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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Foreign talent feeling gypped by top agency


Staff writer

Inagawa Motoko Office, one of the largest and oldest show business agencies catering to foreign performers in Japan, recently came under fire from some of its registered artists for not paying them in a timely manner for work they have done.

News photo
Talent: Shelly Sweeney (above) and Michelle Take pose in promotional photos. COURTESY OF SHELLY SWEENEY AND MICHELLE TAKE
News photo

In recent interviews with The Japan Times, 10 people registered with IMO said those who do not ask the agency for money multiple times have no chance of getting paid, and there are many foreigners who have gone home unpaid.

All of the 10, five of whom asked not to be named because they don't want to upset the agency, said they are registered with several other agencies but have no similar problems with them.

"I got paid only because I bugged them a number of times and they know I was talking to The Japan Times. IMO should track down people it owes money to and pay them," said Shelly Sweeney, a 44-year-old Canadian who had an exclusive contract with IMO for 19 years until last July. She went freelance after that but continued to do IMO jobs.

As of June 17, IMO owed her ¥298,000 for 13 different jobs, including appearing on "Kiseki Taiken! Anbiribabo" ("Miracle Experience! Unbelievable") on Fuji TV, from last October to this May, according to a document IMO sent to Sweeney on June 15.

On June 18, Sweeney confirmed payment of ¥155,000 in the SMBC Roppongi branch account that IMO asked her to create. The money is for jobs she did from last October to this February.

Tokyo-based IMO, established by its president, Motoko Inagawa, 26 years ago, is a "tarento" (talent) agency for foreigners who work in Japan as actors, models and commentators, or in other roles in the entertainment industry. Some 5,000 people are registered with the agency.

Inagawa told The Japan Times that the company sometimes has delayed payment because of financial problems, but it basically promises to pay by the end of the second month after a job. For example, payment for a job performed between June 1 and 30 will be made by Aug. 31.

"I am very sorry the payment delay has caused trouble," Inagawa said. "I will try to fix it."

She doesn't know how many foreigners have been waiting too long for their pay but said IMO would "try its best to pay foreign talent before they leave Japan."

Inagawa said the firm's earnings have deteriorated, posting its first-ever annual loss in the business year to December. She did not disclose the size of the loss. IMO's revenue came to ¥250 million in 2009, down from ¥350 million in 2008, but it had been hovering between ¥300 million and ¥400 million every year until 2008, she said.

Although Inagawa claimed the company informs its foreign artists about the two-month payment delay, the 10 who spoke with The Japan Times alleged IMO never tells them how much or when they will be paid for the work they perform unless they press for the information repeatedly. Other agencies let them know what they will be paid in advance, they said.

Inagawa said her company doesn't always know how much it can pay before jobs are assigned because clients aren't forthcoming about what they will pay for the service.

Michelle Take, an American married to a Japanese man, had to take legal action to make IMO pay.

Take filed a complaint with the Musashino Summary Court in Tokyo on March 5, demanding ¥186,000 for 14 separate jobs, including appearing in "Za Sekai Gyoten Nyusu" ("The World's Astonishing News") on NTV last September and December.

The money was remitted in full to her bank account on April 2, according to a photocopy of her bankbook, so she withdrew her complaint on April 27. However, for the jobs she did from January to May, worth ¥55,000, she did not get paid until June 1 after again pressing IMO to pay up, she said.

A foreign woman who asked not to be named because IMO sponsors her entertainment visa has not been paid since December, although her last IMO-assigned job was June 4.

"I don't know how much I am owed. IMO has my 'tsucho' (bankbook,)" she said, adding she is now asking another agency to sponsor her visa. She is registered with five other agencies, but a contract with IMO compels her to prioritize it over other agencies if they offer her the same work.

"That often happens because clients (advertising agencies, TV production companies and others) normally contact multiple agencies," she said.

David Bolton, 54, an American, finally got paid ¥168,000 on June 10 for about 15 separate jobs he did for IMO from June 2009.

Nonetheless, Bolton said he wants to help remedy this situation so others get paid in a prompt fashion. He has sent a letter to IMO demanding it improve its payment practice, he said.

"IMO should work out some sort of payment plan, instead of making people beg or threaten in order to finally receive their money. There are a lot of good people at IMO, and it would be a shame if their company were ruined due to financial irregularities," he said.

Matthew Carlson and Dirk Rebel are two others who agreed to go on the record. They had to wait more than three months for payment on several occasions.

IMO is not violating any written contracts because the people it uses do not sign one that stipulates the timing of payment before each job, which range from ¥10,000 to ¥50,000 for a few hours of work or a full day.

Still, IMO's practice "may be considered fraud if its (artists) prove the company had no intention to pay by presenting evidence that the company repeatedly asked them to do jobs without paying them," said Hiroshi Kawaharasaki, a labor lawyer in Tokyo. "But it is hard to prove intention of fraud if the company says it is trying to pay.

"The ideal situation would be for the artists to know what and when they will be paid before being sent on jobs," the lawyer said.

Industry experts say there may be other agencies with similar delinquent payment practices, because many agencies are not well known. But the normal practice is to tell artists what they will earn in advance and to pay wages on time.

Yoichiro Hase, president of the agency Avocado, which has some 3,000 registered artists, said his company pays by the end of the following month after a job and "has never delayed payment because, if we do, we will lose trust from the talent."

Louis Carlet of Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union recommended that foreign artists unionize.

"If they unionize, they have collective bargaining power. They will have more strength," he said, adding that even one person can join his union.

However, Sweeney and Bolton said it is difficult to unionize because most of the artists stay in Japan just a short time and are owed tens of thousands of yen, and even those who stay long periods are reluctant to speak out because of fear of not finding further work.



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