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Sunday, March 2, 2008

MEDIA MIX

Compartmentalizing Japanese using prefectural stereotypes


At the heart of the current argument over whether or not to continue the special gasoline tax is a question that gets overlooked: Does the central government have too much control over prefectural governments?

Prefectures rely heavily on central-government money to run their operations and fund public works, and matters involving education and security are completely decided in Tokyo.

Occasionally, you will hear talk about the need to give prefectures more autonomy, but this isn't practical. Perhaps if areas were fused — the four prefectures of Shikoku, say, or the four that make up the Tokai region — you could form constituencies large enough so that local governments could raise more tax revenues by themselves and pay for their own road construction. As it stands, most prefectures are too small to accomplish that on their own.

Unlike city mergers, which have become common in recent years, prefectural consolidations seem unlikely for a number of reasons, one of which is public sentiment. The word kuni is usually translated as "country," but its original meaning was the place where you grew up and, in many cases, lived until you died. Prefectural identity is strong.

It is also the premise of the variety show "Himitsu no Kenmin Show" (Nihon TV, Thursday, 9 p.m.). Himitsu means "secret" and kenmin means "prefectural resident," and so the title could be translated as "Secrets of Prefectural Residents," but the English word "show" is a pun. Kenminsho means "the character of prefectural residents." In other words, the program tries to find out what distinguishes residents of one prefecture from residents of another.

Certain kenmin have stereotyped images: Kansai people are obsessed with money; Tokyoites are snobs; men from Kyushu are overbearingly macho; everyone from the Tohoku region is a hick. "Himitsu" attempts to either reinforce or burst these prejudices by looking at local customs and attitudes through a microscope.

Every show features a dozen or so celebrities, each of whom represents a prefecture and who is called upon to either back up or challenge whatever information the producers have gleaned from their on-site research. The aim is to provoke incredulity in the audience by digging up things no one seems to know about except people in that particular prefecture.

Hokkaido residents, for instance, like to turn up the heat so high in the winter that the consumption of ice cream and beer actually goes up when the weather gets cold. In Yamagata, when guests come to visit, hosts often have ramen delivered since ramen is considered "exotic." Non-Japanese may not see anything special in these so-called prefectural attributes, but the people on the show invariably react to them with wonder and shock.

Food and its preparation is the prime means of differentiating localities. Regional language usage and its semantic connotations are also explored in detail, and each program is filled with heaps of interesting factoids: Shimane is one of only five prefectures in Japan that contain no Starbucks; Tochigi consumes the most potatoes per capita but ranks only 17th in terms of production; scallop consumption in Aomori is seven times the national average.

Interprefectural rivalries are acknowledged, but handled humorously. In one segment, representatives of two neighboring prefectures battle it out to see which one is superior. The spokespersons spout statistics and names of famous sons and daughters to make their case and the rest of the guests vote for a winner. So as not to give anybody the wrong idea, the voters are asked to judge the effectiveness of the advocates' arguments and not the prefectures themselves.

The tone is not serious, but certain prejudices are reinforced. Every week, for instance, there's a segment on how things are done and said in Osaka, which makes entertainment sense since the Kansai region is recognized as Japan's comedy capital. However, the segment also emphasizes how the program itself is a Tokyo production, and as goes Tokyo so goes Japan, at least in terms of fashion and mores. Thus Osaka is treated almost as a foreign country. After watching several installments, it's easy to get the impression that Osakans are partial to cruel humor and intolerant of outsiders' inability to understand their way of thinking.

As trivial as its content is, the show has provoked irritation. Shukan Post ran an article that listed some of its journalistic transgressions. One segment posited the theory that people in Aomori customarily patronize public baths before they go to work. The Shukan Post found that while Aomori public baths do open rather early, scenes that showed a morning bath in Hachinohe filled with more than 20 people were apparently staged with the help of the local tourist bureau. The magazine also said that the Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization has received 33 complaints about misconceptions since the show premiered last October.

Thirty-three is hardly a significant number. Anyone who watches "Himitsu" will understand that it's basically promotional in design, but it does satisfy a fundamental desire to reduce complexity and compartmentalize, and the results of such a desire aren't always edifying. Shukan Bunshun jumped on the "Himitsu" bandwagon by conducting its own survey to find out which prefecture was the most despised (Osaka, by a landslide), an exercise that seems to have no purpose other than to inflame resentments.

The ostensible purpose of "Himitsu" is to celebrate diversity, but if you really want "unique," then you should tune in instead to the TV Tokyo variety show "Ochanoma no Shinjitsu (The Truth in the Parlor)," which is about customs and attitudes peculiar to certain households. You can't get any more autonomous than that.



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