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Sunday, April 14, 2002

MEDIA MIX

Pop stars set an example for us all


The permanent five-day school week that goes into effect this month has given rise to a great deal of discussion in the government and the media as to whether or not Japan can afford to cut back on classroom time. This discussion, however, has not addressed the question of what education is supposed to mean to young people themselves, beyond the hope of a good job.

While many students have responded to the lack of relevancy in their schoolwork with apathy and even violence, others have gone in completely the opposite direction. A friend of mine asked me to give advice to a young Japanese man who wants to become an English interpreter. The young man has already completed both university and graduate school. He wanted to know about schools overseas where he could sharpen his skills even more.

Things were easier, some commentators say, when Japan was still rebuilding after the war. There was a clear goal. Education had a purpose. This kind of thinking explains the huge popularity of NHK's "Project X" series, about the men and women who carried out the large-scale engineering and commercial projects that helped make Japan an economic powerhouse. If only we could instill that sense of purposefulness in today's young people, they always say.

Such nostalgia obscures an important point: Once a nation is "developed," it loses much of its sense of purpose as a nation. With development comes affluence, and with affluence come the salient attributes of a modern consumer society: boredom and supreme self-interest. In addition, television has narrowed aspirations. Ask Japanese young people what they want to be when they grow up, and they answer "talent" or "announcer."

Consequently, a program like "The Tetsuwan Dash" (Nippon TV, Sundays, 7 p.m.) is instructive on a number of levels. Self-fulfillment with a view to enriching the community is the theme of the show, though if you suggested that to the producers they'd probably need some time to think about it. And in a sense, this innocence of intent is what has made it an underground hit, despite its over-ground profile.

The stars of "Dash" are the boy band Tokio, who are one or two rungs below SMAP on the ladder of fame created by Johnny's Jimusho, Japan's best-known talent agency. Like SMAP, Tokio does much more than play concerts and make records. They act in dramas, host variety shows and make lots and lots of commercials. But unlike SMAP, they play their own instruments, a consideration that I'd like to think makes them particularly suited to the hands-on approach to life that "Dash" promotes.

"Dash" started out as yet another "reality-based" variety show. Tokio would embark on projects with definite goals: training dogs, losing weight, etc. For the past few years, the show has been centered around (though not limited to) Dash Village, which, while a real place, is a village only in concept. Tokio started by building an old-fashioned thatched farmhouse on a plot of land in an unidentified corner of Japan. Though they had advice from experts and the help of neighbors, they carried out the work themselves.

Since then, they have successfully cultivated rice and vegetables, and built a large outdoor bathtub completely from scratch with materials they gathered themselves. With the produce they grew, they've made miso and tofu. In order to sell their sweet potatoes, they built a large oven in which to bake them. Last week, they made natto.

Each project isn't particularly special in and of itself. What is special is the accumulation of experience and how that experience spurs Tokio on to more ambitious projects. Having successfully grown wheat, they now need to grind it in order to make flour, and while they've already put together a hand-operated millstone grinder, they decided, for the sake of the "village," to build a water mill.

It took them three months to do it, because not only did they have to build the wheel itself, they had to construct a 70-meter trough to divert water from a nearby stream. As of the last broadcast, there were still some bugs in the system: When in motion, the wheel tends to escape its housing and roll away.

Because these projects take so long and Tokio has other obligations, they do not always work together at the same time. They go to Dash Village whenever they are free and simply take up where they left off, but, of course, a farm requires constant care. Bassist Tatsuya Yamaguchi spends more time there than any other member (the water mill was his idea), perhaps because he's the only one with no solo projects -- no dramas or variety shows. He is the star of the village (the "mayor" is a rubber duck), the one who works the hardest and who seems to derive the greatest fulfillment. Reportedly, he gets more marriage proposals than any other member, specifically from young women who find his devotion to hard work admirable and rare.

According to the program's Web site, the producers receive many requests from schoolteachers who want videotapes for classroom use. They also receive inquiries from young people who want to move to the village and help out. Skeptics will say that this is simply celebrity worship, but it should be noted that just as many inquiries are received from people, both young and old, who want to start their own Dash Villages.

The show's appeal is hardly a mystery. The enthusiasm that Tokio display in carrying out projects that many people in rural areas undertake as a matter of daily life is infectious. These are young men who have everything -- fame, money, good looks -- but they seem more alive when they're up to their knees in mud, digging potatoes. They may be slumming, but it sure looks a lot more fun than cramming for Todai.



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