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Sunday, Sept. 3, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Controversial tales of cats, Pluto and Britney's belly


Controversy No. 1: Cats are people, too

Award-winning novelist Masako Bando received a lot of flack for her essay, "Killing Kittens," which appeared in the evening edition of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun on Aug. 24. The seventh in a series about her life in Tahiti, the essay revealed that Bando has three female cats and that whenever one gives birth she tosses the litter over a cliff near her house. Though she says the decision to kill the kittens causes her "pain and sadness," she feels it is the most responsible thing she can do since she doesn't believe she has the right to sterilize her cats and strays harm the environment.

By the afternoon of the day after publication, the Nikkei had received 880 e-mails and 172 phone calls expressing outrage over the essay, which was subsequently covered by other Japanese media. Aera published an article based on an e-mail interview with Bando in its Sept. 4 issue.

In the introduction to the article, Bando, who writes what is called gensoteki (dreamlike) horror fiction, is described as being "blunt and coarse." She moved to Tahiti in 1998 to "escape the stifling society of Japan" and lives alone, growing or gathering her own food. As far as meat goes, she only eats fish and fowl that she kills herself.

Bando writes that living close to nature has made here acutely aware of how death is intrinsic to life, and goes on to say that modern urban living is mostly an "illusion" that pushes death away. City people don't want to know how their meat gets on the table or what is destroyed to make their lives comfortable.

Bando's personal ethics are rigorous and admirable, but the problem with her essay is that it comes across as intellectual posturing. Partly it's the language, but mainly its her logic. It all comes down to not having her cats spayed, which she thinks is wrong in the cosmic scheme of things. "Life to a female animal," she says, "is having sex when she is in heat and giving birth." In this progression, Bando conveniently leaves out "raising offspring," but since she takes the responsibility for those offspring upon herself, and with it the "pain and sadness" of disposing of them, everything is OK. It's not about her cats, it's about her. "If cats could speak," she says in her essay, "they'd say, 'Don't sterilize me.' " If Bando's cats could speak, they'd say, "Hey, where are you going with my kids?"

Controversy No. 2: Poor Pluto

Pluto was the first body in our solar system discovered by an American that was deemed a planet. As everyone now knows, Pluto is no longer a planet. Some of the Japanese coverage of its recent demotion to something called a "pluton" by the International Astronomical Union made the most of its Yankee heritage.

Several newspapers told the story of how in 2000 American schoolchildren wrote letters of protest to New York's Hayden Planetarium, which didn't include Pluto in its solar system exhibit. The media tried to put a nationalist spin on this. "Imagine if [figure skater] Shizuka Arakawa was stripped of her gold medal after the last Winter Olympics because of a technicality," a TBS announcer explained.

Actually, it's the educational aspect, not the patriotic thing, that seems relevant. In all the person-on-the-street interviews I saw, a pattern emerged. "What did I study for?" one Japanese woman said. All that memorizing of the planets' names for tests in elementary school turned out to be for nothing.

The anchorman on TV Asahi's "Hodo Station" explained that, just like Japanese schoolkids, American children use shorthand to memorize the names of the planets in order. The Washington Post published a bunch of these initial-based study aids, and the one TV Asahi chose was My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. With Pluto gone, the "pizzas" will have to be dropped. "So the mother is now serving nine . . . what?" said the anchor. Clearly, American educators have their work cut out for them, especially since another rock, Xena, may be promoted to planetary status.

Pluto still exists, and most people, kids included, have already put this administrative change into perspective. "Yeah, it's sad," said one little girl being interviewed at an American museum, "but it doesn't change my life."

Controversy No. 3: Britney's belly

From what I understand, the argument over Tokyo Metro's initial refusal to post advertisements for Harper's Bazaar featuring a nude photo of Britney Spears was about the bottom half of the American pop star's body. In the photo, Spears covers her breasts with her hands, but her pregnant belly is visible, as is part of her thighs.

Originally, Tokyo Metro said the photo was too "stimulating" for young people. The editor of the Japanese edition of Harper's Bazaar, which bought advertising space in Tokyo subway stations, said that the picture is not sexual in nature, but rather glorifies the beauty of motherhood. Eventually, Tokyo Metro changed its mind and agreed to allow the poster to be displayed without alteration.

Both sides are being disingenuous. The editor wants us to believe that everyone who looks at the poster will get all warm and fuzzy over the image of a young woman in the fullness of her expectancy, while in fact some people, including kids, will think about how she got that way.

Tokyo Metro's concern about "bottom halves" glosses over its famous tolerance for "upper halves." Anyone who rides the subway is confronted by a barrage of barely covered female breasts almost every day in the advertisements for men's magazines. Their purpose is definitely to stimulate, though I suppose you can make a case that honyu, a word that is used in these ads to describe large breasts and which literally means "rich milk," can represent motherhood. Human imagination is pretty pliant.



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