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Sunday, Jan. 28, 2007
Natto nonsense lands television show in sticky mess
Unless you're a big fan of natto, those sticky fermented soybeans, you probably didn't pay much attention to Kansai Telecasting Corporation's (KTV) sudden apology Jan. 20 for misinformation that was given on one of its variety shows. Anyone who watches TV regularly has probably developed the ability to sniff out exaggerations, and on the surface the show's mendacity hardly seemed like something to get worked up about.
"Hakkutsu! Aru Aru Daijiten II" is broadcast on the Fuji TV network and often gives health-related advice. The Jan. 7 installment promoted natto as a dieting aid, providing test results and testimonials to the effect that if you eat two packages of the stuff every day you can lose weight. Immediately, there was a nationwide rush on natto. Manufacturers were hard put to keep up with demand and reported that they were receiving three times the usual number of orders.
It's a common belief in the media that anything having to do with dieting automatically boosts ratings and sells magazines, so it wasn't surprising that Shukan Post jumped on the bandwagon and ran a feature about the miraculous slimming power of soybeans in its Jan. 26 issue. The Post's rival, Shukan Asahi, wasn't as gullible. In its own Jan. 26 issue, the magazine ran an article titled "Is a natto diet really effective?" and it picked apart claims made on "Hakkutsu."
According to the program, natto is rich in the hormone DHEA, which new research in America has shown can be used to reduce body fat. A professor at Temple University in Philadelphia is shown saying that he is "excited" by this new research. The program also carried out its own research using eight men and women who lost between 0.9 and 3.4 kg over a two-week period by adding natto to their diet.
Shukan Asahi followed up their skepticism with calls to local experts, all of whom expressed similar skepticism. Motoharu Miyoshi, a doctor who has written books about bogus health claims, said that the program's testing parameters were shoddy. Only eight subjects? And didn't anyone check other factors that could have led to weight loss, such as exercise regimes or total food intake? He said that soybeans contain isoflavones, which have something to do with DHEA, but the American research cited on the program used subjects who took DHEA in pill form, not natto. Asahi contacted KTV with their doubts and were told that the show was based on "reliable scientific data." The magazine promised to send more detailed questions to the broadcaster and publish the reply in a subsequent issue. But they didn't have to, since KTV called the press conference and admitted the show's information was "fabricated." They also said they would launch an investigation into what led to the scandal. I could tell them that. The surfeit of infotainment shows on TV means that there's a paucity of topics that have never been covered. Dieting tips seem to be a surefire way to attract viewers, but almost every possible weight-loss method has been discussed to death. Natto hasn't, and because it's already acknowledged as a kind of health food (despite those recent U.K. findings saying excessive soybean consumption may not be good for you), it's already halfway to being credible as a diet aid.
No one has said that the makers of this particular episode of "Hakkutsu," independent production company Japan Television Workshop, made everything up, but such companies are always under pressure to come up with shows that match the network producers' vision. JTW subcontracted the work of interviews and testing out to a smaller production company, which has no medical expertise, and they delivered what was expected of them. It's a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. What's more, PR companies hired by industry associations are always visiting TV producers to get them to do shows and segments about their clients' products or services.
Obviously, KTV's oversight standards are greatly lacking, but the general attitude seems to be that consumers are on their own. Masao Kimura, a former executive with the powerful Yoshimoto Kogyo talent agency, told Asahi Shimbun that "viewers have to be smarter, because the producers' thinking is that anything which makes people happy is OK." That raises an interesting question: If viewers were that much smarter, would they be watching shows like "Hakkutsu! Aru Aru Daijiten II" in the first place?
On Dec. 13 Oricon filed a 50-million-yen lawsuit against freelance journalist Hiromichi Ugaya in Tokyo District Court for damaging the company's reputation in the April 2006 issue of the magazine Cyzo.
The article in question looked at the relationship between Japanese talent agencies and Oricon, which compiles music charts, thus making it the Japanese equivalent of Billboard. In the article, Ugaya said that Oricon doesn't disclose its methods for ranking records and added that music industry people have told him it is easy to manipulate the numbers (An English translation of the passage can be found at www.pliink.com/mt/marxy/).
Ugaya isn't the first journalist to be sued because of something he said in print, but he may be the first to be sued for saying it in an article he didn't write. Ugaya wasn't the author of the Cyzo piece, he was just quoted in it. On his Web site (ugaya.com) he explains that what he said is a "public unspoken secret" among Japanese music writers, but Oricon doesn't want to discuss it. It only wants Ugaya to be quiet. Even if he wins the case, Ugaya estimates he will have to pay at least 7 million yen in lawyers' fees, an amount that would break the average freelancer. Oricon, it should be noted, is not suing Cyzo and has not even demanded a retraction from the magazine. It has only said it will drop the case if Ugaya personally takes back what he said. It's intimidation, pure and simple.