In 1971 a group of young enthusiasts had just bought a small office in Shibuya. It was the start of Young Japan Group. The new born agency became famous pretty quick working with many folk artists. In 1980, however, discrepancies on how to run the business made many YJG artists switch to other companies. As result of this of this uncomfortable situation YJG ceased to exist in 1983. One of their biggest starts at the moment, Horiuchi Takao, didn't want to quit his people and thus the remaining YJG officers founded Tsuban Ltd basically to manage Takao's career.
In 1986 Tsubasa Ltd. merged with another small company named My House and the result was the founding of Up-Front Agency. The new company would see a young businessman, Yamazaki Naoki joining its board of directors. Yamazaki had co-founded a small label in the 80's named Polystar. He quited it in order to become Up-Front Agency Representative Director in 1987. In the following picture he is the short gentlemen on the left with white hair.
click to enlarge
In 1995, Up-Front Agency renames itself to Up-Front Agency Group. In 1997 Morning Musume happens. In 1999, the company changes its name back to Up-Front Agency. Also that year Morning Musume bewitches Japan thanks to Goto Maki and Love Machine becoming national favorites. In the following years success will visit Yamazaki's company many times thanks to Goto Maki, Matsuura Aya, Fujimoto Miki, Morning Musume and its subgroups, all creatively managed by Tsunku.
In 2001 UFA has grown a lot and will change its name again: The original company founded between 1983 and 1986 will become Up-Front Group, and a new management agency will be established under the name Up-Front Agency. From this point on, Up-Front Group will be the umbrella company and many Up-Front “Something” subsidiaries will be created: Up-Front Internactional, Up-Front Works, Up-Front Planning, etc. in order to control their new huge-company activities. The expansion seemed unstoppable.
miki-sama! miki-sama! oshioki kibunu!!
Next year, in 2002, Yamazaki Naomi will become the CEO of Up-Front Group and weird decisions will start to happen. For example, Goto Maki graduated Morning Musume as soon as Yamazaki became Up-Front Group’s CEO. Coincidence? No. He took the decision. He thought Maki was wasting her time in Momusu. He also decided to have Miki join Momusu, Rika Ishikawa join Country Musume, Yasuda Kei graduate Momusu (and announced it half a year earlier the actual graduation); he is even quoted for asking H!P girls to cut their hair. Say what? So whenever you find yourself blaming Tsunku for some stuff, think it twice, as it might be Naoki's whim.
chipmunk knows the truth
More recently Up-Front Group created a lot of subsidiaries turning UFG into a conglomerate made up of many companies. They have management companies like UFA, JP-Room, and Up-Front Style, as well as stage production companies like TNX (which Tsunku owns). They even have holdings in lots of industries like printing, real estate, and foods (they own a huge farm in Hokkaido and many restaurants), not just entertainment. All this expansion happened under Yamazaki's reign. This company-funding-fever leads to the fascinating scenario of having over twenty companies in the same building with some of them having just one employee. Trufax.
2006 was the last year that Up-Front published its financial information: it was 2005 financial records. At this point, Up-Front Agency is the third most profitable label in Japan, only behind J-Storm and Avex, first and second respectively. Nowadays, the rank is quite different. Starting in 2006, Up-Front’s financial information was made private as the main artists in Up-Front Agency (namely the idols in Tsunku’s Hello! Project) suffered a huge sales decline, leading Up-Front Group to not be so huge anymore.
To make things worse in Hello! Project (and therefore in UFA/UFG), new groups Berryz Kobo and C-ute couldn’t top Momusu’s success (and hadn't really break out all these years); sub-groups and shuffle groups concepts were dropped; Matsuura Aya rebelled against her image and stopped singing idol music (hurting sales a huge time); Aibon ran away with a married man (hurting popularity); Goto ran away with Max Matsuura (quoting discrepancies with the company's direction); and many other decisions followed much to Hello! Project's fans displease.
matriarch is not pleased
The situation was so unstable that in March 2009 the Elder members of Hello! Project all graduated at once in a clear attempt to put an end to an era and start a new one. Was it Tsunku or Yamazaki's decision? We don't know. To be honest, nothing (in terms of sales/popularity) has changed much from then on. In fact, a renewed interested in the idol world (portrayed by AKB48) has benefited even the most random and unknown idol group in town but Hello! Project. Some people talk about a “H!P stigma". Question is: Is the stigma a result of a natural process or is it a result of Yamazaki's decisions? Why is there no JE stigma, for example?
Going finance-private in 2006 made some big fishes in the media turn the cold shoulder to Yamazaki. Hello! Project was not that cool anymore. Sales and popularity have been declining for H!P artists more than they have for anyone. Five years ago Momusu alone would sell their releases by millions. Currently the H!P artists struggle to sell a million CDs altogether (
"quit bitch! it's my turn to shine!"
-said the newbie
In Japan it is common to retire between the ages 55 and 60. Yamazaki Naoki turned 61 a couple months ago, in June. There are no signs of a retirement at all. Johnny Kitagawa is 78 and won’t retire either, so whatever. It seems these Japanese bosses don’t feel like passing the crown to a younger successor who would bring in fresh ideas. For example, if it weren’t because Matsuura Max and Hamasaki Ayumi teamed up to kick Tom Yoda out of Avex, the 70 years old businessman would now be directing a very different Avex, as he wanted to focus the company on acting stuff.
One of the most controversial decisions Up-Front Group has recently taken is its expansion to China and Taiwan. It is hard to believe that this idea could have come out from a man (Tsunku) who is struggling to re-build H!P popularity in Japan. Therefore, who decided it and why China? Why choose the biggest piracy market in the world instead of an easier, smaller Asian market? It seems safe to say that this Chinese adventure has been nothing but a waste of time and money, hence Ice Cream Musume (UFG idol group in China) is doing literally nothing anymore, and JunJun and LinLin are being graduated from Morning Musume, which probably obeys to a new strategic plan after Yamazaki himself has realized his adventure failed.
Only a year ago, Momusu's manager admitted the fiasco to the Japan Times: "The attempt to launch Morning Musume into China hasn't gone very well," admitted Nishikata. "CDs don't sell well, because they are soon pirated.(No! Really?) Two years ago, when Lin Lin and Jun Jun joined, we tried to push them hard to China, but it didn't go so well. We are still trying to find a way." A year after his words it seems they're giving up on China. Will now UFG focus on Japan again? The quick Korean expansion in Japan and the even quicker ascension of several other Japanese idol groups now surpassing Momusu in sales and popularity will not make things any easier for Yamazaki's company.
All in all, Up-Front Group’s story is a complicated and odd one. By making the finances private in 2006, Yamazaki Naoki told us that what happens in UFG stays in UFG. Whether his decisions are correct or incorrect is up to your judgment.
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