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Sunday, July 20, 2008

MEDIA MIX

All this fuss over just a little drink at a . . . love hotel


The big tabloid scoop last week was snagged by the woman's weekly Josei Seven, which caught celebrity/announcer Mona Yamamoto and Yomiuri Giants shortstop Tomohiro Nioka in a love-hotel tryst. The reason the incident hit such a big nerve in the media is that the night the tryst took place was also the night Yamamoto made her big comeback as an announcer for Fuji TV's new Sunday newsmagazine Sakiyomi. The 32-year-old Hiroshima native got her start as a newsreader for Asahi Broadcasting in Osaka, and in 2006, she was hired by TBS for the network's nightly "News 23" program, working alongside veteran journalist Tetsuya Chikushi. However, only five days into that job she was spotted on the street in a passionate smooch with Goshi Hosono, an executive of the Democratic Party of Japan, who, like Nioka, is a married man. TBS quickly dumped her.

Though Mona was out of the news business, she wasn't out of show business, and her subsequent career as one of the busiest personalities on Japanese TV is solid proof that there's not a whole lot of difference between the two.

Even before the move to TBS, she was being handled by Kitano Office, the production company run by the king of all Japanese media, Beat Takeshi, which presumably took her on because of her more or less exotic appearance. Mona's father was Norwegian and her mother runs one of the most famous ryokan (Japanese inn) in Hiroshima Prefecture. However, her father died when she was young and she grew up in a totally Japanese environment.

The media plays up her mixed-blood background, but she's Japanese through and through. Another distinguishing factor is that she's a graduate of prestigious Gakushuin University. Conventional wisdom says that Mona's career should have gone straight into the toilet following the Hosono scandal, but actually it helped her. She soon started appearing on practically every variety and quiz show not broadcast on TBS. As long as hosts could make fun of her rochu (kiss in the street) reputation, she was welcome, and despite the increasingly salacious nature of the teasing, she reveled in the attention, cultivating a coquettish image, even in TV commercials. She was the brainy girl who couldn't resist the attentions of men.

There's nothing unique about this image, and whether Mona developed it herself or it was foisted upon her is irrelevant. It kept her in demand, especially with the advent of the boom in quiz shows that distinguish between interi (intelligent) celebrities and baka (stupid) ones. She was much more famous 18 months after the scandal than she had been before it, so in that regard she was a success.

In the meantime, commercial TV went out of its way to hire mixed-heritage announcers. The reason had more to do with fashion than anything else: Once one station had a "half" they all had to have one. The most famous, Christel Takigawa (French-Japanese) of Fuji TV's nightly news show, has already become a cliche in that female comedians have begun spoofing her distinctive blank stare into the camera. Takigawa reportedly failed the employment test for Fuji TV but the network was so keen to have a mixed-blood announcer they later hired her away from Kyodo TV and replaced her given name, Masami, with her French middle name.

With these circumstances as a backdrop, Fuji TV decided to give Mona another chance as a newsreader, and devised a promotional campaign that had her saying she would "get revenge against herself." The phrase seemed to imply that with this new opportunity Mona would be overcoming her worst nature by endeavoring to do a professional job. Fuji TV was exploiting the Hosono scandal to promote the new show.

So much for all that. After the Nioka scandal broke, Fuji TV dropped Mona from Sakiyomi, and Kitano Office temporarily suspended her activities. Last Sunday, the show's host apologized to viewers. The blogosphere has defended Mona by saying her private life is nobody's business and if she were an American newscaster she could sue for unlawful termination. But that's not the point. Mona was not hired by Fuji because of her announcing skills. She was hired because she's Mona. Fuji TV wanted to capitalize on her image, which she basically reinforced with the scandal. So what's their problem?

Well, for one thing, she defended herself lamely, saying that she and Nioka went to the love hotel "just for a drink." After finishing the live broadcast of "Sakiyomi," she and some female coworkers went to a gay bar in Shinjuku. Gay bars are the preferred watering holes for Japanese celebrities because the proprietors, well practiced at serving famous people who want to hide their sexual orientation, know how to keep secrets and are good at sniffing out tabloid reporters. However, such reporters have become savvy over the years and the more ambitious ones maintain "keep bottles" at a dozen or more gay bars where the "mama-sans" have yet to discover their true vocations. Apparently, one was there that night.

Nioka arrived at the bar with his own entourage and started chatting and drinking with Mona, who is a huge Giants fan. When the place closed at 4:30 a.m., they ended up in the same cab, which somehow arrived at the love hotel in Gotanda. The reporter obviously followed them there because he got a picture.

The central question is: Who's idea was it? Mona insists it was Nioka's, though she also maintains that nothing inappropriate went on at the hotel except more drinking.

Though the media has not let Nioka off the hook, they've effectively picked Mona's story apart, with the most damning testimony coming from one of Nioka's younger colleagues, who told a sports tabloid that Nioka was ready to go home to his wife and his 1-year-old child after the gay bar but Mona, very drunk, grabbed his arm and protested in her most girlish whimper, "You're going home already?" How could he resist? Celebrity acquaintances interviewed on all the wide shows agreed: That sounds exactly like Mona. When you're nailed by your peers, you are dead.



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