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Sunday, Dec. 14, 2003

MEDIA MIX

Not letting the facts get in the way of a good 'documentary'


In the tributes to the Japanese diplomats who were killed two weeks ago, few people mentioned what they were actually doing in Iraq. Katsuhiko Oku was, among other things, encouraging Iraqis to watch NHK's popular drama series, "Oshin," which is being broadcast on Iraqi TV. The show, originally aired in Japan in the early '80s, is about the fictional life of a poor Japanese woman. It has been very popular in other Middle East countries, especially Iran and Egypt, and has done much to promote Japan abroad as a country of hardworking people who persevere in the face of adversity.

The title character, born to a poor rural family and forced into servitude as a little girl, goes from one overwhelming hardship to another but her spirit remains intact. The Foreign Ministry apparently believes that "Oshin" is just the sort of tonic that the Iraqi people need in their present situation.

NHK probably thinks so, too, since inspirational programming is one of its missions. The public broadcaster admitted as much in a letter to Shukan Asahi two weeks ago in response to an article the magazine ran that was critical of NHK's flagship series, "Project X." In the letter, an NHK executive said that the purpose of the show is to instill "courage and the spirit of challenge" in Japanese people "who are losing their confidence in the prolonged economic slump."

"Project X," which premiered in March 2000, is a documentary series about Japan's industrial -- and other -- accomplishments during its "miracle economic growth" period after World War II. Focusing on men (always men) whose ingenuity and tirelessness turned Japan from a shattered nation into the second-largest economy in the world, the series means to pass that spirit on.

The series enjoys a healthy 12 percent ratings share every week. The theme song, a florid piece of kitsch by veteran singer-songwriter Miyuki Nakajima, has spent more weeks on the Japanese singles chart than any song in history. The national PTA has repeatedly cited "Project X" as the program it recommends most to young people.

But there are people who don't like "Project X." They make fun of its overly dramatic narrative style and resent its severely circumscribed nostalgia. These are the people that Shukan Asahi interviewed in the article. NHK protested that the article was one-sided in that it only had negative things to say about a program "that is enormously popular."

But the show itself can also be called one-sided, since it invariably bathes all its subjects in the glow of positive hindsight. According to the article, many of the men who are supposed to be inspired by "Project X" are, in fact, depressed by it. In the article, several present and former salarymen comment that the ideals the show promotes don't make sense in the present economic environment, where people work overtime not because they have a vision of Japan's future, but simply because they have to in order to keep their jobs. One anonymous respondent, who became ill from overwork, watches the show with a skeptical eye. "Didn't those men [they profile] ever get tired?" he asks.

Media insiders interviewed for the article complain that the premise of each show is a "beautiful story" (bidan), and therefore everything is geared toward creating such an image. One of the series' most famous programs was about the VHS videotape recorder (the episode was made into a theatrical movie), which was developed by men who previously had been marginalized within the company for administrative reasons. "Project X" glorified them, but said nothing about the corporate culture that marginalized them in the first place.

When edification is the only aim, accuracy suffers. One episode of "Project X" about citizens groups who stopped a Tohoku road project to protect a tract of forest contained several dozen mistakes, and the people profiled protested. NHK corrected the mistakes and reran the altered show five months later. Since the show's staff is small, errors may be inevitable, but as one company that was covered told Shukan Asahi, they wouldn't point them out because they appreciate the publicity.

Feminist critic Chikako Ogura, who told the magazine she detests the show, claims that it essentially says that all good men are workaholics and all good women are patient housewives. "It's a sepia-colored photo of the past," she says, a past in which "people seem to believe they are happiest building bridges and dams."

"Project X" can provide interesting information depending on its subjects, but it can't be taken seriously as a documentary series. True documentaries approach their subjects from all angles, including the negative ones; otherwise it's just public relations.

What's more, the show has a cloying sentimental tone. Many programs focus on the personal lives of the men who were responsible for projects rather than the projects themselves in order to stress their dedication, hardships, whatever. After watching last week's show (a rerun), I knew less about a 50-year project to reforest the coastal area of Erimo-misaki in Hokkaido than I did about the family that pursued the reforestation.

Achievement through hard work is a wonderful thing, but the goal of Japan's miraculous economic development was supposed to be about creating a more comfortable and equitable society, a place where people do not have to devote all their waking hours to work. "Project X" misses the point, since the motivation of workers during economic development is not the same as the motivation of workers in a postdevelopment recession. When Iraqis watch Oshin persevere through hardship and heartbreak, they may be inspired to do the same because of their current circumstances. Japan doesn't need inspiration. It needs leadership.



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