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Sunday, Sept. 21, 2003

MEDIA MIX

An endless supply of meat for loan sharks


Half the job of solving social problems is getting the word out. This is especially true when it comes to criminal activities like fraud. Victims of fraud are by definition people who don't know enough about fraud to realize when they're being ripped off.

That's why yamikinyu (loan sharks) are said to prey on the "weak," a euphemistic adjective used to describe people who are poorly educated or, at least, badly informed. Anyone who reads the newspapers understands that those advertisements for easy loans plastered on utility poles and the insides of phone booths are for companies that work outside the law. They know those companies will bleed you dry as soon as you walk through the door.

The problem is that many people don't read the newspapers, and while they know instinctively that the term "easy loan" is an oxymoron, their desire for instant cash can outstrip their common sense. So, how do you get through to them?

One way is lowbrow TV, in particular two-hour drama series. These shows are invariably mysteries and mostly watched by women. For that reason, they often cover up-to-the-minute social issues that are of interest to women, but in a didactic or instructional manner.

On Sept. 11, TBS aired a mystery special as part of something called the "Onna no Kinyudo Series (Women's Financial Road Series)." The mystery was about shady loan companies that target OLs (office ladies) who don't earn much money but who feel pressured to keep up with the Joneses -- especially if Jones sits at the next desk and has a better wardrobe and more dates.

Didactically speaking, there wasn't much to be learned from the program if you had read, say, last Sunday's special feature package about the yamikinyu problem in The Japan Times. What one looks for in this kind of drama are situations that demonstrate how the problem plays out in everyday life. However, nothing like the real world intruded into the universe depicted in the story. That universe was one in which men are devoid of honor or scruples and women are slaves to fashion and acceptability.

The one exception was the mystery-solver, a female notary named Futaba Okouchi (Tamao Nakamura). Okouchi is the president of a debt consultation service that she established after her daughter died as a consequence of taking out loans to pay her boyfriend's debts. Okouchi is all business. Her job is to slap some sense into the young, clueless women who ask her for help. Every time a client comes to pay an installment on a loan that Okouchi has assumed, the notary asks her what she's had for lunch. Anything more extravagant than a bowl of soup invites a severe tongue-lashing.

The mystery was complicated, and it's difficult to tell whether the people the show is meant to enlighten could process the didactic portions, what with all the dramatic nonsense they had to process simultaneously.

At the heart of the mystery was a character who steers women to a cosmetic dentist and then, once the bills start piling up, to a seemingly unrelated loan company. Okouchi helps one client escape the grip of the loan company, but later the young woman is found strangled in her apartment. Okouchi soon learns that the woman's sister died under similar circumstances several years earlier.

This being Japanese TV and not the U.S. show "The Practice," the writers don't see any point in incorporating their edifying content into the story and letting the audience absorb it indirectly. Whenever a term or concept peculiar to the yamikinyu problem comes up in the plot, they add a superimposed explanation, a device that can be interpreted as being either lazy or practical.

What are more instructional, at least to the target audience, are the attitudes on display. The loan sharks are more venal than a barrelful of Borgias. When customers walk in, the creditors are all sickeningly obsequious, but once payments are due they turn into monsters. At the same time, the OLs are obsessed with appearances and lack the kind of radar that one needs to negotiate today's socioeconomic environment.

In such a universe, Okouchi has her work cut out for her. Her main weapon against the loan sharks is a threat to take them to court, and they settle rather than risk losing their licenses. The simplicity of this solution makes you wonder why yamikinyu are so ubiquitous, but that's the kind of question the show isn't prepared to answer.

Likewise, the story only touched tangentially on people who borrow money because they really need it. In the drama, OLs with self-esteem problems are the loan sharks' only source of revenue, but recent news items have shown that people also patronize them because they need cash for everyday living expenses. In one scene, a retired man who lost his business to a yamikinyu and was saved by Okouchi confesses to not reporting his wife's death so that he could collect her government pension.

This subplot said more about the social security system than it did about loan sharks, but that's sort of instructional, too. I certainly hope that young women who watched the mystery came away with a stronger understanding of the big bad world, but I think all it did was give them an opportunity to build up a head of righteous anger. "Loan sharks destroy lives," Okouchi said during her big speech at the end. "They force women into prostitution and men onto long-distance tuna boats." Tuna boats! Those bastards!



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