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Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009
Japan's 'Mr. Television'
In his most candid interview ever, MINO MONTA, the world's busiest live TV presenter, talks about politics, retirement . . . and his liking for a drink
By DAVID McNEILL and MIGUEL QUINTANA
Special to The Japan Times
Picture the world's busiest television presenter, and imagine yourself squinting through the glare of high-wattage celebrity, struggling to breathe in air perfumed with pampered showbiz egos.
But fresh from hosting Japan's most popular afternoon talk-show, Monta Mino arrives in a reception lounge at the broadcasting giant Nippon TV with nothing more elaborate than a crinkly-eyed grin and the faint whiff of high-performance after-shave. With no entourage, minders or PR types in sight, the dapper 64-year-old oozes bonhomie and easy charm from his permatanned pores.
It's been another busy year for the self-confessed workaholic, who has a place in Guinness World Records for appearing live in front of TV cameras more than anyone else on the planet. In 2008, he topped his previous record by 18 minutes, clocking up 22 hours and 5 seconds in one week — then wondered aloud why he couldn't work Sundays as well.
Many may lay claim to the title, but Mino may really be the Hardest Working Man in Television.
"I find it difficult to say no," he says, throwing his head back in his trademark bellowing laugh. "And I love to work. Some people might find standing in front of cameras stressful, but to me it's tremendous fun."
Five days a week, Mino — real name Norio Minorikawa — drags himself out of bed at 3 a.m. to host a prebreakfast show before being chauffeured from the TBS studios to rival NTV for "Omoikkiri Ii!! Terebi" ("Full-On Good TV"), an afternoon feature that's hugely popular with housewives and which he began hosting in April 1989 (when it was called "Gogo wa 00 Omoikkiri Terebi," or "Full-On Afternoon TV").
Both shows have helped make him as powerful, and sometimes as controversial, in Japan as Oprah Winfrey is in America. Not that Mino has heard of the U.S. queen of the small screen. "I don't watch much TV to be honest, because it's work to me."
After a session in the gym, and then a nap, he is back in millions of teatime living rooms with several prime-time shows, including "Totally Unbelievable Animals," "As Good as it Gets" and the Japanese version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." On weekends, there are radio slots, interviews and the variety show "Mino's Saturday Zubatto," whose title employs an untranslatable Japanese word that means something like "in your face."
Seemingly immune to fears of wearing out his welcome, Mino appears in ads for beer, real estate and denture cleaner on network TV — though he says he only promotes "products he likes." Oh, and he pops up on other shows as well.
Though he sleeps just three hours a night, to a large section of the Japanese population (particularly the middle-aged and elderly), Mino's health tips, product plugs and clipped asides on the issues du jour are akin to wisdoms hewn into tablets of stone. Over the years, he has generated runs on sea salt, red wine, radishes, bananas, sake and countless other items. When he praised the antioxidant benefits of cocoa, stores across Japan ran out, leaving a three-month waiting list. Unsurprisingly, he says his office is "inundated" with requests to hawk goods.
But it is in the arena of politics where the tireless emcee's influence is perhaps most profound, and least understood. A liberal populist, Mino peppers his morning show with terse, often critical comments about the government and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that is currently floundering in the deepest crisis of its half-century existence at the helm of the nation's politics.
The comments both reflect and fuel fears among his audience that the government has no answer to Japan's growing problems, especially the widening income gap, and poverty among Mino's key demographic.
"My great concern is that the elderly won't be able to survive if things keep going the way they're going. I get angry when I think about how old people are treated," he says.
Mino's nose for the zeitgeist was in evidence again during the controversy over recent comments by the Air Self-Defense Force chief of staff who was ousted for defending Japan's war record. Former Gen. Toshio Tamogami dismissed claims that Japan was the aggressor in World War II as "false," and called for a "correct understanding."
"What Japan did was wonderful," he wrote.
Mino called the views "a joke" on his morning show. The general was forced to quit.
"I thought the comments were ridiculous," Mino said later. "The reality is that the Japanese government does not openly recognize that Japan invaded its neighbors during the war. We're not the only nation that invaded other countries — France, Britain and Germany also colonized China, for instance. But my position is that we should accept what we did and reflect on it, not deny it. So I said so."
Comments like this have earned Mino's office protests from Japan's much-feared ultrarightists and their militarized, black sound-trucks screaming for him to come out and face the music.
Mino's asides often generate what he calls similar "painful feedback," including complaints from viewers, calls to advertisers and even pressure from the government.
"I get a lot of mail supporting me, but the other side makes more noise," he laments. "My wife tells me to soften what I say, but when I hear mistaken views like that I just have to speak my mind."
Mino's furious work ethic may stem from what appears to have been an unhappy time as a journalist on the conservative Sankei newspaper, where he says most of his copy was trashed. A long spell as a radio announcer followed, but for most of his 30s he hawked water meters for his father's company and only returned to broadcasting in his 40s.
His breakthrough came when, in the late 1980s, he started turning down the sound on U.S. baseball broadcasts and filling-in with ad-libbed commentary for Fuji Television Network, Inc.
"I never forget the sadness of not having work, and always bear that in mind when I'm asked to take on another job," he says of those times.
Like many of Japan's baby boomers (Mino was born in 1944), the lean postwar years profoundly shaped his view on life.
"We were so poor that my father had to work at everything. Now we're able to choose, and that's good. But people have forgotten how to stick to something because they have to. There are a lot of people now who work part-time or with dispatch agencies and they just work when they want. When I get a new job, I work my guts out."
Mino credits his health and famous glowing tan to gardening — and a beer-and-tomato-juice concoction he downs every morning. "It sharpens me up. I love to drink, especially Scotch whisky, and I can drink anytime," he says, laughing again. "Sometimes I present shows where alcohol is featured and I'm told not to touch the booze. But I can't resist trying out the drinks."
After two decades at the top of the greasy entertainment pole, Mino briefly slipped three years ago when he was forced to take two weeks off for a back operation, throwing a large chunk of Japan's popular TV schedule into a tailspin. For the first time, he considered retiring. "It was a terrible time," he says. "All the advertisers had signed up for Monta Mino so they pulled out.
"I'm almost 65, and of course I think about the future. I talk with my wife about handing over the reins to younger presenters because we worry sometimes about me keeling over in front of the cameras. I think about the trouble that would cause to everyone. But then I get a second wind and want to keep going."
Nonetheless, just last week, on Dec. 26 [after this interview was conducted], Mino announced live on his "Omoikkiri Ii!! Terebi" afternoon show that, after 20 years, "I want to hand the baton to the younger generation." And so, in what will truly be the end of an era, he will step down at the end of March.