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Sunday, Sept. 5, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Bottoms up to those misfiring weather forecasters


Liberal Democratic Party honcho Ryutaro Hashimoto needs all the positive PR he can muster to counteract the bad press he's received since his alleged acceptance of a bribe from the Japan Dental Association came to light.

That may explain why Hashimoto participated in an uchimizu demonstration in front of the National Diet Building on Aug. 25. Uchimizu is the practice of sprinkling water on the ground in front of one's residence or place of business.

In the past month or so this traditional hot-weather countermeasure has received a lot of media attention because of the heat wave that's rolled over Tokyo.

A nonprofit organization has successfully gotten neighborhood associations and the media interested in uchimizu, which cools the ground, at least temporarily, and thus reduces air temperatures slightly.

Because it was Hashimoto doing the sprinkling, all the newspapers and TV networks were there and recorded his uncharacteristically cheerful mug. They also noted that the weather was rather cool that day, thus making the demonstration totally superfluous.

Hashimoto obviously hadn't paid attention to the weather report that morning; or maybe he, like many of us, had but didn't believe it. It's been a bad summer for forecasts. In June, the magazine Shukan Gendai estimated that the National Meteorological Agency's predictions had been off by 60 percent for the month.

However, once the heat wave arrived in July weather talk shifted from who was reliable to who was responsible. With greater understanding of the effects of global warming comes the tendency to asign blame for bad weather, which is normally considered beyond human influence. Though we all have a hand in global warming, monolithic institutions, like government and big business, tend to receive the brunt of our ire.

On their evening news shows, Fuji TV and TV Asahi wondered whether the new Shiodome high-rise complex in Shimbashi was acting as a wall, blocking breezes from Tokyo Bay that would normally cool the city. Others in the media picked up on this story and said the two TV networks were less interested in the "heat island effect" that Tokyo is suffering from than sticking it to rival Nihon TV, whose new offices and studios are in Shiodome.

Local meteorologists blame the heat wave on the Foehn Effect -- hot dry air descending the lee side of mountains -- but obviously it isn't as sexy as the wall-of-buildings theory. So, during a recent press conference, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara was asked whether he thought "carelessly planned high-rises" were a cause of Tokyo's heat problems.

There was some mischief implicit in the question since Ishihara himself is supporting a high-rise project in Akihabara. His answer was very strange: After commenting that, 60 years after the end of World War II, Japan still has not demonstrated any talent for urban planning, he said "we can't do anything about [the heat island phenomenon]." In effect, he was saying we only have ourselves to blame because we're selfish and inept, but addressing the question of "breeze routes" being blocked, he added: "It's too late to talk about that now. You can't blame one person."

The heat island phenomenon is thought to be caused by many factors, only one of which may be the walls of buildings. The two that seem indisputable are the mass use of air conditioners, which pump hot air out of buildings, and automobiles. Methods for counteracting these two factors are no secret: limit the number of vehicles (as other Asian cities have done) and increase the amount of vegetation and water surface area within the city.

These measures are within the means of the city government and are obviously known to it. A few years ago, a campaign to cover Tokyo roofs with trees and grass was launched but it seems to have stalled. Seoul has announced that it will uncover all the city's rivers that were paved over during its own development, but no one in Tokyo would ever suggest doing that -- the city's rivers are public property and therefore the only places where expressways could be constructed without the hassle of land acquisition. In any case, Ishihara's statement indicates he believes nothing can be done.

The media goes along with this attitude by characterizing heat waves as good things. The standard for a successful consumer summer is always sales of beer and air conditioners, which skyrocket when temperatures exceed 35 C. Consequently, the heat wave is seen as a positive inconvenience, which is probably why the Shiodome story received attention. Just as the uchimizu craze counteracted a little of the heat, the veiled Nihon TV-bashing made the bad environmental news seem a little less serious.

It was even good for a laugh. On Aug. 27, the late night comedy show "Tamori Club" threw an enkai (party) on the roof of a Tokyo high-rise for four well-known TV weathermen. There was alcohol and good food and meteorological jokes, some of which were aimed at the Nihon TV representative.

"Aren't we going to talk about how all the weather reports have been wrong," said Fuji TV meteorologist Yoshizumi Ishihara, who just happens to be the son of the governor. A female guest said, "What does it matter, it's been the same hot weather for a month." Everybody cracked up and had another beer, which tasted especially good, we were told.



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