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Thursday, Oct. 19, 2000

MEDIA MIX

Talking head Tanaka wows 'em in Nagano


Yasuo Tanaka, candidate for the governorship of Nagano Prefecture, was supposed to meet voters at 2:30 p.m. at a shopping arcade in downtown Nagano, but it was a long arcade. A campaign worker wearing a bright orange windbreaker was handing out literature in front of Ito Yokado. "I think it's been changed," he said, sounding as if he didn't want to be taken at his word. "Now it's scheduled for 3:30 in front of 82 Bank," which happened to be all the way at the other end of the arcade. There, another campaign worker said, when asked about the relocation, "Really? I thought so, but I wasn't sure."

The logistical problems were understandable, and probably predictable. Tanaka had only declared his candidacy in late August, the last of four candidates to do so, and here it was only a week before the actual voting. Though born and raised for a time in Karuizawa, Tanaka lived in Tokyo, so in a sense he was getting to know the prefecture all over again. A friend who lives in Nagano dismissed the Tanaka candidacy. "By the time he entered, they had already done awashi decided that Fumitaka Ikeda would be governor. And his campaign is a mess."

Nevertheless, Tanaka eventually went on to win the race last Sunday, and by a hefty margin. In hindsight, it seems like a foregone conclusion. At 44, he was not only the youngest of the four candidates, he is and always will be a media celebrity: a successful, award-winning novelist who writes for dozens of magazines and who often appears on TV. In a way, he's perfect.

Of course, it isn't the first time a media star has thrown his hat in the political ring. One of Tanaka's core supporters is Daijiro Hashimoto, the popular governor of Kochi Prefecture who was once an announcer for NHK and still is the younger brother of the former prime minister.

Besides being media professionals, though, the two have almost nothing in common. Hashimoto was simply an announcer, while Tanaka's job is to be opinionated, and most of his opinions are the kind that politicians avoid. Until a few years ago, Tanaka often appeared on "wide shows," where he was one of the few liberal voices of common sense you would hear in that particular medium. He was dry in manner, but decidedly wet in his outlook . . . and in his lifestyle.

Although he writes for various periodicals, his most infamous column is the one he writes for the monthly Uwasa no Shinso ("The Truth Behind the Rumor"), which covers nothing but scandal and gossip, but in such a forthcoming, nonpartisan way that it has somehow transcended tabloid status to stand on its own as an organ of perverse principle. (It is the magazine that exposed Prime Minister Mori's alleged arrest as a student for visiting a brothel.) It also features a monthly "picture diary" by bad-boy photographer Nobuyoshi Araki that, in addition to personal snapshots of friends and acquaintances, always includes five or six "hair nudes."

Tanaka's column, which is also in diary form, has done much to give the writer the reputation of an epicure and, some might say, sensualist. He loves good food, good drink, four-star hotels, expensive suits and, most importantly, beautiful women. And while he doesn't put names to his conquests and stops short of the nitty-gritty details, he is upfront about them being conquests (though, considering his celebrity, in most cases he is the one being conquered). He has a particular weakness for flight attendants.

Unlike that other young-novelist-turned-social-critic-sophisticate, Ryu Murakami, Tanaka hasn't graduated to "important thinker" status, which, in a way, makes him better material for political office. It's doubtful that Murakami would ever agree to the kind of obsequious behavior that Japanese politicians have to assume during campaigns. In fact, I would have thought the same thing of Tanaka if I hadn't actually seen him do it myself.

He finally arrived at the small plaza in front of 82 Bank (whose president talked Tanaka into running in the first place), accompanied by a small retinue of campaign workers, NTV announcer Mikako Minami, and somebody in a white deer costume acting as his mascot, Yasshi. As is always the case with celebrities, Tanaka is shorter than he appears to be on TV, but not quite as chubby. He is not a particularly handsome man, and this, combined with his designer suits and careful grooming, gives him a slightly snobbish appearance, like Hercule Poirot without the mustache and pomade.

This was politics, though, and Tanaka was practically teary-eyed in his gratitude to all the people who came to see him, even though there were only about 30 of them. They may, in fact, have been waiting for the bus.

Tanaka not only took advantage of his celebrity, he had included it as the main plank of his platform. While the other candidates were talking about education and fiscal responsibility, Tanaka talked mainly about "promoting Nagano, for free, to the rest of Japan." It was easy to believe.

Tanaka is by all appearances sincere in his liberal, humanistic outlook, but he's also a tireless self-promoter. In the days just following the Kobe earthquake, he borrowed a 50-cc scooter and delivered supplies himself to victims. It was a wonderful, selfless act, and he won't let people forget it, least of all the voters. As he shook hands, Minami told the story over the P.A., probably for the hundredth time that week.

Naturally, Tanaka's main rival, Ikeda, the handpicked successor to longtime governor Goro Yoshimura, accused the writer of being immoral, referring obliquely to the Uwasa column as proof. But unlike Bill Clinton, Tanaka has always owned up to his appetites. He has nothing to hide, even his private life.

And in the end, the notoriety helped, because it means that people will always pay attention to Tanaka. Nagano is suffering from a serious economic slump. Though the Olympics turned a profit, the prefecture, which built all those roads and facilities, is deeply in debt. It needs all the publicity it can get, and Tanaka will happily go after it. All he has to do is keep doing what he's doing: being a celebrity. The choice was obvious.



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