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Saturday, April 29, 2006

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

A boom time for Japanese electronics


Recently the day that my wife had long been predicting finally arrived -- sort of.

"Come quick!" she beamed. "Our TV's gonna explode!"

You see, somewhere -- perhaps in a beauty parlor with her nose stuffed in a gossip magazine and her head being zapped by a hair dryer -- she had read just that thing. Old TV sets sometimes explode.

She saw that line, her eyes bulged wide and the hair dryer zoomed into hyperdrive.

Little did it matter that she never found corroborating data. Or that we never saw anyone with shrapnel scars from TV explosions. Nor had we ever even heard of such people. Or had any friends who had either. The image was seared into her brain.

Our TV set was certain to explode. It was only a matter of time.

For it was indeed old. We bought it over two decades past, back when no one thought the Japanese bubble would ever pop, let alone a TV set. Japanese electronics were just starting to overrun the world . . . TVs, cameras, Walkmans and more. If America could be dubbed the world's breadbasket, then Japan was aiming for the title of the world's appliance shop, a designation it has long since won.

And these days Japanese appliances are not unlike bread -- in that you must keep buying them. They do not last. If new models don't supersede the old, then the old ones simply break. The distant years of "cheap" Japanese merchandise have been cleverly replaced by more skillful engineering -- where when the warranty expires, so does the product.

Except for our TV -- as old as my college-age kids, and more dependable too. Day in, day out, I could count on it. It was the exception that made all our other appliances look incompetent.

But now my wife called: "Look out! It's gonna blow!"

Now I had heard this before. Television would one day destroy us. Literally. My wife was sure of it and issued regular warnings.

"What are we gonna do when our TV explodes?" She whispered this late one night when the lights were off and we were cuddled near sleep -- with her lips near my ear.

My eyes flicked open. "What?"

"I mean, should we warn the neighbors? They might want more insurance."

I could see the subtext even in the dark. It read, "Let's buy a new TV."

"Our television's fine," I told her. "No way we get rid of it." At least not until 2011, when Japan goes fully digital, a somewhat frightening image in my mind. Think machine, Schwarzenegger, "Hasta la vista, baby."

Besides, why purchase even more hardware? We already owned two smaller TVs in different rooms. Plus two computers . . . two DVD machines . . . three CD players . . . four VCRs. Ours wasn't a house, it was a Radio Shack. We could open our own store, except most Japanese won't buy used goods.

Some say that tendency is changing, but I have known several foreigners who have furnished their homes with TVs, stereos and speakers they have picked off their neighborhood junk pile.

You say it's scratched? Then throw it away. Got a crack in the control panel? Toss it. Doesn't match your bedroom decor? Get rid of it. These seem to be the decisions people make. Or if the item's a bit on in years, maybe they figure repair will cost more than replacement. So they stay ahead of the game and pitch it -- even if the machine still works.

Not here. My TV's been loyal to me, so I will be loyal to it.

"OK, but you're gonna feel silly when you get blown to bits."

Meanwhile, she took precautions. When the machine was off, she would creep to the set -- as if it were eyeing her -- and quickly yank the cord.

"Physics 101! It can't explode without power!"

Or when it was on, she would sit as far away as possible. Preferably in the next room.

"Maybe we should buy helmets," I suggested, and she glanced up with interest.

"Like from the army?"

"No, from the Tower of London. You know, with little windows that move up and down. Then we could add some chain mail and shields. The whole town could blow up and what would we care?"

What almost blew then was her temper. But I held my ground and urged her to leave all mechanical concerns to me. How many times had she screamed that our computer was busted or that our washer had died, only to discover that the problem lay at a much simpler level than circuits and cogs? To wit, they were not plugged in.

She scrunched her eyes. "I cannot wait," she said, "to tell you 'I told you so.' "

And sure enough, that day came.

"I told you so! It's about to explode!" She stood triumphantly before our aged TV -- albeit 2 meters back.

The TV sat in silence, but with a smudgy smile on its screen. I approached, and my wife tugged me aside.

"Are you nuts? Don't go near it!"

But I pulled free and pressed the on switch.

The TV spoke at once, yet in an alien voice -- a crackle mixed with a sputter. The screen glowed. The machine hissed. And then everything went black. On the tube, that is.

I did indeed step away. The room smelled of smoke.

"See!" my wife screamed. "We're gonna die!" She was overjoyed.

So I pressed the switch to off. And then removed the plug. Physics 101.

It sat there -- smiling -- but did not explode. My wife was heartbroken.

"But we should still keep back. Perhaps it hasn't made up its mind."

And neither have I. For example, should our next generation be plasma or LCD?

"Which is least likely to explode?"

I tell her I'll check it out. In the meantime, the old TV sits there and smiles. After 22 years, it has earned a rest.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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