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Sunday, May 8, 2005

MEDIA MIX

TV show scrapes bottom of barrel in bringing Asia to Japan


One of the hoariest cliches of international politics is the idea that governments only have beefs with other governments, not with their citizens. The tragic irony is that the citizens suffer anyway. Maybe the majority of Iraqi people didn't like their tyrant, but one has to wonder how much they accept the huge sacrifice in innocent lives that has accompanied his removal.

The Japanese government has been careful not to criticize the citizens of China and South Korea who object to what they see as Japan's lack of contrition for its actions during World War II. Though they may try, there is no proper or effective way for governments to talk directly to citizens of other countries. Diplomacy is defined as dialogue between governments.

That's why there are international exchanges, which are meant to promote peace and understanding between different peoples regardless of what is going on between their respective leaders. However, citizens are just as susceptible to generalizations as governments are. Partly because of their relative wealth and partly because of a persistent claims to "uniqueness," Japanese people have always had the reputation of being patronizing toward their neighbors, and recently they've tried to make up for it by professing solidarity with Asia.

Asahi Shimbun runs a special weekly page devoted to Asian cultural news that includes a box called "I and . . . ," which spotlights a prominent Japanese person who describes his or her own experience in Asia. Last week, the trumpeter Terumasa Hino contributed a piece about a concert he once played in Cambodia and a pan-Asian jazz ensemble he put together.

Hino recalls how he first encountered discrimination when he went to America to try to make it as a professional jazz musician. The experience made him realize that Japan also discriminated against other Asian peoples. Since then, he says, rather than try to "foster" (sodateru) Asian musicians, which he believes represents a condescending attitude, he prefers to "find flowers" already in bloom and use his influence to bring them to the attention of the rest of the world.

This approach can sometimes backfire, especially when cultures and people are presented as being exotic. On Fuji TV's 1980s travel quiz show "Naruhodo the World," foreign lands were explained in contrast to Japan, as if it were the only way Japanese people would understand them. Consequently, the show was accused of oversimplifying and cheapening these cultures for entertainment purposes.

One would assume the new sensitivity would result in programs with a more serious outlook, but the new Nihon TV variety show, "A" (Sunday, 8 p.m.), has its own way of simplifying things. Hosted by former "News Station" anchor Hiroshi Kume, "A" is clearly meant to be entertaining. Kume is joined by the usual complement of comedians and talent, which means he isn't expected to act as serious as he did for almost 20 years on "News Station." He, in fact, seems liberated.

With the help of the Internet and a team of "interpreter angels," the people in the studio can communicate directly with Asian individuals in their home countries. The topics are mostly frivolous. On last week's show, they asked people in South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand for ideas to cure hiccups. They also looked at a Korean custom called "Black Day," when people who don't have boyfriends or girlfriends eat bowls of black noodles in remorse. The segment thus allowed the panel to not only compare Korean dating habits to Japanese ones (albeit cursorily), but also to sample the dish in question, thus providing the food element required of all variety shows. "Let's share the sadness," Kume said before digging in.

In a report about Taiwan, the panelists marveled at an ingenious government scheme to raise tax revenues. Participating retailers offer receipts with lottery numbers that they buy from the government. Consumers naturally patronize businesses that offer such receipts, thus compelling more businesses to participate. "Why can't we do that?" one comedian asked admiringly. "Because of our leaders," another answered.

This sort of exchange exemplifies the limits of the program's analytical reach. Obviously, the entertainment mission of "A" circumscribes its ability to convey Asian cultures in a well-rounded way, but the purpose is clearly to forge connections with Asian people, and in that regard it does so only on the most superficial level. When everything is explained in comparative terms, the unexamined differences, especially those having to do with social class, become more obvious by their absence.

They also become more obvious by simply switching channels. When "A" premiered four weeks ago, it was the same weekend of the violent Chinese mass protests against Japanese interests. Because it's prerecorded, "A" can't be expected to address such immediate topics, but it wouldn't anyway. The program's one segment about China that night was a light report on overweight children.

Another dissonant factor is Kume, who as host of "News Station" brought a welcome measure of candor and reality to Japanese broadcast news, precisely because he wasn't a TV journalist and thus wasn't expected to adhere to the polite rules of that profession's culture. Kume's appeal was his tendency to speak truth to power, as it were, even if sometimes he got carried away with the personal opinions. On "A," however, he is simply a 60-something emcee whose tendency is to run off at the mouth.

Bringing Kume back as host of "A" was a huge publicity coup for Nihon TV, the company where he launched his career many years ago. However, ratings have reportedly been disappointing so far. TV can endear Asia to the Japanese, but that doesn't mean it can endear the Japanese to Asia.



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