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Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008

MEDIA MIX

Ryu Murakami mistakes consumption for labor


A friend used to call TV Tokyo the "ramen and golf channel." He was referring to the station's penchant for programming centered on food shows and sponsored sports events, which don't cost as much to produce as drama series or celebrity- laden variety shows. However, the station's tightwad image was always balanced by its focus on economics in its news reporting. Nihon Keizai Shimbun has a stake in the station, and "World Business Satellite" (M-F, 11 p.m.) is more useful than any of the other nightly TV news reports.

Some of TV Tokyo's programming also reflects this focus. One of the more interesting talk shows on Japanese TV is "Cambrian Palace" (TV Tokyo, Mon., 10 p.m.), hosted by best-selling novelist and raconteur Ryu Murakami, who set himself up as an expert on economic matters in the mid-90s. One of Murakami's pet themes is young people entering the workforce. Several years ago, he wrote a book for teens explaining different types of occupations in order to stimulate their desire to pursue fulfilling careers. He wanted to counter the apathy that many believe is behind the current trend of drifting from one part-time job to another, the freeter phenomenon.

It was inevitable that Murakami would do a show on KidZania, the theme park in Tokyo's Odaiba district that allows young children to experience firsthand different types of occupations. KidZania was brought to Japan by Einosuke Sumitani, who visited the original KidZania in Mexico and was struck by how much the young patrons enjoyed playing firemen, pilots, mechanics and whatnot. Since he opened the Japan version in October 2006, the park has attracted almost a million visitors. It is so popular that reservations are backed up for four months.

At KidZania, children not only work, they are also compensated for their labor. They can "spend" the funny money called Kidzos at the KidZania department store or "save" it in the KidZania bank (complete with operating ATMs). More significantly, the children must do it all themselves. Parents are not allowed in the work places or even in the retail shops that accept Kidzos. Though they are taught their jobs and supervised by adult staff, the kids do the work themselves and decide what to do with their income.

Murakami said that when he heard about KidZania he was skeptical, believing it was just another "education- oriented" form of children's entertainment. But he changed his mind after he spent a day there. "It's more like real society than I thought," he said. He was intrigued by the use of sponsors. All the jobs in the theme park are administered by real companies: One of the restaurant attractions is run by Tony Roma's, the radio station by J-Wave, the security component by Alsok, the gas station by Idemitsu. The sponsors get access to young minds while those young minds get an idea of what it's like to work for those companies.

Murakami didn't seem bothered by what this transaction implies. He accepted KidZania's mission to indoctrinate children into a capitalist system, defined by this particular set of employers, because he believes that avoiding such a system for whatever reason is unrealistic and has led Japanese society to its current malaise.

Interestingly, one of the most popular attractions is "hamburger making," a job that is often referred to as an occupational dead-end in the developed world. No one expects Mos Burger, who runs the attraction, to explain this aspect to kids, but if Murakami is concerned about children understanding the world, then their understanding of workaday reality would have to go beyond the novelty of simply playing at a job.

Several nights later on TV Tokyo, a larger picture of the meaning of work was presented by the business documentary series "Dawn of Gaia" (Wed., 10 p.m.). Opening with the fall of the temporary agency Goodwill due to its illegal use of contracted workers, the program explained why the freeter phenomenon is here to stay. Despite what Murakami believes, it has little to do with youthful apathy.

The focus was on day laborers, or hiyatoi. During Japan's economic revival in the 1960s, hiyatoi referred to construction workers who hung out in the Tokyo neighborhood of Sanya waiting for contractors to pick them up and take them to job sites. Now it refers to young people who loiter in parking lots where temp agents show up and offer them day jobs at client companies, usually warehouses, where they make about ¥800 an hour.

All the hiyatoi interviewed said they want and are looking for full-time jobs, but almost everything available is either part-time or contract work, which in today's business climate boils down to full-time hours without the benefits of being a full-time employee. In that regard, temp work is often preferable, since it allows them some freedom to look for real jobs.

The program also looked at a "freeters union" set up by a part-time gas station employee after he was fired. Because of his "non-regular" status, the company believed it didn't need a reason to fire him. The worker sued and won his case in arbitration. When TV Tokyo interviewed the employer afterward, he said he would be more considerate of part-timers in the future, so the report ended on a slightly upbeat note.

The program showed that deteriorating job security is a given in today's labor market. No one expects KidZania to teach children about collective bargaining or pension schemes, but Murakami's claim that it resembles "real society" sounds like wishful thinking. Play-acting stimulates the imagination, and it seems clear that the children who return to KidZania again and again go there for pretty much the same reasons they go to any theme park: It's fun to do something out of the ordinary. But what KidZania teaches has more to do with being consumers than with being workers. It's as much of a fantasy world as Disneyland.



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