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The Jimusho System: Part One


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.

Click here for The Jimusho System Part Two: Organizational Characteristics of Jimusho — Size and Keiretsu.

W. David MARX
April 5, 2010

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

34 Responses

  1. M-Bone Says:


    How do characters like Beat Takeshi, Sanma, Tamori, and Shimada Shinsuke fit in? I’ve seen earning figures for them based on personal taxes paid and they don’t seem to be on Jimusho salary. Did the most powerful MC types manage to avoid this somehow? Also, do big earning music acts like Southern All Stars and X-Japan fall into this pattern?

    You make a strong case, but more about the exceptions is bound to make the whole project more insightful.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    Beat Takeshi owns his own jimusho which I believe is aligned with Vision Factory and therefore would be part of the alleged Burning Keiretsu.

    Southern All Stars are in Amuse. Their initial publishing is held by Burning. My guess is that they’ve been in the business long enough to command a higher salary.

    I guess my outline here is much more applicable to the most obvious part of Japanese culture: idols.

    But take the case of GLAY. They got into management company problems when they went independent. Then they completely disappeared despite being one of the best selling bands in Japan ever.

  3. Mulboyne Says:

    The jimusho model you describe is certainly applicable to idols and also a lot of tarento but, as M-Bone notes, you need to be careful about suggesting that anything like “indentured servitude” describes the situation of Japan’s major entertainment figures.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    I think it’s fair to say that it does for anyone young. For older figures, who basically came into the system before it become all unified under a single leader (more later), their salaries may be more free.

    But take the case of someone like Kitano Makoto who saw his career ended and put into near-bankruptcy for making veiled criticisms of the most powerful man in the business. He couldn’t just move to another agency. He was blacklisted and forced to quit, until they brought him back.

    Basically the number of people who are exempt from this system is a vast minority compared to those who are “indentured servants.” And a lot of people who we think are successful are likely still on the same “all money goes to the jimusho” contract just with a very nice salary.

  5. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > 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.”

    If there’s a book on this topic, I want to read it.

  6. jasong Says:

    Good break down of how it works for the majority of young talent. Probably worth mentioning that many jimusho activities don’t meet approved labour standards which can contribute to punishing schedules/bad acting.

    You have the Hollywood image of annoying “producers” visiting the set of movies? Here it’s talent managers. Even if it’s somebody with one line of dialogue – their manager is there. No wonder they serve roke-ben instead of good craft services.

    Actors like Beat Takeshi (Office Kitano), Kôji Yakusho (Y.K. Jimusho), Tadanobu Asano (Anore, run by his father) and Tatsuya Nakadai (an acting school with attached talent) have their own offices. It’s near impossible to find out what kind of agreements jimusho offer but I’d assume the shops run by actors themselves are much fairer. They can also obviously choose what they do and don’t want to do.

  7. Peter Says:

    Off topic: Is グラビア actually transliterated as ‘gravia’ when talking about the idol industry in Japan?

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    Technically it’s “gravure,” but I think it’s basically its own field now like “sushi” or “kendo.”

  9. bendall Says:

    グラビア is almost exactly like both sushi and kendo.

  10. M-Bone Says:

    “Beat Takeshi owns his own jimusho”

    I think that’s the really interesting story here – if an owarai talent could (can?) work their way up to jimusho owner (or demand a piece of the keiretsu) that’s a different story. There was obviously a historical shift at some point – did TV companies just start copying the studio star system of the 50s with its “new talent” auditions and star building programs and whatnot? Or did they resurrect it after it was more or less out for a while?

  11. Rose Says:

    I realize you’re focusing mostly on the idoru aspect of the geinoukai in Japan, but I’d love to know more about major players like, say, ex-Takarazuka stars that have major fan-bases that they could possibly use as bargaining chips when negotiating with jimushos. For example, Amami Yuki (currently with Kenon) was popular before joining that particular company (though it can be demonstrated that she started landing major roles in TV dramas only after joining Kenon). I’d love some insight into how those arrangements are made.

    I’m also astonished that in such a union-friendly country, there are no unions in Japan’s showbiz industry. A friend of mine, a musical actress says that there’s no worker’s comp if you’re injured during rehearsals or performance, there’s no compensation (except free meals, or sashiire) for hte rehearsal period, and the flat fee the performers receive is quite small (even for big productions such as Toho.) I should think that if actors or performers had the balls to create their own unions, there’d be a sea change in the way business is done. (In the US, there are 3 actor unions – SAG, AFTRA and AEA. That doesn’t even include musicians.)

    “Good break down of how it works for the majority of young talent. Probably worth mentioning that many jimusho activities don’t meet approved labour standards which can contribute to punishing schedules/bad acting.”

    I’d argue that the bad acting is due to a serious lack of any viable training or any modern acting theories in Japan. There’s no history of The Methos, or Stanislavsky or Meisner (all of which would seriously benefit actors there.)

  12. Rose Says:

    er, make that “The Method.”

  13. Mulboyne Says:

    Well, it’s not just older entertainers who have their own jimusho. For instance, Anna Tsuchiya has one run by her mum. The number of people outside the system you describe might be a minority when you look at everyone who wants a career in entertainment, however, it does include a lot of the industry’s biggest earners. There’s a risk of missing a major part of the picture if you see them only as an anomaly.

    In addition, the jimusho don’t just handle talent they’ve groomed themselves. They also deal with entertainers who have entered the business through other routes or who have other careers. Ikko’s dealings with Avex, jimusho, advertisers etc are through his own company. Ayako Nishikawa currently relies on Horipro but she has changed agencies a couple of times. In fact, if you look beyond musicians or idols, I think you’ll see evidence of a lot more movement. Only last week I was reading about Hirofumi Arai who used to be attached to Papado, Takako Matsu’s agency, but moved to Anore. That’s Tadanobu Asano’s agency as jasong mentions above.

  14. W. David MARX Says:

    For instance, Anna Tsuchiya has one run by her mum.

    I will handle this later but not all independent jimusho are actually independent.

    Hirofumi Arai who used to be attached to Papado, Takako Matsu’s agency, but moved to Anore.

    This means he will not be able to score big sponsorship deals anymore and basically just be an actor. Asano was lucky in that he is famous and has draw with companies. There is movement, but you are punished for this in implicit ways. For example, Mizuno Miki can no longer be in any of the Odoru Daisousasen movies now that she’s left the Burning sphere. Very very few people have been able to move out of a Burning or K-Dash-related jimusho and keeping all of your big ad jobs etc.

    The other thing I will get to is that, yes, the good actors tend not to be a part of this system, but this system is what keeps the good actors OUT of most of the big budget movies. Same with music.

  15. M-Bone Says:

    “but this system is what keeps the good actors OUT of most of the big budget movies.”

    Three cheers for that!

    Indignation about exploitation is entirely justified, but when I look at how Hollywood has bid some all time great powerhouse actors into a string of crap…. Just look at Gong Li who in her partnership with Zhang (and Concubine) put down a resume that puts her among the finest actresses in film history and yet has wasted the last 5 years of her career on the murderer’s row of “Memoirs of a Geisha”, “Miami Vice”, and “Hannibal Rising” (that’s arguably a bigger fall than DeNiro or Pacino).

    Using this forum to throw a well deserved rhetorical spanking the jimusho way is an eminently worthy project, but doing away with it doesn’t mean better pop culture ends up getting made.

    In a way, I agree with one part of the jimusho mindset. Producers should be telling audiences what to like. That’s how the avant garde worked. In anime that’s how Miyazaki and Oshii have worked. That’s how HBO has worked. It’s not that we don’t need production companies, it is that we need one with a clue. Or more of a clue than SMAPxSMAP anyway.

  16. W. David MARX Says:

    I repeat my point at the beginning that manga has been the driver for creative culture in the Japanese entertainment world BECAUSE it’s not bound up in this insane organizational structure where the companies decides what the “artists” and “talent” do. The individual decides, and the fans essentially “vote” on it. Magazines support certain manga because it sells and is popular, not because the manga artist’s agent forces them to.

  17. M-Bone Says:

    I’m pretty sure that I’ve been making that manga point for years… but one of the problems with contemporary manga is that the magazines are TOO bound up with listening to fan points of view so the editorial boards have become conservative, limiting the number of experimental projects.

    If the manga artists were able to “force” the magazines to accept different sorts of content (like “goddamit, no tournament this time”), wouldn’t that be good? So it is not the forcing that is the problem so much as the (old guys) forcing crap on the public.

    If we could wave a magic wand and remove the jimusho, however, there is still a better than good chance that the Japanese consumer would demand a whole lot of crap. We’re stuck, I think, demanding the end to a top down model, and still hoping for a top down auteur model to replace it.

  18. Mulboyne Says:

    Yes, it’s clear that having your own jimusho doesn’t make you independent. However, it does usually mean you are getting a bigger slice of the cake than the low-tier salaried employees you describe. Certainly, the entertainer remains reliant on the same set of business relationships but the revenue is shared more evenly.

    I suppose an interesting question is a variation on the one M-Bone asked: how does an entertainer get to a position where they can negotiate such a deal if the jimusho wields absolute power and can blackball them from the business anyway?

    I suspect you’ll address areas like these later so it’s probably best not to make too many observations until you’re further through your series.

  19. Aaron Says:

    From Rose: “I’m also astonished that in such a union-friendly country, there are no unions in Japan’s showbiz industry.” Actually, Japan isn’t even slightly an union-friendly country. Many people are technically union members, but Japanese unions in the present day have very little power. This is because unions usually do not operate across an industry, but, rather, within a single company. So, for example, a university will have a single union for all of its non-regular (permanent) employees. Toyota has a union for Toyota employees. There are a few pan-industry unions, but negotiations are generally conducted only by the local unit with the larger federation’s involvement. As with everything, there are exceptions (I get the impression from the news, for instance, that shipping unions seem to exercise some reasonable level of power), but they are few and far between.

    As a result, many unions, while maintaining an appearance of being employee advocates, have little power beyond what management is willing to grant them. Furthermore, labor unions don’t have much political clout (having to do with the way the Japanese political system works). In some industries unions have devolved into little more than social organizations.

    So it’s not at all surprising that there are no unions capable of influencing the behavior of the Japanese Culture Industry.

  20. jasong Says:

    I was shortcutting when I mentioned bad acting. What I meant was even good actors will give bad performances when they have to film a movie, TV drama and various other commitments at the same time. And there are plenty of actors who study the craft very seriously (see my piece on CNNGo that David here edited).

    There might not be a “history” of those schools of acting you mentioned here, but they exist. In fact, a friend of mine studied Stanislavsky and directed/starred in his own feature film, giving an excellent performance. It’s called “Now, I…” (“Ima, boku wa”). Look it up.

  21. Rose Says:


    Thanks, I stand corrected. I had no idea that the unions in Japan were like that.


    I will check out that piece you mentioned, thanks.
    I wrote based mostly on acting I’ve seen (on stage and on screen) as well as what I’ve heard from an American director who’s been in Japan for 2 decades, and his endlessly entertaining tales of wooden, one-dimensional acting, and how it usually is a result if little to no real training.
    Most gekidans have the older actors “teaching” the younger actors, which really just passes on a very superficial style of acting (Takarazuka comes to mind…)

  22. Adamu Says:

    This is a great update of the stuff I have been reading about since the neomarxisme days.

    Now that momus has a book deal maybe you can write a scathing review and come full circle.

    I gotta wonder if there is ever an effort to pass on a jimusho dynasty after the crimeboss/leader dies?

  23. M-Bone Says:

    I was meaning to ask, the guy with the eye patch in the third row isn’t….

  24. JuJu Says:

    “But take the case of GLAY. They got into management company problems when they went independent. Then they completely disappeared despite being one of the best selling bands in Japan ever.”

    Actually, if anything, this is an example of how some artists can survive management conflicts or how the jimusho pattern described here doesn’t really apply to everyone in the Japanese music business (although it plays a huge part with Johnny’s idols inserted everywhere in the media). If Glay did suffer of management problems, it certainly didn’t affect them that hard, as they still appear in TV shows like Music Station and still get top 10 Oricon charts (almost always #1 to be exact). It hardly compares to Ami Suzuki’s case or Da Pump’s, a popular boy group that suddenly disappeared without leaving a trace (a quick research showed me that they still exist, though). I guess a dicrease of popularity is bound to happen to most popular acts regardless of management conflicts.

    Very interesting read, though. The only appaling aspect of it is the silent agreement of blacklisting between companies. I don’t really think much of idols being hired for monthly salaries; most of them wouldn’t make it into the business if it wasn’t for the Jimusho literally making them.

  25. lauren Says:

    This post is exciting. I’ve got some questions, but I guess I’ll have to hold them. I can’t wait for the rest of the series! Just like old times.

  26. Gag Halfrunt Says:


    I saw Ima, boku wa and I thought Chikuma was completely believable as a hikkikomori. Do you know if he’s working on any new film projects at the moment? (The IMDB doesn’t list anything else.)

    Incidentally, I saw Ima, boku wa at the ICA in London, where the seats have name plates for the donors who paid for them. There’s a block of about thtee seats in the front row of cinema 1 (I think) all donated by Takeshi Kitano. The ICA shows quite a lot of Japanese films – for instance, Momoko Ando’s Kakera is on at the moment – and it hosts an annual Japanese film festival.

  27. jasong Says:


    Glad you liked Ima, boku wa. Chikuma is trying to get his next feature off the ground. Sophomore efforts are always hard.

    My good friend Jasper Sharp (it’s not you, is it? Jasper worked with Douglas Adams at one point) is involved with the J-programming at ICA. He brought Kakera to Raindance last autumn and it picked up steam from there. Hikari Mitsushima, who also starred in Love Exposure, is another excellent young actress.

    Didn’t know about the Kitano-sponsored seats there. That’s cool.

  28. Gag Halfrunt Says:

    No, I’m not Jasper Sharp. :) I just picked Gag Halfrunt as a username for a forum or blog one day, beause I wanted a little anonymity.

  29. Gag Halfrunt Says:

    P.S. All the seats with donors’ names are in cinema 1. I’d forgotten that cinema 2 is absolutely tiny, but I remembered when I saw Kakera there last night.

    Hikari Mitsushima is very good at playing depressed and apathetic, which is impressive because she used to be a cute pop idol of the kind churned out by the agencies this thread is supposed to be about. :)

    I read an interview with the director saying that she deliberately cast Hikari to play the opposite of her real personality, which is chatty and energetic. (Ando did the same thing with Eriko Nakamura, who she says is quiet and “dreamy”.) Hikari also has obsessive fanboys who were shocked by the film because it spoiled their image of her as a pure, wholesome idol.

  30. M-Bone Says:

    At first glance, I read the second para in the above post as “… is good at playing depressed an apathetic characters which is inevitable because she….”

  31. Gag Halfrunt Says:

    Some idols probably do end up getting all their energy and joie de vivre sucked out of them by years of doing whatever the agency demands of them.

    A propos of the jimusho system, Momoko Ando, the director, said of Eriko Nakamura (in the same interview):

    The good thing was that before we shot the film she was doing everything that her agency told her to do, like how she should act and dress in public. She was a typical idol, appearing in swimsuit photo shoots, for example, and as the token pretty girl appearing in small parts in films. But then she realised while we were making Kakera that she actually wanted to act seriously, and she doesn’t care about how she appears in the films, which I think is quite positive. She wasn’t in so many films before – one called Shikyu no Kioku, directed by Setsuro Wakamatsu in 2007. I think she changed so much during the shooting of Kakera. Before this, everyone was telling her exactly what to do in her career, which is typical in this sort of idol system.

  32. YoBird Says:

    This is a well-written article that describes a part of the talent industry – but (purposefully or not) ignores much of what is going on with many successful musicians in Japan who either are managing themselves (as a one-artist office) or have joined a new breed of small management companies that treat their artists well. (I realize that that group might not be the target of your comments)

    It would be instructive to separate the talents who were formed to be money-making machines, from the real musicians, many of whom are popular enough to play the summer festival circuit and make decent sales of itunes downloads and goods without clowning around as “talents”. The two groups are often very different. I wonder what your survey would yield from the last few years if you had continued it. You might be surprised.

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