talent from the large jimusho. Most importantly, the idea of sponsoring products with stars is deeply ingrained within corporate culture in Japan, and whatever its cost, few decision-makers are likely to take the risk of trying a different approach. You can’t get fired for doing a campaign with AKB48 but you may get fired for trying something radically new using Popteen dokusha models. This is why you see Perfume advertise for chuhai alcoholic beverages despite the fact that they are not likely stars who appeal to those drinks’ consumer base.
At least for the next decade the jimusho structure is set, and structural inertia will keep the top jimusho afloat.