Last year, one of the biggest celebrities in Japan, Shinsuke Shimada, abruptly stated he was leaving the entertainment industry. Shimada, a comedian and talk show host, is the Japanese equivalent of a David Letterman or a Jay Leno—if either of them appeared on six prime time show and produced music albums.
The country's collective jaw dropped at the news, and the announcement came more of a shock than the Prime Minister's decision to step down in one of those typical press conferences that fetishise apologizing and bowing. The reason for Shimada's decision? The yakuza.
Shimada's yakuza connections should not come as a surprise. After all, this is the entertainment industry, and like with Hollywood, there's a long, established history there. Heck, even family friendly video game companies seem to have gangster connections.
The news of his sudden decision to leave showbiz, especially after appearing on a telethon this weekend, was a shocker.
Shimada, more than say SMAP singer Masahiro Nakai (pictured with "friends"), appeared to fit the part. The former juvenile delinquent hit big during the 1980s comedy boom, appearing in countless variety programs—and even showing up in a Namco Famicom video, The Great Detective Sanma, a game populated with comedians.
The Kyoto-native found greater success when he switched to talk show and variety program host, revealing a knack for heading up hit shows—shows that were inevitably turned into video games. He even turned celebrities that appeared on his programs into successful pop stars. Then there are his best selling books on business investment and a string of restaurants and bars.
But there was always the arrogance, the roughness, the thugness. In 2004, Shimada attacked a female staffer for, apparently, failing to greet him properly. Accounts differ on what happened next: Shimada said he slapped her once, but the female staffer said she was punched several times and spat on. Shimada held a teary-eye press conference and then left the entertainment industry for three months, but once again, returned to hosting programs. Business as usual. Until 2009, that is, when he blew up at a comedy group on live television, grabbing one comedy by the collar as Cirque dul Soleil performed a "human tower".
Shimada had his critics, but he also had his defenders, usually members of the entertainment industry like Aki Hoshino and numerous young comedians, whom he helped get work and whose careers he made.
Yesterday, it came to light that Shimada has personal relations with yakuza, something Shimada confirmed when one of his emails revealed a cozy relationship. During yesterday's press conference, Shimada said he didn't think he was doing anything wrong. Legally, he wasn't, but as Tokyo Vice author Jake Adelstein pointed out, the law is changing.
Starting this October, Adelstein stated, the Tokyo organised Crime Exclusionary Ordinance goes into effect, making "all transactions with yakuza a crime". Thus, it's assumed that Shimada's talent agency, the Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo, wanted to cut this off at the pass.
The whole thing stinks. Even if Yoshimoto Kogyo pressured Shimada to leave showbiz, it's odd that Shimada, being the astute businessman he is, would actually do so. Leaving showbiz, means that he won't be appearing in advertisements, thus breaking his contracts with sponsors and forcing him to pay them millions. Certainly having relationships with gangsters might have already broken said contracts, but legally, right now, he would appear to be in the clear—especially because so many Japanese companies have direct and indirect dealings with organised crime. Some pundits are calling Shimada's decision self-restraint, and within Japanese culture where such restraint is valued, it does add up somewhat. But still.
There's another theory, one that makes more sense. Shimada pissed somebody off, somebody with pull, and somebody who's dangerous.
Over on website Japan Subculture Research Center, Adelstein wrote that apparently Shimada has been chummy with yakuza for years and made unpleasant comments about a former crime boss, who became to offended that the incriminating info about Shimada's crime connection was leaked. There are now allegations that Shimada even paid yakuza to look after him—allegations that, according to Adelstein, are now being investigated by the police.
After decades on television, appearing on multiple shows on multiple channels, Shinsuke Shimada's career is over. It's assumed that he'll focus on his restaurants or retire to a quite life at his Okinawan home. One of his shows is scheduled to appear on Japanese TV tonight, but with either be edited or pulled entirely. That doesn't mean Shimada won't be on television—he will be. News show after news show continues to wonder what the hell exactly went down. Shimada's still a star, but one on the evening news.