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Sunday, May 1, 2011

News photo
Team spirit: Veteran soccer star Kazuyoshi Miura takes to the pitch with young evacuees in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture. KYODO PHOTO

MEDIA MIX

Tohoku charity a minefield for Japanese celebrities


One of the worst-kept secrets on television is the location of Dash Village, a remote farm that was built by the boy band Tokio in the late 1990s. It has since been maintained by the quintet as part of a running feature on their Sunday night Nihon TV variety show "Tetsuwan Dash," and in order to discourage the group's fans from dropping by and possibly spoiling the pristine tract of land, which is surrounded by thick forests, its whereabouts have never been revealed on the show itself. However, resourceful viewers have known for years that it is somewhere in the wilds of Fukushima Prefecture and have talked about it on the Internet.

News photo
Ryotaro Sugi KYODO PHOTO

Last week, the program named the location for the first time, since it happens to fall within the evacuation zone surrounding the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear reactor. Fans who suspected as much were concerned about the livestock kept there, and news outlets had already reported that the sheep and goats had been transferred to Gunma Prefecture. In one of the show's segments, Tokio leader Shigeru Joshima visited some people from the surrounding area who in the past have helped the group do things such as make pickles and dig wells. Some of them have had to leave their homes and are now living with relatives outside the evacuation zone.

Because Tokio have a stake in the region, their relationship to the disaster is more immediate than it is for other celebrities who are not from the Tohoku region but have lent their support for relief efforts. Joshima didn't take money or supplies to his friends in Fukushima. He merely dropped in to see how they were, and they told him their stories as they would to a neighbor. Nobody ventured to say when and where they would be able to return, or whether Tokio would ever reopen Dash Village.

Precisely due to the fact that it was on TV and Joshima is a famous person, the conversations were notable for their lack of euphemism and false hope. It was disarming, because as viewers we reflexively anticipate the celebrity-to-average-person interface to be coated with a veneer of courteous formality.

Such politesse makes some people suspicious. One of the largest relief efforts in the stricken areas was carried out by historical action star Ryotaro Sugi, who visited 11 evacuation centers between April 1 and 3. He and a staff of 30 took a convoy of vehicles, including two 20-ton trucks, to deliver drinking water, 4,000 pieces of underwear, 21 portable cooking stoves, 5,000 servings of curry and pork soup, 3,000 servings of salad and 500 denture-cleaning kits. Sugi paid for all of it out of his own pocket, or, more exactly, out of the operating budget of his company.

But according to show-biz journalist Yoshiko Matsumoto, an anonymous Yahoo commenter accused Sugi of exploiting the tragedy for his own self-promotion, and the comment was repeated all over the Web. Then a bold TV reporter apparently put the question to the actor during a subsequent relief sojourn: "Is this a publicity stunt?" Sugi answered, "Yes, absolutely. I'm spending millions of my own yen to promote my name, and I hope to see other people doing the same thing to promote their names, as well."

Nobody accuses members of the Ishihara Gundan of promoting their names. Ishihara Gundan is a group of mostly older male actors who belong to the production company founded by the late Yujiro Ishihara, the most popular actor-singer of the 1950s-'60s and the brother of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. They headed a relief drive that received even more publicity than Sugi's, but the Ishihara rat pack is always on television, while Sugi nowadays is found mostly on stage. If he appears on TV it's probably because of his charitable work, which started in response to the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, his hometown. He has since been a frequent visitor to Vietnam, where he has become the foster parent to 43 children as well as a special government-sanctioned ambassador. He took supplies to Niigata Prefecture after the earthquakes of 2004 and 2007. He is practically a professional when it comes to relief work, which is why he knew that the evacuees in Tohoku, many of whom are elderly, needed denture-cleaning kits more than anything else.

TV viewers who aren't fans of his stage shows may only see Sugi in this capacity, and thus could naturally assume he's doing it to boost his brand as an actor. They have a point, even if it's a cynical one. Some show-biz celebrities, such as SMAP leader Masahiro Nakai, did volunteer work in the stricken area incognito because any acknowledgement of their presence would have complicated the work they were doing. Nakai doesn't need publicity. His agency, Johnny's Jimusho, sent relief goods and trucks to Tohoku at an early date, but the company limited the work of its idols as idols to money-collecting activities.

If celebrities want to use their special status to help the victims, they make more of an impact by doing what they supposedly do best: performing. The comic impersonator Croquette has traveled to the disaster area several times; he drops in to evacuation centers and does his act. Veteran soccer star Kazuyoshi Miura went to a center to kick a ball around with kids who are starved more for recreation than for curry rice. Neither star delivers supplies or serves meals, activities that don't require being famous in order to be carried out properly.

The benefit of having people such as Ryotaro Sugi or the Ishihara crew ladle soup is palliative and, in that regard, symbolic gestures should be left to the pros, which is why the Imperial family has finally come into its own in the wake of the disaster by visiting evacuees. It's a job they're perfectly suited to. But as evidenced by an article in Shukan Shincho complaining of how evacuees are taking pictures of the Emperor and Empress with cell phones, the veneer of courteous formality is obviously thinner than it used to be.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.


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