Ties to the Yakuza Are No Laughing Matter

How a fallen yakuza boss took down TV host Shinsuke Shimada, the Jay Leno of Japan

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In Japan it has been front-page news for the past three days that Japan’s most ubiquitous and popular television comic and host, Shinsuke Shimada, is retiring from the entertainment industry after admitting to extensive ties to the yakuza, Japan's organized crime. Before his announcement, Shimada hosted six different programs, aired in Osaka and Tokyo. The scandal would be the equivalent of Jay Leno or Regis Philbin confessing to being in cahoots with Mexican kingpins. His abrupt departure has forced TV stations to cancel or adapt programs on which Shimada featured regularly as a host. But much more than: it has brought to public attention the yakuza domination of the entertainment industry. The Japanese character in the headlines, the one in the circle (暴) is shorthand for 暴力団 (boryokudan) meaning "violent group," police lingo for organized crime. Bo (暴)itself means violence. On police documents regarding organized crime, that character stamped in a circle is read as マルボウ(marubou) and is shorthand for yakuza.

It is not what Japanese television viewers would associate with Shimada. For decades, he has been unavoidable on as a gravel-voiced, corny comedian filling in as talk show host, commentator, and variety show MC on Japanese television.  On his most popular show 行列のできる法律相談所(Legal Advice)he brings performers, actors, and celebrities into the studios and introduces their peformances or engages with them in lively banter—sometimes discussing hypothetical law cases. Here is an episode featuring a human slinky, a man obsessed with high school baseball, and one of China’s tallest men.

Shimada’s announcement that he would be vacating Japanese airwaves came suddenly. The weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun was due to expose his yakuza ties, but Shimada hastily arranged a 10pm press conference on August 24 at the Tokyo offices of Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., the holding company of the Kansai-based entertainment giant Yoshimoto Group, which manages Shimada through its Yoshimoto Creative Agency. The yakuza's dominance in Japan’s entertainment industry is a subject that has long been a taboo. (In Japan, the yakuza are quasi-legal entities with office buildings and fan magazines. Their existence is not illegal and they are regulated like corporate entities. The 22 designated crime groups have roughly 80,000 members.) Shimada’s undoing came after cell phone text messages he had sent to Jiro Watanabe, 56, a former boxing super flyweight world champion and currently out on bail appealing a prison sentence for extortion, spelling out some financial dealings with crime figures landed in the hands of the press. According to police sources, the messages, which had been sent between June 2005 and June 2007, mentioned Hirofumi Hashimoto, the head of the Kyokushin Rengo, a second-tier group with several hundred members in the Yamaguchi-gumi (a designated crime group) that has 40,000 total members and so much wealth that it has been called Japan’s largest private equity fund. Both police and underworld sources recognize Watanabe as a consigliore to the Kyokushin Rengo.

At his press conference, Shimada said of his relationships with the gang member at his late-night press conference, “To me it was ‘safe.’ But I was told by my agency the day before yesterday that it was 'out' and against the rules of the industry." As for how he had gotten to know the crime boss in the first place, Shimada said somewhat cryptically, "I had a problem that I couldn't solve myself more than 10 years ago, and I told this to a long-time friend [Watanabe], who asked the person [Hashimoto] to help me.” Shimada added that he had only met Hashimoto four or five times. But, he said, "I felt obligated to him for having helped me solve the problem."

His messages to Watanabe are much more explicit about those obligations. In one message, Shimada had expressed his concern for Hashimoto, shown in police surveillance footage at left, after Hashimoto was arrested in Osaka on suspicion of obstructing a public bidding process and obstructing law enforcement’s attempts to execute their duties. Organized crime sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Shimada sent a cash gift of more than ¥40 million (which, at current exchange rates, is about $520,000) to the boss as jinchumimai.  Jinchumimai traditionally was the practice of visiting a soldier in a war zone and giving them a gift of cash or other goods to cheer them up. In the yakuza world, the practice refers to giving money to a gangster facing possible prison time to offer support and help with legal expenses. In police raids of Kyokushin Rengo offices, photos and letters showing the close relations between Hashimoto and Shimada have surfaced several times, according to sources at the National Police Agency which supervises all police departments in Japan.

Shimada also wrote about his gratitude to the gang member for having placed expensive orders at a bar he runs, according to a source close to the Yamaguchi-gumi. At one point, Hashimoto and six of his underlings visited Shimada’s bar and paid for the evening by leaving a stack of bills, wrapped neatly in a bow, on the counter totaling ¥1 million ($13,000).

Shimada himself has a criminal history of assault. In 2004, he dragged a 40-year-old female employee into his dressing room by her hair, and slapped her repeatedly. She had failed to show him the proper respect, he would later explain. He was summarily prosecuted and ordered to pay a fine. And his organized crime ties appear to be the reason for his current troubles. In fact, Japanese police sources, speaking on grounds of anonymity, say, “We have considered Shimada Shinsuke to be an associate member of the Yamaguchi-gumi for several years. He has invoked the name of the Kyokushin Rengo to menace people and in business dealings, possibly without the group’s knowledge. In our eyes, we have more respect for Hashimoto than Shimada. At least Hashimoto doesn’t beat up women.”

According to organized crime group members, the emails recently surfaced because Shimada made the mistake of angering former Yamaguchi-gumi crime boss, Goto Tadamasa, who obtained the mails and released them to the press. Goto was once the most powerful crime boss in Tokyo, but was kicked out of the Yamaguchi-gumi in October of 2008, because he had previously called unwanted attention to the group by hosting an elaborate birthday party attended by Japanese celebrities. News had also broken that he had made a deal with the FBI to obtain a visa into the United States, where he received a liver transplant at UCLA. “Shimada was looked after by Goto-kumicho in the past,” said a former gang member. “But after he fell from power, Shimada insulted him by referring to Goto-san without any honorific in conversations with others, as just Goto.” In Japan, referring to an individual with no honorific is called yobisute and is considered highly rude and insolent.

In May of 2009, Goto wrote in his best-selling autobiography Habakarinagara (憚りながら) that Shimada was “nothing more than a tiny chinpira”—slang for the lowest and stupidest members of the yakuza.  On March 15 this year, Goto’s publisher Takarajima released another book, an anthology by several authors called Heisei Nihon Tabu Daizen (平成日本タブー全) in which Atsushi Mizoguchi, Japan's most well-known yakuza writer devotes a chapter on Shimada’s cozy relationships with gang boss Hashimoto. The release of the text messages to the press was Goto’s parting shot at Shimada, say police sources and former Yamaguchi-gumi members. Goto himself is under investigation for the 2006 murder of a real estate agent and has been cooperating with the police in the investigation of Shimada’s organized crime ties, perhaps in an attempt to get more lenient treatment in his own investigation. One former member of his group was already convicted for the murder and is serving jail time. Another member of the group involved in the killing who was under an international arrest warrant, Takashi Kondo, was shot and killed in Thailand in April of this year. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department sent officers to Thailand to investigate the possibility that Goto had his former subordinate assassinated. As the Japanese say, “The dead have no mouths.”

The Japanese police have long known about the strong ties between the yakuza and the entertainment industry. In 2007, Tokyo Metropolitan Police files leaked onto the Internet listed Burning Productions, Japan’s most powerful talent agency, as a Yamaguchi-gumi front company—information ignored by the Japanese media. The files leaked did label a famous actress as a mistress of Goto. The Japanese press reported that story, but it remained largely unwilling to delve further and lose access to celebrities. Shimada’s corporate backers Yoshimoto Kogyo itself in its early days had strong ties to the Yamaguchi-gumi, with Yamaguchi-gumi associates owning large shares of its stock.

In recent years, Shimada has bought up expensive properties in Tokyo and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department is investigating whether or not organized crime played a role in those purchases and whether Shimada has broken any laws, or used his organized crime backing in acts of extortion or blackmail. A new law, the Tokyo Organized Crime Exclusionary Ordinances, is set to go into effect on October 1 which will will criminalize any pay-offs or payouts to the yakuza. There is some legal dispute as to whether the new law can be applied retroactively, but if it does, Shimada's jinchumimai to Hashimoto could mean serious legal problems for Shimada and his management, Yoshimoto Kogyo.

In the meantime, Shimada’s banishment from the industry has been swift. Broadcaster Fuji TV suspended a variety program featuring Shimada, and has cleared out Shimada paraphernalia from shops. NTV will also suspend his variety show Legal Advice, which scored more than a 20 percent share of the viewing audience Sunday before the scandal. As you can see above, the show doesn't feature much information that would help Shimada now. At the press conference, Shimada denied any wrongdoing. “A violation of the rules is a violation of the rules,” he said through teary eyes. “From tomorrow, I'd like to lead a quiet life as an ordinary guy.”

Jake Adelstein is an investigative journalist, consultant, and the author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan. He is also a board member of the Washington, D.C.-based Polaris Project Japan, which combats human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children in the sex trade. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.