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Thursday, April 29, 1999

MEDIA MIX

D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final in one day


While divorce in Japan is increasing at what some people might call an alarming rate, it is still less common than it is in most Western countries, particularly the U.S., where it's projected that between half and two-thirds of all couples who marry this year will someday split.

What's interesting is that Japan is the easiest place in the world to get a divorce. If both spouses agree to separate, all they have to do is go to their local government office and apply their hanko to the proper documents. In less than a day it's all over but the tears: no trial separation, no counseling, no weekends in Tijuana.

Those contemplating the big D can even do it on television, on Fuji TV's "Aisuru Futari/Wakareru Futari" (Mondays at 7 p.m.). It's not quite as dramatic as the old "Divorce Court" series in the U.S., which were re-enactments using actors. On "Aisuru," couples thinking about divorce describe their situation to a panel of celebrities who give them advice. In the end, if the couple decides to go for it, they whip out the documents right there and affix their seals. The divorce isn't final until they bring the papers to the proper authorities, but it's the thought that counts.

Japanese TV is currently filled with celebrity counseling shows. Most of them copy Nihon TV's long-running afternoon program, "Omoikkiri TV," wherein a revolving trio of celebrities listen to problems from callers, usually housewives, who complain about intolerable in-laws or cheating husbands. "Omoikkiri" is hosted by Monta Mino, who will often take a caller to task if he feels she isn't properly fulfilling her responsibility as wife, mother, daughter-in-law or whatever pigeonhole she's been assigned to.

Mino hosts "Aisuru" with the same combination of moral outrage and withering condescension. He is matched grumble for grumble by his cohost, swishy enka singer Kenichi Mikawa, and between the two of them the show contains enough patronizing derision to launch a thousand George Will editorials.

The very idea of such a show -- airing one's most embarrassing and intimate problems in front of millions (something of a participatory sport on American TV now) -- means that only couples with an immature understanding of relationships are going to appear; and in almost all the cases I've seen the applicants are young, impressionable and incoherent.

The guests are screened for maximum sordidness, so the problems never come down to anything as boring as simple incompatibility. In most cases, there's another woman involved, a situation that, for TV purposes, is desirable not only because it beefs up the sexual content, but because it allows a third person to join in on the fun.

The faces of the guests are blurred out, their voices electronically altered and their names changed. The effect of all this purported privacy protection is to emphasize those aspects of the couples' situations that aren't being discussed directly.

On one program, because the camera never glanced higher than the shoulders, you couldn't help but notice that the wife was overweight, her clothes plain and ill-fitting, while the "other woman" was slim and sported enameled nails, lots of jewelry and designer fashions. It seemed obvious why the husband was leaving his wife for her, but no one on the panel brought it up -- at least, not directly.

Which isn't to say that the panel is overly politic. The celebrities are bold in their assertions that there's a right and a wrong way to conduct a marriage. They also forthrightly agree that broken marriages are the result of three confluent forces: unaffectionate wives, weak-willed husbands and scheming sluts.

Or, as one of the panelists, Devi Sukarno, calls them, dorobo-neko, a slur that means "sly cat" and which describes a woman who consciously and maliciously steals a man from his wife. Such women, of course, are the fixtures of grand opera and paranoid imaginations, but "Madame Devi," as she used to be called by the media, believes that they are as real as Monica Lewinsky's T-backs.

She flung the phrase rather violently at a woman who had the gall to state she had no intention of marrying the man whose impending divorce she had a hand in. She claimed that her position vis-a-vis the husband was simply that of a "sex friend," and, being divorced herself, wasn't about to get involved in that mess again.

As a group, the panelists usually give the impression that they see their mission as making the world safe again for wives, a purpose that is undermined by their own public reputations. Mino himself has been caught sneaking out of love hotels by wide-show reporters. As her name attests, Devi Sukarno was once married to that infamous Indonesian dictator, whom she met when she was a Ginza hostess, an occupation that some people will consider indistinguishable from your average dorobo-neko.

Despite the outbursts and recriminations, it's obvious that the producers don't take any of this half as seriously as the panelists do. They mischievously show photos of the couples taken during happier times, their faces still blurred out, just before the warring parties brandish their hanko at the end.

Even the sponsors are in on the joke. In one commercial for the drug store Matsumoto Kiyoshi, a woman introduces her boyfriend to her own best friend, who then fantasizes about stealing him away from her.

In the promotional spots and previews, the producers splice together the most incendiary comments and set them against a corny lovelorn enka track. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself," Madame Devi says, scowling at the hussy in heels.

"There are rules for husbands," occasional panelist Tomio Umezawa (who, as a onnagata actor, is expected to roam from the nest) yells at a cowed young man.

The panel seethes with righteous indignation, as if it's been charged with setting right this sad archipelago with its scores of misbegotten marrieds. I would imagine, however, that most viewers have a more sanguine attitude toward these poor kids. After all, they're there for our entertainment.



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