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Sunday, March 24, 2002

MEDIA MIX

And for your comic delight: The Suzuki Show


Contrary to popular belief, what's good for the goose is not always good for the gander. When Makiko Tanaka was ousted as foreign minister, tears helped crystallize a victim image that guarantees her political longevity. On the other hand, those of Muneo Suzuki, the main victim of Makiko's victimhood, helped shorten his road to political ruin, or so it's presumed.

Moreover, his weeping jag made him the butt of media jokes for an entire week. The crocodile tears that Suzuki shed during his March 15 speech, in which he withdrew from the LDP for crimes against intelligence, were cynically analyzed on every TV news show, with experts brought in to comment on the Hokkaido pol's acting skills ("Usually when the voice breaks, it's five seconds before the first tear descends . . . watch, here it comes . . .").

Suzuki is not new to the crying game. In campaign speeches that emphasize his up-from-the-farm gumption, he always chokes up when talking about how his father sold his horse to help pay for Muneo's college education. What he fails to mention is that part of the family business was raising horses.

Suzuki probably doesn't see himself as a comedian, but if we consider the fact that wherever he goes he attracts TV cameras and reporters, combined with the clear indication that the media think he's a pretty funny guy, then he might just as well be. A genuine Osaka comedian known as Aho no Sakata (Stupid Sakata) has already seen his workload triple in the past month due to his resemblance to the hapless politician.

The Suzuki Show has also benefited the career of bulldog-faced Yoichi Hamada, one of the few public figures to have parlayed a long political career into a successful gig as a TV talent. Usually it's the other way around. Of course, every political commentator and insider worth his breath mints has cashed in on the Muneo madness, but Hamada has earned a special place -- partly because he still thinks of Suzuki as a kind of acolyte, but mainly because he himself was in a similar position six years ago.

No one seems to remember why, but Hamada made his own red-faced exit from the LDP in the mid-'90s. He didn't give a speech and, therefore, didn't have a chance to show off his tear-duct control, but he and Suzuki both represent the old school of political mischief, whose pupils get what they want through dokatsu (violent intimidation) and an acute disregard for ethics.

Hamako, as he is affectionately referred to by the media, took advantage of his notoriety (his most enduring TV moment was a press conference at which he threw a table at reporters) by writing a best seller about the politicians who "destroyed" Japan -- one of whom was Hamada himself. Though he maintains the coarse demeanor that endeared him to political reporters, he is mostly repentant, admitting his failures and explaining those of current lawmakers with sympathy and candor.

Suzuki could conceivably follow in his senpai's footsteps, but that would require him to make a clean breast of his checkered past. It's important to remember, however, that the same overblown media attention that has made him a laugh riot on the evening news will work against him in any future bid to keep his Lower House seat. Suzuki is hardly the first politician who has quit the LDP in disgrace. But most, including former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, simply run as independents and, once re-elected, rejoin the party.

To guarantee the re-election of a fallen comrade, however, the LDP usually makes sure that it doesn't have a candidate of its own running in the same district. That will be more difficult for Suzuki, since in this case the press will be watching the election carefully. They even asked Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi about the possibility that the LDP would withold a candidate and he denied that the LDP would even dream of such a scheme.

For all intents and purposes, Suzuki has already started his re-election campaign, so it will be interesting to see just how the media covers it and what kind of effect such coverage will have. Despite the uphill battle Suzuki faces, including charges of perjury, Hamako betrayed sympathy and a bit of envy toward his old colleague when appearing Monday on TV Asahi's talk show "TV Tackle."

Hamako even outlined an absurd plan he had for another international airport in his home district of Chiba, as if he were still empowered to wheel and deal. His own disgrace and subsequent self-reflection notwithstanding, Hamako clearly misses Nagatacho. To those who regard elected office with the same feelings with which we contemplate root canal work, this kind of obsession is unfathomable.

But not as unfathomable as the depth of incompetence that kept palm-greasers like Hamada and Suzuki in the Diet for so long. As TV Asahi anchorman Hiroshi Kume asked a newspaper editor a few weeks ago, where was the watchdog press when Suzuki was performing all those influence-peddling stunts that the media, in hindsight, now find so entertaining?

Because whatever comic delights the Suzuki Show has provided, it shows that the press doesn't look out for the public interest; which means the public has to look out for its own interest, just like that crusader in the latest installment of Sapporo Beer's popular TV commercial series about besuited middle-aged vigilantes.

A politician is sitting on the shinkansen bellowing rudely into a cell phone when a righteously indignant salaryman pulls him out of his seat and drags him off the car. The politician? Hamako, of course. The only problem is that, like Suzuki, you know he'll be back.



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