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Saturday, Jan. 6, 2007

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Bear with me on this


Hiker beware. For the woods are full of bears. And they will get you if you don't watch out.

Yes, Japanese bears. Aka ursus godzilleris.

Yet, sometimes these bears are not content to lurk about in the woods and drop from trees ninja-like upon unsuspecting picnickers. No, they will tip-toe right to your door in the heart of the city and huddle there in the dark. Waiting, waiting for just the right moment to roar in and devour your porridge.

OK . . . I'm kidding. No need to dash to the store and buy a set of traps or a can of bear spray. Odds are you are safe. I think.

But in the last few years the TV news here has been peppered with occasional stories of bears slipping out from their foresty habitats and foraging for goodies at the back doors of country towns. On slow news days -- and in Japan most days are slow news days -- a bear sighting in some rural community will garner national coverage.

Yet for the full picture you have to imagine the concerned scrunch on the anchorman's face. Perhaps, the man announces, bears are running out of munchies in their distant mountain hideaways or have made the discovery that discarded bento are yummier than nuts and berries. The reason doesn't matter. Hungry bears are prowling about our cities! What are we gonna do about it, huh people!? What!?

(At this point, the newsman bangs his fist on the table and his text bounces in the air. The man's eyes are aflame. His glasses are askew. His hair stands straight up -- a direful pose he has to hold for three full seconds until the program director can cut for commercial.)

But . . . could this be the smoke before the fire of a war on humankind? Perhaps Asimo, the Sailormoon cuties, and all the otaku nerds need to join forces now to fend off this ursine assault on civilization. How dare those bears!

The sarcasm I cannot quite help, as I find the notion of bear-life encroaching upon the cyber cities of Japan somewhat amusing. And yes I know bear sightings were way up in 2006. I understand bears can be ornery. I understand they can hurt you pretty bad and can even take your life -- although I doubt most bears would want mine.

Furthermore, a faithful reader from the urban sprawl of the eastern U.S. has informed me that bear creepage is a problem in many locations in the world, not just Japan. He has even cited bad bear happenings in the very shadow of Gotham.

So I recognize the mighty news weight of these not so gentle Bens. I myself have bookmarked all the hot bear sites on the Web and would never dream of starting my day without first checking to see what dreadful mayhem the world's bears might have committed while I slept. If you ask me, Yogi, Winnie, and Baloo should all be tossed in the pad with their Paddington kin. The only Teddy-types that I would spare from incarceration are the Care Bears. Them I would have shot.

But really . . . aren't the majority of bear misdeeds nothing but "cat-up-a-tree" stories?

Never in the history of the world has broadcast media had such pervasive power to show us the real events that shape our future, including in-depth insight into the peoples and pressures behind it all. The media can and does train our eyes and in such manner influences not only our interests and energies but also our very ability to discern what is important.

In our global village there is no such thing as a slow news day. Yet, here in Japan, what do we get?

We get bears, that's what.

Or we get lead news stories such as, "Today is the first day of spring!" Or, "Hideki Matsui, baseball player, breaks his wrist!" (followed by repeated slo-mo replays ad nauseam).

I bet the broadcasting braintrust doesn't even wring their collective hands. A farmer beats off a bear with a stick and sustains a scratch to his nose. This gets five minutes of national news, complete with interviews with everyone remotely involved, including the bear. Meanwhile, a deadly flareup in the misguided war in Iraq gets no air time whatsoever. The TV guys know what the nation wants, what the nation needs.

Terrorism? Blood for oil? The correct way to spell Hizbollah/Hezbollah? Who has time for all that when bears are running amok?

Global Warming? Melting ice caps? Catastrophic climate change? If Al Gore would dress up like a bear, it might be worthwhile. But if not, who cares?

The Sudan, anyone? Racial tension? AIDS? Sorry, we'd rather have bears, even though a Zidane head butt or the sad demise of Pluto might serve as a momentary replacement.

Believe me, not a day goes by that I don't thank my lucky stars that I live in a dull, safe place like Japan. Believe me, too, that I enjoy a break in the weary tattoo of heavy news as much as anyone.

But also believe me when I say Japan is too provincial. It might help if the national broadcast media would cover the world a little more and the turnings of the seasons, fractured wrists, high school sports, and local crimes of passion a little less.

As long, that is, as such coverage doesn't tear us from bears. We must keep abreast of bears.

Yet . . . I must also note that bears are pretty big. Big enough to block most people's vision. We might be better served to get the cameras past the bears and pointed at other issues.

In this regard, Japanese broadcasters are probably no more guilty than those of other lands. It seems that everywhere news is being cocktail shook with light entertainment and mewing cats stuck in trees.

Hard news might be hard but it is also healthy. It draws us together in our humanity.

Bears can't do that. After all, they're not human; they're bears.



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