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Thursday, May 20, 1999

MEDIA MIX

Pinching pennies for a better future -- if any


One of the bedrock beliefs that Japanese society has about itself is that everyone belongs to the middle class. This isn't to say pronounced social classes don't exist. A middle-aged woman once expressed to me her fear that her adult daughter would never get married and move out. Since the daughter worked as a nurse in a large hospital, I said that maybe she'd meet a nice young doctor. The woman looked at me as if I were crazy. In Japan, doctors never marry nurses.

For the most part, the Japanese have been fairly successful at keeping such class distinctions out of sight. Every young woman owns a Prada bag. Every family sends their children to cram schools. Everybody eats top-of-the-line Koshihikari rice.

Even on TV, a realm ruled by the de facto aristocracy of the information age -- show-biz personalities -- the hoi polloi have become the center of attention. There are now something like two dozen series on Japanese TV where celebrities sit around and watch average people. It used to be the other way around.

Of these, the show with the most resonance in terms of class is TV Tokyo's "Subarashiki Dokechi Kazoku" (Friday at 7 p.m.), which can be charitably translated as "Wonderful Penny-Pinching Families," though the word dokechi has always struck me as being derogatory. It's normally used to describe what in the West would be called the Scrooge mentality: Stinginess becomes an end in itself.

The producers do occasionally try to pass guests off as tightwads. Most seem to be from Osaka, where fiscal meanness is considered a regional tradition. The stationery store owner who never buys books but goes into bookstores and reads the information he needs into a tape recorder is laughed at by the panelists for his parsimony, but many people will find his idea a practical one.

Only half the stories are about families. The other half are for the most part young men or women who follow money-saving habits because they are working toward some goal. One young man claimed to live on nothing but bean sprouts, which he grows under his sink and prepares in a dozen imaginative ways. He works part-time at a department store, but his dream is to become a comedian.

Several weeks ago the program profiled a 25-year-old woman whose penny-pinching strategy includes never buying furniture, never turning on the lights and subsisting on sweetened katakuriko (a starch thickener). No matter how hard the producers try, they cannot make her penurious ways interesting, because they are neither humorously obsessive nor practically instructive.

They had her make the katakuriko concoction for the celebrity panelists not because it tastes good (and therefore might be useful to viewers) or terrible (and therefore corroborate her credentials as a true cheapskate) but to give the celebrities a nostalgic jolt. Two of them owned up to the fact that when they were struggling to enter show business, they ate the same thing.

The woman is struggling herself to become an actress, and we see her get a part in a small play and then send her parents, from whom she has been estranged for four years, train tickets to come to Tokyo for opening night. In turn we get to see lots of tears and a happy reconciliation, and the celebrities choking up as they recall their own salad days.

Similarly, the families who are going the dokechi route aren't necessarily being cheap because they enjoy the challenge. Last week's show spotlighted a family of five whose monthly income is 330,000 yen. Because the wife grew up in abject poverty and had to quit school at 15 to work full-time, she is determined that her children will not go without. In order to pay for piano and karate lessons, textbooks, school "insurance" and cram schools, she saves money any way she can, and her resourcefulness is impressively creative. She makes her own soap as well as clothing for the entire family from neighborhood discards.

The family reaps more from her efforts than extra cash. They also share in the pride of her accomplishments. When asked how she feels wearing her mother's clothing, the 7-year-old daughter says she's happy, "because I'm the only person in the world with this dress."

Watching these stories you can't help but wonder how they will turn out several years down the road. It is one thing to live like a hermit when you're 25 while you work on becoming an actor; quite another living like one when you're 35 because you never made it. While a housewife who is creative in saving money can derive a sense of satisfaction from her work, how long will it be before she develops a sense of frustration because things don't seem to be getting better?

We think that life should become more comfortable and affluent the older we get, and much of the drama of existence is built on the fact that these expectations are in no way assured. Americans like to boast about the "American dream," which says that all you need is imagination and ambition to get what you want. In Japan, imagination and ambition never received much attention thanks to the lifetime employment system, which guaranteed cumulative affluence and was the main reason behind the widespread belief in a universal middle class. But those days are gone, and now imagination and ambition are receiving their due.

They are, in fact, the main appeal of "Dokechi," except that they are used to stave off destitution rather than advance one's career. The celebrity panelists seemed to realize this in the case of the would-be actress and tried to give her advice on how to get into show business but they really had none. When the M.C. untactfully asked Ai Iijima how she became a TV star, she didn't mention that it was as a porn actress but simply said, "I was lucky." It was still a frank answer but not one that you can take to the bank.

The young woman may never get closer to her dream than she was when she appeared on this show.



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