The 53rd Miss International was crowned Tuesday in Tokyo, but her predecessor, the first Japanese woman to win the title in 52 years, Ikumi Yoshimatsu, was not there to hand over her crown. Ms. Yoshimatsu (born June 21st, 1987) is an actress, best-selling author, and a social activist.
The reason for her conspicuous absence: she was told to “play sick” by the management of the contest, The International Culture Association, who fear that a powerful talent agency executive stalking her might “cause trouble.” The organization demonstrated a blame-the-victim mentality that has outraged and troubled many inside and outside of Japan.
In terms of sexual equality, Japan is still decades behind most advanced nations, ranking 105 out of 136 in the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report. When it comes to show business, the nation is like 1950’s Hollywood, when the mob still ruled and powerful talent agencies controlled every aspect of the lives of their contract celebrities.
For years, the authorities have mostly turned a blind eye to the thuggish behavior and the yakuza’s influence in the Japanese entertainment world. In 2011, the Jay Leno of Japan, Shimada Shinsuke, was forced to retire after his close ties to the Yamaguchi-gumi (Japan’s largest crime group) were exposed but his talent agency, Yoshimoto Kogyo, continued business as usual. It is widely known that mob still runs many of the talent agencies. Most stars accept it as an unavoidable reality and the mainstream media, which needs access to the celebrities, blithely ignores the seedy side of the industry.
But Ms. Yoshimatsu would not bow down to the status quo.
She and her lawyer, Norio Nishikawa, held a press conference at the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan on December 16th, to explain the sequence of events that led to her filing criminal charges and a restraining order against one of Japan’s most powerful talent agency executives earlier this month.
Her alleged stalker is Mr. Genichi Taniguchi, president of Pearl Dash and an executive at K-Dash. K-Dash is one of Japan’s biggest talent agencies, handling such luminaries as Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Batman Begins).
In her statement before the press conference she noted, “I have filed these charges and I’m naming my tormentor in public, despite his intimidation, threats and connections. I do this not for my personal benefit, but to voice my concern and outrage on behalf of all the women…. who could not call for help out of fear of retaliation and being possibly fired from their jobs, and ignored in a society where a ‘culture of silence’ toward crimes against women has been the standard for centuries.”
Meet your new boss
According to Ms. Yoshimatsu, her problems began shortly before she was crowned Miss International, and still being handled by a smaller talent agency. In spring 2012, Mr. Kazuyoshi Ishii, a former K1 fight promoter, showed up at the management company she was working with. She was taken by car to the office of Burning Productions, the most powerful talent agency in Japan. She was introduced to Ikuo Suho, often called “the Don of the Japanese entertainment industry.”
According to police sources, Mr. Suho began his career as a driver for the deceased senator, Kouichi Hamada, a former member of the Inagawa-kai crime group. Mr. Suho, with the aid and backing of Mr. Hamada created Burning Productions, and locked down a role as a major player in Japan’s entertainment industry. The firm has had issues. Bullets were fired into their office in May of 2001, in what appeared to have been part of a gang war. In 2007, police files mistakenly leaked onto a file-sharing site by a Tokyo Metropolitan Police Officer, Burning Productions was listed as a “client company” of the Yamaguchi-gumi Goto-gumi.
Ms. Yoshimatsu said that after researching and finding out more about Burning group, “I felt very uncomfortable about having been taken there. I also heard a tape recording of what sounds like Mr. Shuo talking about his relations with a crime family.”
After winning the world title of Miss International on October 21, 2012, she informed her manager that she would not be extending her contract, and that she would form her own independent management company. She decided to hire Matt Taylor, an American, to be her overseas agent. In what was supposed to be her final meeting with her previous management, Mr. Ishii walked into the meeting.
“He demanded I meet a close friend, that he said he and Mr. Suho approve of; Mr. Taniguchi of K-Dash. I made it clear to Mr. Ishii that I was aware of allegations and rumors that the company (Burning Productions) is connected to the yakuza. Morally and ethically, I cannot work with such people or their associates nor do I want to. I refused.”
On December 30th, at the filming of a TV special for Nihon Television, she met Taniguchi for the first time. He had come onto the set with a pass from a different show. He began shouting accusations at her and creating a scene. He claimed that Taylor did not represent Yoshimatsu and that they owed him money. At one point, he allegedly grabbed her arm and forcibly tried to pull her out of the studio. A tape recording and pictures of the incident back up her account. On the recording, Mr. Taniguchi constantly invokes the name of Mr. Suho, like uttering a magic word, as the staff tries to make him leave the building.
In the months to follow, Mr. Taniguchi repeatedly contacted her family and her associates, demanding money that he claimed she owed him and also that she sever her business ties with Mr. Taylor. He sent several ominous messages to her family. He hired private detectives to spy on her office and home.
In a June call to her father, Taniguchi in seemingly paternal tones said, “I’m worried that she might wind up dead or killing herself,” mentioning his own former client, Ako Kawada, who had died mysteriously in 2008. The family and Ms. Yoshimatsu interpreted this a veiled threat. Mr. Taniguchi allegedly continued to defame her to clients, intimidating them into dropping commercial deals with her.
Eventually, the Miss International contest sponsors also yielded to the pressure of Mr. Taniguchi.
On November 13th she was called into the Miss International office here in Tokyo and informed that Mr. Taniguchi had been pressuring the sponsors to drop her. She explains, “Even after I explained the situation, Miss International told me to ‘play sick’, ‘keep quiet’ and not attend the world final pageant. While expressing sympathy they did not offer to help me, or provide security for me.” Her manager, who was with her, recorded the conversation. The International Culture Association did not return calls asking for comments.
Mr. Taniguchi in response to these allegations stated, “I’m no stalker. Her manager, Matt Taylor, owes me a large sum of money and I was merely trying to get paid back. Yes, I was at the television shooting on December 30th, but I never grabbed Ms. Yoshimatsu and didn’t cause any trouble. I never hired private detectives to spy on her.”
Mr. Taniguchi’s lawyer tells a slightly different tale, “Mr. Taniguchi wanted to seize any assets Mr. Taylor had and he hired private detectives to follow him. I received a report from the detective agency. There were pictures of Ms. Yoshimatsu’s office and home but no grossly invasive photos.”
Mr. Taylor acknowledges that he owes Mr. Taniguchi money after losing a lawsuit to him in 2012. “I have been trying to work out a payment plan with him, but he insisted on taking Ms. Yoshimatsu’s contract over as part of it. I don’t think he understands that I can’t sell her to him like she was a slave—nor would I if I could. We’re in a different age.”
Her soft-spoken lawyer notes, “Whatever personal issues Mr. Taniguchi has with her manager, that doesn’t justify harassing her because of it—not legally and not by any ethical standard.”
Japan’s silent press
The coverage of the story by the mainstream Japanese media has been remarkably mute. Japan’s best-selling weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun broke the story on December 12th with a four-page article. The only two mainstream Japanese newspapers that dared to fully write up the story were the Saga Shimbun, located in Ms. Yoshimatsu’s home prefecture—and the liberal tabloid, Nikkan Gendai.
This has not gone unnoticed by the Japanese public. Ikumi’s blog, in which she posted the story of her plight, has had over 1,000,000 views since December 12th. She has received hundreds of supporting emails and comments, including those from other beauty contestants. There has also been an outpouring of sympathy and shared stories from other women who have been victims of stalking. Japan’s popular comment websites like 2channel are ablaze with comments expressing outrage and disappointment over the mainstream Japanese media’s failure to report her plight.
This is no surprise. Japan’s major media depends on access to talent agency controlled celebrities for content, commercials, and entertainment and any firm reporting negatively on the agencies risks being the odd man out.
An entertainment reporter for a major Japanese newspaper explained the general silence of the press as follows, “Mr. Shuo is like the Voldermort of the Japanese entertainment world. Everyone knows who he is and is terrified of him but no one wants to say his name. Everyone knows that he and Mr. Taniguchi are close. The costs of pissing him off are huge, in terms of loss of access and revenue, and the benefits of taking Ms. Yoshimatsu’s side are not much. It’s sad but that’s the business.”
All is not lost for Ms. Yoshimatsu. She has been offered film work in the United States. A National Diet member alarmed by her plight is meeting her this week and plans to call for an investigation. Akie Abe, the outspoken wife of Japan’s current Prime Minister, who was judge for this year’s contest, is reportedly furious and demanding answers from the International Culture Association on how they handled matters.
Mrs. Abe isn’t the only one demanding answers. For the thousands of women in Japan who have silently put up with stalking and harassment by powerful individuals, Ikumi Yoshimatsu, has become an icon defiantly standing up for them all.