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Sunday, Jan. 6, 2008
Politicians, dogs and bowels mix it up in our annual media awards
Media Personality of the Year: Hideo Higashikokubaru.
Citizens' confidence in politics hit a new low in 2007. Scandals have always been as common as bad combovers in Nagata-cho, but this year it was almost as if there was a competition to see who could bring the most shame on the public sector. And on top of all that, there was Shinzo Abe, who everyone — regardless of ideology — agrees was one of the worst prime ministers the Liberal Democratic Party has ever produced.
In any year, the election of comedian Sonomanma Higashi to the governorship of Miyazaki Prefecture would have attracted media attention, but there was something about the former funnyman's new sober image under his birth name Hideo Higashikokubaru that made him stand out even more prominently against this background of relentless venality and stupidity.
Higashikokubaru's landslide victory as an independent was initially interpreted as a popular rebuke of the LDP, which had ruled Miyazaki "like a kingdom," as one pundit put it. The previous governor's resignation over a bid-rigging scandal set the stage. Higashikokubaru's ambitions for the office had been clear for some time, but the scandal-instigated special election simply opened the door sooner.
Politicians who are elected on the strength of their celebrity are even more common than bad combovers in the Diet, so there were few expectations for Higashikokubaru to make an effective executive. What has made all the difference is his particular brand of ambition, which is political in the right way. He's no white knight, and understands he has to work with entrenched interests to promote much-needed change.
He also understands that he is under more scrutiny than the average governor, and if he's accomplished anything revolutionary during his 11 months in office it's been the way he's turned that scrutiny to his advantage. For a while, he could be seen almost every night of the week on national TV; not so much on the news but on variety and talk shows. He was getting more TV work as a politician than he ever did as a tarento (TV celebrity), and, without the burden of having to be funny, he was looser and more likable. He was also up front about his priorities, which were to promote the interests of Miyazaki. In that regard alone, he's been a success, so much so that nobody seems to remember "Sonomanma Higashi" any more.
Quote of the Year: "They must be happy that they finally have something to do." — An anonymous woman interviewed by TBS last summer as she waited to receive advice from employees of the Social Insurance Agency after it announced it couldn't identify 50 million pension premium payment records.
Best TV Commercial: Secom Home Security
It was a great year for anthropomorphic canines, what with that Softbank series about the unusual family whose head-of-household is a white dog. However, Secom's own take on man's best friend used the idea of switching species to better effect. It takes a moment to realize that the gentleman lounging in the front yard of what looks like a typical Japanese suburban home is supposed to be a watchdog. Whenever someone comes near the fence he jumps up and starts saying "Dare? (Who?)" over and over again, and it's when you see him do this at the same time a neighbor's dog is barking that you catch the commercial's meaning.
But the actor isn't mimicking a dog's behavior. He's simply translating that behavior into human behavior, delighting in the attention of a little girl or worrying over a shoe that falls into his possession. The catch copy is "Even a watchdog can have a quiet life," which implies that when you install Secom's home-security system, Fido will be able to relax. But that, as the commercial makes clear, would be contrary to a dog's nature.
Worst TV Commercial: Takano Beauty Clinic
The biggest "aesthetic salon" and cosmetic-surgery chain presents Olympic hopefuls as examples of "true beauty," but rather than display nature's gifts as nature intended them this spot makes the subjects look like computer-generated action figures.
Even worse than their golden, vinyl complexion is the promotion of the same corporate-sponsored athletes who are always used to represent Japan, such as judo star Ryoko Tani, who is shown with the Toyota logo positioned prominently on her judogi. Let the PR orgy begin!
Best Neologism: Bakadoru
This is a contraction of the term obaka aidoru, or "dumb idol," which refers to young women whose lack of basic smarts is their main selling point as TV personalities. These women made their mark on quiz shows, and eventually their popularity was broad enough to embrace clueless young men as well.
TV has always exploited so-called "intelligent" celebrities who graduated from prestigious universities. It was a means of setting class distinctions without having to get into the embarrassing subject of money, but as everyone implicitly knew, only people from "good" families ended up going to good universities. Bakadoru are also the products of good families, so distinctions with regard to schooling are subtly erased and all human virtues are reduced to that great equalizer of Japanese pop culture: cuteness.
Runnerup is KY. It stands for kuki yomenai, or "unable to read the atmosphere," and was used to describe former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who it was felt had no idea of what the public expected of him. Now it's used to describe pretty much any elected official, especially those who are the products of political dynasties, which includes Abe's successor.
Most Unappetizing TV Personality: Gal Sone
She's the first competitive eating star to parlay her avocation into a livelihood as a tarento, which means on variety shows she has to talk about her skills as a big eater. But testimonials for her favorite brand of toilet paper and explications of her six or seven daily bowel movements are not things we need to hear, especially right after she's put away 5 kg of curry rice.