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Sunday, Sept. 8, 2002


Back to the old house to raise our spirits

Japan likes to present itself as the world's shining example of rapid economic development, the "postwar miracle." The government's extensive overseas development aid is more than just the gesture of noblesse oblige expected of the world's No. 2 economic power. It is an assertion of everything that is excellent about Japan as a nation of people with a talent for collective self-improvement.

But as the recession stretches into its second decade, it becomes more obvious that the miracle has morphed into malaise. Intractable social problems fill the news programs. And despite the improved standard of living enjoyed by most Japanese, quality of life still lags behind the West.

Housing is exorbitantly priced and often substandard. Urban planning and the rural environment are woefully compromised by self-serving commercial and bureaucratic interests.

The popularity of "Project X," NHK's documentary series about Japan's technological and economic accomplishments during its miracle era, is directly related to this loss of faith: nostalgia as an analgesic for the pain of the here and now

A similar need for reassurance informs "Ichi-okunin no Daishitsumon (The Questions of 100 Million People)" (Nippon TV, Wednesday, 7 p.m.), a travel-variety show hosted by Joji Tokoro.

Among the regular segments the series has presented are two "Project X"-like reports, one on outstanding Japanese events of the past and the other on technical breakthroughs explained by the men and women who achieved them.

Unlike "Project X," however, these reports, while boosting pride in Japanese innovation and creativity, are played for laughs. For instance, it's difficult to imagine a show as portentous as "Project X" covering the man who developed the first really successful synthetic hairpiece.

But the real centerpiece of "Ichi-okunin" is a segment called "Datsu no Tabi (Dart Journey)," the concept of which is very simple. Tokoro throws a dart at a map of Japan, and a TV crew is then sent to the village or town that the dart hits.

The crew has no ostensible mission except to meet people in the town. Their methodology is as simple as the means of selection. The crew sees someone walking along the side of the road and they stop and interview the person, usually without even getting out of the van.

Eventually, they learn something about the town, but "Datsu no Tabi" is not like normal TV travel shows in which the main function is public relations. The crew is invariably invited into people's homes, where they are fed and entertained.

Though the celebrity guests back in the studio laugh about the regional accents and marvel at the uniqueness of the local crafts and cuisine, what they mainly remark on is the warmth and openness of the people themselves.

This quality of Japanese life is not presented as nostalgia. It is shown to be timeless and, as such, as something that is both lost and found. Though the producers highlight eccentric people (with children and the elderly favored in the coverage), what they mainly want to convey is the sense of community that is regarded as a central aspect of Japanese life and which is in danger of dying out.

NHK tries to convey the same thing on the travel show "Tsurube no Kazoku ni Kanpai (Tsurube Toasts Families)."

In these monthly specials, gravel-voice comedian Tsurube Shofukutei and a celebrity guest travel to a town or village and simply walk in the company of camera crews, getting to know people on the street. The object is slightly more concrete than it is on "Datsu." Tsurube specifically wants the people he meets to take him to their homes and introduce him to as many members of their extended families as possible.

As with "Datsu," the object is to celebrate the sense of community that survives in smaller towns, where everyone seems to know everyone else and people interact freely, and without anxiety. But "Kanpai" also wants to celebrate the extended family, which of all social institutions has probably suffered the most at the hands of economic development and urbanization.

It helps significantly that Tsurube and whichever guest he happens to be traveling with are celebrities. Fame is the easiest way to get yourself invited into a stranger's life. Even the "Datsu" crew, which is relatively anonymous, has become quite well-known, and often when they stop people on the street the interviewees know exactly who they are.

Which means, don't try this yourselves or you might be disappointed. The fellow feeling and family warmth that these shows deign to reveal are functions of television, where no one wants to be seen as antisocial. Nevertheless, these shows do seem to provide some spiritual comfort. Such a programming concept doesn't work with city folk, at least not in the same way.

When the comedy duo London Boots barges into young women's apartments to go through their dresser drawers, or "wide show" reporters show up uninvited at condominiums to see what kind of food housewives keep in their refrigerators, it's easy to feel that some kind of violation is taking place. "Datsu no Tabi" and "Tsurube no Kazoku" offer more than just alternatives to Tokyo-centric programming. They provide evidence that people still can live with one another.

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