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Sunday, March 12, 2006
Weekly magazines joust over trillion-yen fortunetelling trade
It is often said that if you really want to understand what is happening in Japan you should read the weekly magazines. Though the weeklies' journalistic standards are considered less rigorous than those of the daily newspapers, they are less reluctant to step on toes that belong to people who might make life and commerce difficult for them. Newspapers and TV networks not only belong to press clubs that rely on the authorities for news items, they also sell space and air time to major corporations whom they don't want to make mad.
According to critic Takeshi Kamewada in his Magazine Watch column in the Asahi Shimbun, TV news shows increasingly report as news scoops stories published by weekly magazines. The result has been a drop in the weeklies' circulation. In order to remain vital, the magazines have had to look for stories that they are sure television will not touch in any form.
As an example, Kamewada cites an article in the March 2 issue of Shukan Bunshun that attacks Hiroyuki Ehara, a "spiritual counselor" who is such a TV ratings hog that even the scandal-happy wide shows wouldn't dare re-report the story. In the article, unnamed former associates accuse Ehara of boorish behavior that contradicts his media image as a gentle, thoughtful man.
The article has resulted in a flurry of weekly stories about the uranai boom. "Uranai" is usually translated as "fortunetelling," but Ehara is more like a medium. Whereas other uranai stars utilize formal fortunetelling techniques, such as palm-reading and birthdate analysis, Ehara reads people's auras, communicates with dead relatives, and uncovers past lives.
However, Ehara's main appeal is his avuncular manner. Unlike Kazuko Hosoki, a popular TV fortuneteller who berates her interlocutors for leading dissolute lives or squandering their talents ("You will go to hell!"), Ehara is exceedingly empathetic. His real talent is in recognizing a person's guilts and insecurities and helping them address them.
Some other weeklies have retaliated. Shukan Shincho ran a story that attacked the accusers in the Bunshun article as being unreliable, which is very easy to do since these sources were anonymous to begin with. Josei Seven, a woman's weekly, defended Ehara by soliciting glowing testimonials from celebrities whose lives were saved by him. In both cases, the articles were self-serving. Any mention of Ehara simply guarantees higher sales to both his minions and his haters.
Ehara's so-called powers are not at issue in the Bunshun article. What's being attacked is his reputation as a nice guy, which is mostly a function of television. Though there would seem to be scandal value in puncturing holes in anyone's claim to having supernatural abilities; fortunetelling and communing with ancestors have always -- through tradition -- had a mainstream appeal in Japan. Ehara started out, in fact, as a Shinto priest.
However, in the past five years or so television has made superstars of several charismatic fortunetellers. The weekly Aera recently reported that the uranai market generates about a trillion yen a year, comprising 200 separate kinds of fortunetelling methods. The magazine's own survey found that 60 percent of respondents believe in fortunetellers, and the percentage goes up to 79 for women between the ages of 18 and 39. Aera cited a similar survey conducted in 1995, the year of the Aum Shinrikyo arrests, that found 49 percent of women in their 20s believed in fortune telling.
Aura-reading, in which the light around a subject's head is analyzed, has become particularly popular since Ehara's rise, indicating that people prefer "spiritual" analyses to the more mechanical forms of fortunetelling. As one women in the article put it, "Anyone can study how to tell fortunes from a book," but people with special powers are, well, special.
However, the real specialty is communication skills, which explains why Ehara and Hosoki are so popular despite their different approaches. They exude confidence and genuine concern for their subjects. Ehara expresses it with a gentle bedside manner while Hosoki scolds subjects as if she were their mother. Regardless of their methodologies, their advice is commonsensical and general. On a recent installment of her regular TBS show, "Zubari Iu Wa Yo," Hosoki told one woman it wasn't good for her karma if she continued to hit her boyfriend when she was angry, but in the end she was saying that violence is a bad thing. Similarly, on his own TV Asahi show, "Aura no Izumi," Ehara often tells his subjects to be nice to their mothers and siblings.
Since Hosoki is already known as a harridan, there's no sensational value in exposing her personal foibles, so what the weeklies usually do to extract news value from her is deflate her projections (last year she said the Chiba-based baseball team Lotte Marines would do badly and that Takafumi Horie would go on to even bigger success), but that's not quite as damning as saying that Ehara tossed a cat out of a window, which is what Bunshun claimed.
Cartoonist Usagi Nakamura may have had the final word. In the article in Shukan Gendai about this "Ehara bashing" she wrote that Ehara is not a god but simply a successful businessman. The people who seek his wisdom do so "voluntarily," thus indicating they need someone to tell them what to do with their lives or explain why things aren't going the way they want them to. Ehara's followers are not innocent victims of his duplicity, which is what Bunshun implies, but rather people who are too lazy to take charge of their own lives. The only victim that Nakamura could find in the Bunshun article was the cat.