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Sunday, July 14, 2002


Going to any lengths to avoid giving offense

Weird Tales of Self-Restraint No. 16: Heroes are Hard to Find

On July 2, 21-year-old actor Takayasu Sugiura was kind of vindicated when a man who had earlier accused him of assault and extortion retracted the allegation.

According to the original complaint, in October of 2000 Sugiura attacked the plaintiff, a vocational school student, in an Osaka parking lot over money the plaintiff had supposedly stolen. The young man's injuries required medical attention. Moreover, Sugiura allegedly made the victim deposit 450,000 yen in his bank account.

Sugiura has said that he never even met the young man until December of 2000, but that, in fact, he did beat the guy up at that time, though not very badly.

The real problem for Sugiura was his job. Sometime between the alleged assault and his arrest for the assault, the young actor was hired to play Musashi, the Earth-bound alter-ego of Ultraman Cosmos, a popular children's superhero on the long-running TV series of the same name. When the police finally made the arrest, the company that produces the series had already filmed all the season's episodes and broadcast several.

In a classic case of Japanese self-restraint, Mainichi Broadcasting Service decided to cancel the rest of the series following Sugiu- ra's arrest, but after the next episode failed to air, MBS received more than 3,000 telephone calls and 2,000 e-mail messages from angry parents. The company edited the remaining 16 installments into two half-hour episodes, neither of which included Sugiura.

Obviously, MBS acted too hastily. But what made this case really unusual was the fact that the complaint against Sugiura wasn't brought to the police until July 2001 -- nine months after the assault supposedly occurred. And due to a backlog of cases, the police were not able to begin investigating until February 2002. They didn't arrest Sugiura until June 14.

Once it became apparent that the charges were groundless, the plaintiff backed out. MBS contemplated broadcasting the canceled 16 episodes, but that would require a great deal of coordination with network affiliates throughout Japan. There's also the question of the Ultraman Cosmos movie set for release this summer, which also underwent some changes. The only bright spot is that when the movie is finally released, it already has the kind of PR power money can't buy.

Weird Tales of Self-Restraint No. 17: A River Runs Through It

The Japan Commercial Broadcasters Federation used to have guidelines about songs that might be considered unfit for broadcast. The federation did not enforce these guidelines, but in effect once a song was placed on its list, it never made it onto the air, even on NHK, which is not a member.

The list, which went out of use in 1983, mostly contained folk songs from the '60s and '70s. Sometimes recordings were banned because they were thought to offend specific groups. In 1973, Kenichi Nagira recorded a song that made fun of sumo and it landed on the list.

The most famous banned song is "Imjin River," a folk ballad about the body of water that flows between North and South Korea. In 1967, the Folk Crusaders recorded a Japanese-language version of the song, but on the eve of its release it was banned not only from the airwaves but from stores as well.

No one has ever properly explained why Toshiba, the Folk Crusaders' record label, changed its mind. Several theories have circulated over the past 30 years. One says that Koreans living in Japan who were aligned with Pyongyang protested that the song was biased toward South Korea, while another says that South Korean authorities complained that the song would aggravate antigovernment sentiments in their country.

In fact, "Imjin River" was never put on the broadcasters' list. Major record labels have their own recording guidelines. At the height of the folk boom, songs whose subject-matter was politically or socially controversial could only be released on underground labels. The Folk Crusaders' version of "Imjin River" was made available through mail order in the '70s, but it wasn't released formally until last February, when Toshiba EMI finally put it out.

Last week, NHK went the extra mile by broadcasting a special TV program about the song. They traced its history, and a famous Korean-Japanese folk singer explained the significance of the lyrics, which mourn the fact that people from the North can no longer go South. The most startling part of the program was an interview with enka superstar Harumi Miyako, who has added the song to her repertoire. She admitted for the first time in public that her father was Korean, a fact that some Japanese people were already aware of through hearsay.

But the question remained: Why was "Imjin River," a song that almost every Japanese person over the age of 35 knows, banned? NHK interviewed a former member of the cultural division of Chosen Soren, the committee that protects the interests of Pyongyang-aligned Koreans living in Japan. He said that North Korea protested to Toshiba that they must print the names of the song's composers as well as the fact that the composers were living in North Korea. Because Japan had no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang at the time, Toshiba obviously decided that it was more trouble than it was worth.

Such an outcome "sounds unbelievable to people today," the former CS representative said. "But you have to understand the situation at the time."

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