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Sunday, July 27, 2003

MEDIA MIX

With missing persons it's not where, but why?


After it was revealed last year that at least a dozen Japanese were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and '80s, the Japanese government was criticized for not aggressively pursuing the disappearances of these people as abductions. But the truth is that thousands of people disappear every year in Japan and the majority are not kidnapped. They are people with financial problems, married people who fall in love and walk out on their spouses without saying a word, and young people who can't take their parents any more. The police can only do so much to locate these individuals, especially if they are adults and have not committed any crimes.

These people are the main subject of "TV no Chikara" ("The Power of TV," TV Asahi, Monday, 8 p.m.). This is a show that, based on requests from the families of people who have vanished, tries to find missing persons.

Such shows have been a staple of Japanese television for decades. However, in the past they were specials and took a mostly passive approach -- stories about missing persons were related live on the air, and station employees manned the phones to take calls from anyone who might have information about them.

"TV no Chikara" takes a more active approach -- one that is only possible because it is a weekly series. Information that is gathered about a missing person or an unsolved crime is investigated by the program's staff, who check out leads and track down clues. With more means at the staff's disposal and more time to utilize them, it is natural to assume that more of these cases can be solved.

But it's impossible to tell. According to the "Chikara" Web site, 11 of the 41 cases handled to date have been "resolved," but they don't mention which ones, because the people who are found have requested that their identities not be revealed. Consequently, we can't be sure if the "resolution" of a case was due to the efforts of the show or something else (like, say, the efforts of the police). If the viewer doesn't get to see a case resolved, then what's the point of the show?

The point is sensationalism. One resource that both "Chikara" and Nippon TV's occasional missing-persons specials use is paranormal activity. The Nippon TV specials, in fact, are completely built around three American psychics who the show claims are often used by the FBI. Their information is impressive in its detail, and when TV crews check it out they find the descriptions of places and people to be accurate. But so far, they've had no success actually locating missing persons, dead or alive. (The show also features a dowser who has had good success -- not at finding missing persons or dead bodies, but rather time capsules.)

"TV no Chikara" now uses three Eastern European paranormals, one of whom is a TV star in her own right -- she uses tarot cards to locate missing persons on Polish television. The three are given photographs of missing Japanese individuals and they say whether the person is dead or alive and where that person is at the moment using a map of Japan. Their information never leads to anything concrete.

More promising leads are provided by callers who ring in to say they've seen a missing person. A camera crew sometimes checks out these leads, but even when the eyewitness accounts are credible they always lead to a dead end.

The most interesting thing -- for the viewer -- is not so much where they are as why they vanished in the first place. A 20-year-old Tokyo woman who disappeared eight months ago has been a subject for several weeks. Based on information provided by friends and relatives, it's easy to conclude that she wanted to get away from her overbearing mother. But such a conclusion is complicated by a lot of unscientific speculation. All three paranormals have concluded she's already dead, and a tip that led to Chiba turned out to be about a woman who simply resembled the missing person. Then there was a phone call from someone who said she was the missing person, but was suffering from a memory lapse caused by a beating. This call took up a lot of air time, with the requisite group of studio-bound celebrities discussing it intently (from a script, no less). The following week, it was reported that the police had determined the call was a prank, which would have seemed obvious to anyone who heard it.

In another case, a young husband went to work one day last February and hasn't been seen since. Apparently, he was not the person his wife thought him to be. In a mysterious e-mail message she received after he disappeared, someone claiming to be him said he was in debt (the wife knew nothing about this debt) and was about to commit suicide. A psychologist doubted the authenticity of the message ("a real suicide would have probably mentioned his son") and an "Internet journalist" said that his past cell-phone records indicate he may have been the victim of extortion.

At the end of last week's show, the aunt of the missing man called in to say she had just heard from him. The timing on "TV no Chikara" is often quite incredible. Information presented as being significant tends to show up just before the end of the program, thus forcing the viewer to tune in again next week to find out what happens.

This overused dramatic device, called a "teaser," was developed for magazine novels and perfected on daytime soap operas. It is a narrative tool associated with serial fiction. This isn't to imply that "TV no Chikara," aired live, is a hoax, but only that the unlikelihood of success makes it necessary to augment whatever information the show gets with cheap thrills. If the series proves anything, it isn't the "power of TV," but rather the unavoidable truth that it's very difficult to find people who prefer to remain lost.



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