A number of long term sufferers (one actually) have expressed concern that after years of reporting on the pabulum, raunch and scandals of this wonderful and absurd nation, the CJT is on the brink of becoming “respectable” by reporting actual “up-to-date” “news” that’s frequently “accurate.” Fear not, long term sufferers, your humble editor is here to assure you that the CJT, despite periodic fits of morality, remains dedicated to life’s lowest common denominators and grade Z “humor” (some of it actually funny).
The sudden swing toward the respectable has not been completely your humble editor’s fault nor should it be taken as a sign of his sudden maturation—that’s not going to happen for several years at best. Instead, it reflects the sudden maturation of Japanese television, not to mention the Japanese press (sort of), and the increasing influence of foreign policy on Japanese life since the last issue. Not only have most of the long running sex and skin shows faded away (long gone long now, and replaced by sports shows, are SuperJockey, Tonight2, Gilgamesh/Artemis Night, and Mini-Skirt Police), but between North Korea and the invasion of Iraq there hasn’t been one decent celebrity scandal occupying the Wide Shows for almost a year. For the uninitiated, Wide Shows are Japanese daytime panel shows where celebrities and pundits jabber on about the news. For those from the USA, imagine “This Week with Sam and Cokie” but add good looks and intelligence and you’ve got it.
For a few days there was a stink about whether a popular and well endowed bikini model’s breasts were “domestic” or “imported”, so to speak, but everyone quickly decided it was more fun to look at her breasts than to debate them and the scandal faded. (For the record, your humble editor votes “imported.” Not, of course, that he notices such things now that he’s married. . .) Instead we’ve seen hours and hours of North Korean Television and war coverage that should shame any American In-Beds with the audacity to still call themselves “journalists.”
As news about the Five Returnees finally began to wane after the last issue, it was replaced with fascinating glimpses of what North Koreans see on TV. First there’s a grizzled old grandpa who tells a group of bright eyed children pro-communist fairy tales about how a tiger defeated a pig, or vice versa. Grandpa then interprets the fairy tale by explaining that the rooster was Kim-Il Sung and the orangutan who became a star in the heavens was actually Kim-Jong Il while the running dogs who moved the cheese were the vile agents of Capitalism. (Something like that.) Either way, according to grandpa, if the children weren’t officially atheists, they should thank the heavens for Kim-Jong Il and Kim-Il Sung.
We also got to enjoy the two regular North Korean news anchors. Both read the news with loud voices and pounding, dramatic emphasis. The best is a flamboyant woman who can make a weather report sound triumphant or Kim-Jong Il kicking tractor tires and gesturing over a few shocks of wheat seem the final victory over capitalism. In one clip she introduced, a North Korean expert explained that “Japan changed the English version of our name to Korea with a ‘K’ rather than [Corea] with a ‘C’ so Japan would come first in the alphabet.”
“Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighters Holding Guns” was one of the popular dramas we got excerpts from. It is the story of a man who almost single-handedly fights off the imperious Japanese invaders. Another drama, a mini-series actually, depicts US soldiers killing, maiming and raping Koreans; shooting old women; and burying children alive. Fortunately they are defeated by two women who happen to find a cache of abandoned Japanese weapons from WWII. (Great scene where the women tear the Japanese flag in half and use it to wipe grease off the guns.) The US soldiers are depicted as either white men with bleach blonde hair or black men. In a revealing bit of casting, the most evil American, who always ended up killing the naïve and traitorous anti-revolutionary Koreans who helped him, was depicted as a black man with a heavy beard. (Your humble editor has heard rumors of rumors that some Koreans believe that westerners in general and Americans in particular are hairy because we are closer in the evolutionary chart to our ape-like ancestors. Hairy black men are considered even closer to apes. Fortunately, in a few thousand years both groups will evolve more and will eventually look Korean.)
Moreover, we’ve seen hours of coverage from inside North Korea, including glimpses of day to day life: slabular concrete buildings, lots of statues and public art works, children dancing in darkened rooms, few cars on streets clearly designed for walking—looks remarkably like Albania did when your humble editor first got there—and countless hours on North Korea’s and Kim-Jong Il’s “Beauty Troops”. The Grade B Beauty Troops appeared at the Summer Asia Games last year. They are a kind of Über-Babe drill team who always sit together and cheer for their Comrades from the North. At one point there were more cameras pointing at them than at the sporting events. (Hey, it’s the Asia Games. Who really cares about the sports anyway?)
The Grade A Beauty Troops, the babus majori, are chosen from the most beautiful women in North Korea. They are put up in dorms, taught to dance and sing, and serve at the pleasure of Kim-Jong Il. A few whose families fell out of favor with the Powers What Are were forced to flee North Korea and have managed to bring videos of themselves dancing at private performances. Fascinating, fascinating stuff. It’s GOOD to be the king.
Japanese coverage of the invasion of Iraq, both before during and after has been superb. Although the Japanese people in general and the private networks in particular have been nominally anti-war (mostly out of reflex more than reasoning), the coverage has been both balanced and insightful. The Japanese government, it should be noted, bravely supported the war. . . once it was clear there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
The best coverage was by nominally pro-war NHK, the “official” mouthpiece of the government. NHK had a military expert named Ebata who, besides sporting a comb-over that’s actually painful to look at (Stephen King, in his worst nightmares, couldn’t imagine a comb-over this horrific), accurately called almost every move the US troops made. When US troops bypassed Basra and other cities, and reporters on all sides were calling them fools, he carefully explained that, although it was a risky plan, US troops were most likely choosing to avoid urban combat until they got to Baghdad while at the same time keeping Iraqi troops back on their heels. (That’s almost a direct quote.) Although he expected a bloodier fight in Baghdad and questioned launching the operation with a small force, he was dead on most of the time. He also feared the US didn’t have enough forces on the ground to maintain order.
NHK, despite it’s nominally pro-war stance, also gave lots of time to anti-war arguments but not in the standard US television “I shout one thing, you shout the opposite, you’re Godless and less of an American than I am, screw the Dixie Chicks” format that passes as “balance.” Instead, they spent 15 to 20 minutes each night exploring the different pro- and anti- arguments in detail. We saw interviews with American soldiers and their families as mom or dad headed off to war and with Japanese heading to Iraq to act as “human shields.” (Most of the human shields, it should be noted, bravely ran away when it became clear the shooting was about to start. It should also be noted that over 30 Japanese stayed.)
Even the nominally anti-war private networks did in-depth features and interviews of 20 minutes or more on the so-called über-hawks Richard Perle, William Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz. (Kristol, it should be noted, responded to the question “Isn’t this imperialism?” with “Well, it may be imperialism, but it’s benevolent imperialism.”) They also ran an excellent interview with Michael Moore. Another network brought on one of President Bush’s former professors from Yale. (He wasn’t terribly impressed with George as a student, to put things lightly.)
Other networks pointed out that the US “Peace” movement seemed to be comprised of a shotgun blast of standard anti-Republican and anti-globalization groups, including people sporting “Free Mumia” and “No Franken Foods” signs, as well as some staunch anti-US groups, including ANSWER (which is an acronym for Something Or Other That Begins With “A”). TV Asahi interviewed former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, taking him to task on a few issues (mostly on the fact he hadn’t been in Iraq for a while), while NHK walked its viewers through the relevant UN resolutions and explained the US arguments and interpretations along with those of the French and Germans, etc. When Powell made his Al Qaida/Iraq connection claim in front of the UN, some networks sent reporters to the camp in question to show it was nothing more than a couple decrepit buildings and an old truck. The Japanese knew the Nigerian Evidence of Iraqi WMDs was fake long before the US Congress did. Everyone wondered why the Democrats were suddenly AWOL and congress seemed to be on vacation.
All in all we probably got, on average, 4-6 hours coverage of the build up to the war as various deadlines approached. Once the shooting began that jumped to 8-10 hours. Regardless of your stance on the war, this is a phenomenal amount of coverage for a small, isolationist nation to dedicate to foreign affairs. Especially when it was sending neither troops nor cash.
Lest you think Japanese TV has gone completely respectable, it should be noted that there are still a few highlights, shockers and only-in-Japan style shows around.
Your humble editor’s personal favorite is a late Saturday night only-in-Japan show called “Ai no Apron” or “Apron of Love.” Each week three celebrity women, including some of the most beautiful and popular actresses and models in Japan, compete in an all-babe version of Iron Chefs. Each woman must prepare the same dish in the same amount of time and then present it to a celebrity panel that includes a special guest, the “head” of the group Tokio, a professional chef and another woman whose only job is to try especially bad dishes.
The panel first comment on the look of the dishes and then spare no insults describing how bad they taste. There is even a bucket off stage to help dispose of especially nauseous concoctions. Even the professional chef, a grandfatherly gray haired man who is usually calm and supportive even when faced with the worst dishes, has been known to spew invective and run for the bucket. When he’s finished, he passes the dish to his assistant who tastes it. The camera then zooms in on her eyes and a counts the lines that appear in her forehead as she grimaces or winces. (If something’s delicious, we never see it passed to her.) After the tasting, the women are ranked relative to other celebrities by having their name cards placed on a ranking board. The ones who can actually cook see their names placed at the top of the board. However, the names of those who make especially loathsome dishes can end up in the trash or on the bottom of someone’s shoe or on top of a urinal in the men’s room.
What makes this show remarkable is not only the level of abuse—more than one woman has been reduced to tears and the panel actually insulted one celebrity’s elderly mother on special mother/daughter show—but that many women actually come back for more. Can you imagine Britney Spears, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Avril Lavigne (who can still kiss my ass) whipping up some four alarm chili and then standing by while the lead singer of Linkin Park trashes their cooking skills? Then coming back a few weeks later so that Mel Gibson can trash their burritos? Would love to see it. Don’t think it’ll happen.
Another odd show is a late night skin show called “Yarunuki” that your humble editor has dubbed “the stalking show.” In this show, a pair of comedians and a model pretend to stalk a pair of young bikini models as they “go about their daily business.” The stalkers carry hidden cameras and parabolic microphones and hide in bushes or behind cars. Regular features include 1) having the girls eat a choco-banana while the stalkers rate their “ability” (wink wink nudge nudge) 2) a man sporting a tremendous, er, “codpiece” who walks around in front of the girls while they’re lounging at the pool and 3) some interesting close-up photography while the girls stretch before a “workout”.
Also popular recently has been “This Old House” style shows where architects perform small miracles on old houses. The best and most popular is called “Before After (That’s a Really Big Change!).” On this show, the houses are not just old, they often pose interesting architectural challenges: they are shaped like a triangle, the ground underneath the floor is not level, they are actually two Edo era houses combined into one with a big gap in the floor between them, every wall is made of reinforced concrete, etc. The architects always perform miracles and always manage to save a piece of the old house to incorporate into the new, usually in a unique way. (The old bed and head board are stood on end and turned into shelves; Grandpa’s old L-rulers and T-squares are turned into picture frames; the old canoe becomes part of a picnic table, etc.) The best scene every week is usually when the family watches in tears as the guts of the house are torn down.
Another “reform” show called “Dream House” has just started. This matches young architects, some taking on their first solo project, and young families. This show emphasizes the relationship between architect, contractor and homeowner as they overcome odd problems or run out of money. (In the last show, the contractor actually redesigned the staircase in front of the architect.) Oddly, there’s been very little emphasis on DIY (Damage Irreparably Yourself) shows, although lately the news has featured coupon queens and families who have found interesting and odd ways to save money or use less water.
Finally, as the Japanese economy continues to be neither hot nor cold but lukewarm, and is thus spat out by the rest of the world, a couple new shows have popped up where aspiring entrepreneurs go in front of a panel of celebrities and venture capitalists to pitch their ideas and beg for money. The “winner” in each episode will be granted the money to follow their dream. Before that, however, the panel will berate them, insult them and their ideas and pretty much attempt to humiliate them. This at the same time that the police are cracking down on loan sharks and other “vicious avaricious moneylenders” (a direct quote from NHK). A few weeks ago the police raided 30 different “black money” offices in one day, more or less on television, in a feeble attempt to rein in one of the fastest growing industries in Japan. Didn’t have much effect: a loan shark recently made news after he called an elementary school girl while she was in class and pressured her to tell her parents to pay back their loans.
In Other News:
Long term sufferers of this venerable institution will remember the story of Tama-chan the seal and how he had taken up residence in the rancid waters of a Yokohama river. Well, Tama-chan is still around and his myth is growing bigger by the day.
First, Yokohama city granted Tama-chan citizenship, even going so far as to give him the name “Nishi Tamao” and issued official citizenship papers in an impressive ceremony covered by all the major networks. This got the dander of more than a few foreign residents up, especially those of Korean and Chinese descent who are third generation born in Japan but are still considered foreigners by the Japanese government. Even for white westerners, the road to citizenship can be quite rocky and citizenship doesn’t necessarily guarantee full rights under the law.
Therefore, a few days after Tama-chan was granted citizenship, two dozen foreigners of all nationalities showed up at the Yokohama city office dressed as seals in order to apply for citizenship. Not only was this a great idea for a protest, it also got national press coverage for almost two weeks. Wide Show pundits discussed it seriously. There was none of the usual, “well if they don’t like it they should just go home” drivel (said even of those born here).
Then, a few days later, a large group of foreigners wearing scuba gear and carrying large nets attempted to capture Tama-chan. (For more on foreigners abducting Japanese citizens please refer our last issue.) They were part of an animal rescue group that had been called in by a Japanese man who felt Tama-chan should be taken to a safer, healthier environment. The police gave the foreigners a pretty hefty lecture, and maybe a hefty fine, but not much more than that. The group had a license to dive the river, but had claimed they were only going to be doing a mock rescue. Actually capturing an animal/citizen apparently requires a different permit.
Then, Tama-chan vanished and reappeared in rivers in Saitama prefecture on the opposite side of Tokyo from Yokohama. Tama-chan now resides in the Ara River, just a few train stops from your humble editor’s house. However, a couple weeks ago, Tama-chan emerged with a hook and some red fishing line stuck above his right eye. (This was front page news in every major paper in Japan, it should be noted.) Suddenly the attempted foreign abduction seemed more legit and people began wondering what was best for Tama-chan. One suspiciously camera shy group began tossing scallops and shrimp in the water to help supplement his diet. Fortunately, Tama-chan managed to shed the hook by himself and is now a resident of Saitama Prefecture.
There are, however three problems: 1) Tama-chan likes to climb up on the back of the same boat to sun himself. It’s possible that fans of Tama-chan will never allow this boat to be used again prompting the government to have to replace it. 2) Your humble editor’s pretty sure Tama-chan has not gone to the Asaka city office to change his residency form as required of all citizens and residents. This puts him in violation of the law and means he can’t get health benefits.
And 3) Well:
All weird cults are alike but a weird Japanese cult is weird after its own fashion.
Whereas in the USA our cults tend toward mass suicide or murder based on apocalyptic misreadings of the Bible, UFO books or bad Beatles tunes, only in Japan could a murderous cult be spawned from a combined misreading of Buddhism, Hinduism and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series (Aum Shinrikyo, who gave us the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway) or somehow manage to create a creed by combining fear of electro-magnetic radiation and a giant asteroid with faith in a lost seal named Tama-chan.
The latter cult is Japan’s latest press attraction: The Panawave Research Group. This cult came to public attention last month when they parked their white vans along side a mountain road in Fukui prefecture, set up long walls made of white sheets and white pipes, and proceeded to wrap a good portion of the trees and foliage up in white cloths. The people themselves wear white lab coats, white trousers and shoes, white surgical masks and sunglasses or eye-glasses wrapped in white cloth. They also wear long, Nun’s habitish scarves over their heads.
The national press first got wind of them when they drove out of Fukui and into Gifu prefecture. Gifu, for those who don’t know, is more or less the center of the Japanese main island. Some call Gifu the belt buckle of Japan. Once you’ve crossed from the West into Gifu you are in Eastern Japan. When you’re in Eastern Japan you are in the Tokyo area, and when you’re in the Tokyo Area, if you’re a weird Japanese cult wearing white, you get lots of national attention. (The cult had apparently been traveling around Western Japan for almost two years with little national attention until they crossed into Gifu.)
The press assaulted them in droves, only to be chased back with giant reflectors wielded by a few cranky cultists. The police made a big show of their arrival only to discover the cult weren’t technically doing anything wrong. They definitely weren’t breaking any traffic laws. When the locals asked the cult to move, they did, dragging behind a caravan of police and press and a dozen helicopters. As they stopped, got chased out, moved, got chased out, moved, etc. they became more open with the press. They revealed that they call themselves the Panawave Research Group (also can be translated as Panawave Laboratory). They were founded by a now 50-something woman who claims to be dying of cancer caused by electromagnetic radiation. They wish everyone would just leave them alone and let them get on with their experiments. They were on their way to Yamanashi prefecture near mount Fuji to hole up in Geodesic domes they’d built and await the strike of a large asteroid (some 25 times the size of the earth) on May 15th. Their domes would, they had calculated, allow them to survive the strike. The white clothes protect them from electro-magnetic radiation which is poisoning everyone via television, radio and power cables.
The cult also said that if we’d all open our eyes we’d see that Tama-chan the seal is the savior of mankind. Turns out that the aforementioned man who originally called in the aforementioned animal rescue group to capture Tama-chan and take him to a better place is a former member of Panawave. The camera shy group tossing Tama-chan seafood in Saitama are apparently members of the group too.
Needless to say, the Yamanashi locals blocked the cult from entering their own property and instead they headed back to their main headquarters in Fukui. Although their Fukui neighbors say they’ve actually been quite a pleasant group—unlike Aum, they don’t build giant walls around their compound and conduct experiments that kill all the grass and trees in the neighborhood—and that everyone got along fine until the press started traipsing through everyone’s yard, the police, still embarrassed by their failure to do even a precursory investigation of Aum several years back, are now getting payback against Panawave and have searched all their properties and offices. The cult have now apparently begun switching to brown sheets, perhaps in honor of Tama-chan.
For all the talk of Japan being a smokers’ paradise, townships hate having to clean up discarded cigarette butts. In Chiyoda Ward, which comprises the center of Tokyo and is home to almost all government offices, the National Diet, the banking dis- trict, the Emperor’s Palace, Yasakuni Shrine and your humble editor’s main office, the ward government estimated they were paying tens of thousands of dollars a year simply to pick up and dispose of butts. They therefore became the first Ward in Tokyo to ban and fine public smoking.
Most declarations like this usually fail because unlike most countries, Japan has no local police forces. All police work directly for the national Police Ministry. The national police only enforce national law and local townships are left to their own druthers to enforce laws unique to their town. (This encourages local governments to leave the driving up to the national government, so to speak.) In the case of Chiyoda, however, Ward officials are sent out daily to enforce the ban and collect the 2,000 yen (about 17 US dollars) fine. Within the first month, they’d collected almost as much as they’d spent picking up butts the year before. Despite initial resistance, Chiyoda is now almost completely smoke and butt free (more on smoke later).
However, Japan Tobacco, always concerned about the civil rights of smokers, has provided a posh air conditioned smoking van (a modified Air Stream trailer) for those smokers who simply can’t wait another minute. The van, named SMOKA, (Smoke Car, Smoker, get it?) is basically a traveling smoking club complete with sandwiches and drinks for sale.
It should also be mentioned that the Japanese government, which owns 60-80 percent of Japan Tobacco, is finally strengthening the warning label on all packs as it becomes clear that lung and other smoking related cancers are a much bigger problem than they’ve ever admitted. The current pack warning reads something like “Smoking can be bad for your health so don’t overdo it.” Finally, there’s a movement to remove names such as “Light” and “Mild” from product names.
Japanese politics, always a bit on the strange side has gotten stranger with several recent elections. In Iwate Prefecture, a professional wrestler named The Great Sasuke was elected to the prefectural assembly. This is not particularly strange as even in the USA a professional wrestler can become a Governor. However, the Great Sasuke is a masked wrestler and not only did he wear his mask during the election, he has vowed never to take it off in the assembly. The governor complained that was unacceptable as they have no way of proving who he is. Sasuke therefore designed a mask that opened up his face more, sported the Iwate Prefectural symbol, and still counted as a mask.
In Inuyama in Aichi Prefecture, a man from New York named Anthony Bianchi (no relation to the Hillside Strangler to the best of your humble editor’s knowledge) was elected to the city assembly. He campaigned on the slogan “Progress rather than Precedents.” He’s been in Japan a long time but only became a full citizen last year.
Finally, as if that’s not weird enough, the people of Setagaya ward in Tokyo recently elected Aya Kamikawa to the ward assembly. Aya, a transsexual who began life as a man, ran and won as a woman (although legally she had to register for the election as a man). In Japanese parlance she’s a “New Half” and is apparently the first to ever be elected to public office, at least in Tokyo.
The term “new-half,” by the way, according to Japanese TV, comes from a song by the popular Keisuke Kuwata of a group called Southern All-Stars. Years ago, he was recording back up singers for a new album and noticed something unusual about a singer named Betty. He asked her if she was a “half” (meaning bi-racial). She laughed and said she was a half: half man/half woman. Kuwata apparently decided that was a new kind of “half” and wrote the mega hit “New Half Betty” (Japan’s version of “Lola”) in her honor. The term quickly became the “official” term for transsexuals in Japan.
The CJT’s longest term sufferers will remember, if they’ve not deliberately blocked it from their consciousnesses, the now lost Saitama Police Special 2000 and the story of Shiori Ino. Ino and her family had gone to the police to complain that Ino’s ex-boyfriend and his brother were stalking her. She presented lots of evidence, including degrading and threatening fliers her ex had stuck on walls and telephone poles. The police said they had more important things to do right then than protect the public (something like that) and sent the family on their way. When Ino was killed by her ex’s brother, the police destroyed the evidence she’d left and covered up the visit. Unfortunately for the police, the family had kept careful records of all the proceedings. The fallout cost several police their positions and some hefty fines and led to a new, and much needed, anti-stalking law.
The family, however, kept pursuing the police in civil court for negligence and dereliction of duty, and the subsequent trial recently ended with one of those verdicts that make slap down your tennis racket and yell “You Cannot Be Serious!”
The police argued that when Ino first came to them, they were not in a position to judge her level of safety or to predict that she would be killed. Therefore, they were right in ruling her case was not a priority. The police even used her diary, originally given by her parents to aid in the criminal prosecution of her murderer as she’d kept careful records of all interactions with her ex, to defend themselves against her family in the civil trial. According to the diary, Ino had gone out several times with her friends, which means, according to the police, she couldn’t really have been afraid for her life. What’s more, the police say, according to her diary she had clearly lived a “wanton life” with “a dislike of restrictions.”
Even though the police had known enough to cover up their negligence, the judge accepted the police’s arguments and cited them almost word for word as he ruled against the family.
Matsunami Kenshiro, whom long term sufferers will remember as the man who threw water at hecklers during a speech in the National Diet has cut his Steven Seagal ponytail as penance for getting caught taking money from a mobster. Doing this, he says, means he doesn’t have to resign now because his ponytail was so important to him.
Smoke from a gargantuan forest fire in Siberia has apparently reached Japan covering everything in a brown haze and making everyone cough and sneeze (hence the pithy title of this missive).
Shoko Asahara’s trial will finally end this October, after seven years and over 250 hearings, almost certainly with a death sentence. The Osaka school killer (who stabbed eight elementary school kids to death in the school yard a few years ago) has been sentenced to death. The Kobe Killer, who at age 14 beheaded one elementary school kid and killed another with a hammer is now 20 and is about to be released to a halfway house and therefore to public life. The police, however, won’t release his name.
Is this a great country or what?