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Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011
Television's skewed version of poverty
The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations currently taking place in New York continue to garner more and more attention from the American media, which mostly ignored the movement when it began several weeks ago. Now everybody in America who reads a newspaper or watches TV news understands that the protesters demand accountability from large corporations for the country's ever-growing income gap.
Even the Japanese media is finally covering the demonstrations, and one of the things I learned from the local papers is that most of the original occupiers were people who couldn't repay their student loans. That may explain why the U.S. press treated the movement with condescension in the beginning. The protesters seemed to them like spoiled children blaming their parents for their own lack of ambition. Now a great many others have joined the protests, and it's become too large, varied and significant to ignore.
The grievances of poor people are taken less seriously if they are young, especially in Japan. Callow youths living in 4.5-tatami mat rooms with no toilet or bath have always been a potently romantic pop-culture cliché, and like all clichés, they're fair game for ridicule.
On "Zenigata Kintaro," a weekly variety show that aired on TV Asahi from 2002 to 2007, comedians would visit the apartments of binbō (poor people) to find out how they got by on next to no money. Their situations were played for laughs, even if the reality was at times shocking. Some made do without running water or electricity, others lived in spaces that barely give them enough room to sit down, and almost everyone survived on diets that wouldn't nourish a gnat.
The reason they could be laughed at was that these people were presented as having chosen poverty.
After World War II, almost everybody in Japan was poor, so the binbō life was the stuff of melodrama. It didn't become a gist for comedy until enough people achieved middle-class status.
Though not all the subjects of "Zenigata" were young, all were pursuing some sort of dream and thus tolerated their poor circumstances in the belief that things would someday get better. Being on TV, in fact, was good for them since in many cases the dream had something to do with show business.
Most of them did work, but only at part-time jobs because they needed free time to perfect their art, go traveling or do whatever it was that was so important to them. The show also poked fun at each person's dream, especially if he or she was a bit older and had been pursuing it for a long time.
In a sense, the concept behind "Zenigata" played into the belief that part-timers were interested in freedom rather than money, as if the two concepts were mutually exclusive. And this belief was perpetuated by the media at the time.
On Sept. 28, TV Asahi brought back "Zenigata" for a two-hour special. The same bunch of comedians who hosted the original series revisited several of the binbō subjects they had interviewed in order to find out whether or not they had reached their goals. Of the 10 they reconnected with, only two had: One had become a teacher and the other a film director. Everybody else had either given up the dream and gotten a full-time job, or was still stuck in poverty, though the program made a point of showing that they were somehow happier that way. Some people, "Zenigata" seemed to say, are just born to be poor.
The special also dropped in on some new subjects. One was a man in his 30s who epitomized the above-mentioned economic ideal of the nonregular employee. He delivers newspapers and though technically a part-timer, he lives in a company-owned apartment rent-free, only paying ¥3,000 a month for utilities. Obsessed with flamenco, he saves his money — converting his wages to euros and keeping the cash in a locked suitcase — and takes a month off every two years to travel to Spain.
Another subject was a young woman studying to be a magician. She already gets work performing tricks in out-of-the-way places. Until her skills and reputation improve to the point where she can demand good money, she lives in the equivalent of a two-mat room in Tokyo. Unlike most of the binbō subjects on "Zenigata," her apartment is new, and even has a tiny private bathroom attached. In fact, the young woman's dream was less interesting than the real estate: She was renting a room from a business that specializes in minimum living spaces. It was the long-term rental equivalent of a capsule hotel.
Even more attention was given to housing on Nihon TV's "Shiawase! Bonbi Girl," a special program that aired the same night as "Zenigata" and covered the exact same territory, except with a twist: All the subjects were women.
The reversal of the two syllables for "binbō" into the word "bōnbi" added to the playful tone of the show, which, aside from one 37-year-old who takes baths in her kitchen sink and a budding opera singer who lines her tiny room with corrugated cardboard to make it soundproof, focused less on personalities than on living spaces — some of which were unoccupied and available. Unlike the magician's pad in "Zenigata," though, these were all old and rundown in the classic binbō style.
What made these segments different was that they were accompanied by real-estate contact information, presumably in case any "bōnbi girls" watching at home were interested in renting the properties.
"Zenigata" wasn't as funny as it used to be, but it's not because the subjects and their means of survival were presented any less ludicrously.
Income disparity is widening in Japan just as it is in the United States, and the ranks of the working poor are swelling all the time. There's nothing exceptional about people living on the margins, and the idea that they choose such a life in order to accomplish something grander in the long run doesn't provide the same romantic resonance when so many other people are living that way because they have no choice.