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Sunday, Nov. 11, 2001


In praise of Japan's 'Greatest Generation'

Perhaps as a reaction against the excesses of an age of material prosperity and greed, America in recent years has seen a spate of books and movies extolling the so-called Greatest Generation, the quiet men who went off to fight in World War II. Similarly, Japan now has "Project X," a popular NHK-TV show and best-selling book heralding the anonymous men of the postwar period who started from zero and "made the impossible possible."

The TV "Project X" began in March 2000. Each program, broadcast on Tuesday night and rebroadcast the following Thursday, takes up the reverses and eventual success of one particular project. The project examined in the show I saw recently was the struggle of the police fingerprint section to identify the perpetrators of two spectacular thefts.

In the first theft, in 1968, a fake motorcycle policeman stole 300 million yen from a van transporting cash. Uhei Tsukamoto and the other members of the fingerprint section checked 6 million fingerprints one by one but failed to find a match. Then, 18 years later, a four-man team again stole over 3 million yen from a bank car and the policemen vowed not to be defeated again.

While Tsukamoto, now head of the fingerprint section, focused on six prints found on recovered 1,000 yen bills, the head of the investigating task force, Yasunori Ogata, concentrated on tracing rental blankets like the ones found in the getaway car. After many months, Tsukamoto decided the prints were larger than usual and might be from a foreigner, and Ogata traced one of the blankets to an apartment rented by a foreigner. Eventually prints arrived from the French police and there was a match!

The show was a skillful and dramatic telling of a story though a mix of still photos, news film, re-created scenes, interviews and interludes in the studio, but I also found it very manipulative and uncritically accepting of longtime values such as subjugation of the individual to the group, persevering no matter what, and putting the job first. For example, the show's two hosts (one male and one female, in the standard pairing) took it as a matter of course that Ogata would miss his daughter's high school graduation and that Tsukamoto would only make one visit to his sister dying of cancer, instead paying his respects at her grave after the case was closed.

It did present some unintended moments of humor to a cynical foreigner, though, such as Tsukamoto's earnest examination of the handle of a toilet in his research into where to look for prints in future cases, or the raptures of the show's after Tsukamoto picked the correct match to one of their fingerprints.

"Project X -- Riidaatachi no kotoba" ("Words of Leaders"; Bungei Shunju), a book put together by Akira Imai, the producer of the TV show, has been a steady best seller since its publication in August this year. It records in print 18 of the projects featured in the TV series. Many are civil works projects (tunnels, bridges, dams, Tokyo Tower) or commercial inventions (the Honda CVCC, the rotary engine, a plane engine, VHS). Others are more varied: a heart operation, a South Pole scientific expedition, the emergency evacuation of an island under threat of volcanic eruption.

In 10 pages or so, each chapter presents an overview of the project, biographical information on the leader, selected inspirational quotations of the leader, and a look at him as a person. For example, the story of Ryoji Yamaguchi tells how he went as a physical education teacher to a notorious high school in Kyoto, Fushimi Industrial High School, and helped turn it around as a rugby coach.

The students, many of whom were in biker gangs, played cards in class and rode their motorcycles in the halls; the school grounds were scattered with cigarette butts and broken glass. The rugby team members were toughs, too, who only became serious about training after a humiliating defeat, 112 to 0, at the hands of another Kyoto school. They took to heart Yamaguchi's slogan of "All for one and one for all" and the next year beat that team 18 to 12.

Yamaguchi, famous for crying in emotional moments, was angry at the teachers who had given up on the students and let them do as they liked. One had to be demanding of them as if they were one's own children; under their tough masks, he saw, many of them were lonely and starved for love.

Yamaguchi's story, while certainly interesting, is a little thin in print form without the visuals of the TV show to fill it out. The blurb on the back cover dramatically asks "Which leader's words will make you cry?" but the book's main appeal would seem to be to those who have already seen the shows in question. There are also two "Project X" books in comic-book form, one devoted to the establishment of 7-Eleven Japan and the other to the development of the shinkansen (bullet train).

In an article in the November issue of Bungei Shunju, Imai says he was inspired to do the book by the many messages they have received from viewers -- some 30,000 e-mails and 5,000 letters/postcards altogether. Many of them are from viewers who have been moved by the words of the project leaders and encouraged to fight on in their own lives. The rugby coach show, for instance, demonstrated to one 32-year-old man that people can change under the right conditions. Another viewer, a woman living alone and fighting the aftereffects of an accident at work, was encouraged to overcome her self-pity and make the most of what she could still do physically.

Imai rebuts the image of "Project X" as being a male program, pointing to three shows they have done featuring women: the Olympic-medal winning women's softball team, the 10-year campaign for the passage of the equal employment opportunity law, and a women's expedition to climb Mount Everest. Of the 18 projects in the book, however, only one is a woman's project, the softball team.

The overall message of "Project X" seems to be "don't give up," which is certainly unobjectionable enough. Making better known some of the achievements of the postwar years is also a worthy goal. But while nostalgia for past glory is understandable in an uncertain age, I wonder if "Project X" 's implicit affirmation of status quo values is really what Japan needs to meet the challenges of the new century.

Janet Ashby, a freelance writer and translator, came to Japan in 1975. She has a special interest in Japanese pop culture.

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