Now that Tokyo has been given the honor of hosting the 2020 Olympic Games, the city, as well as all of Japan, will spend the next seven years “internationalizing” (kokusai-ka), a term that becomes fashionable again every few years when something like this happens. Theoretically a circumscribed society can internationalize only once, and the consensus is that it happened to Japan in the 1980s after the economy had become strong enough to compel companies and individuals to go overseas. In media terms it was the era that generated TV travel shows such as TV Asahi’s now-defunct “Naruhodo the World” and TBS’s still-running “Sekai Fushigi Hakken,” which introduced viewers to exotic locales. These programs were sometimes derided for presenting other cultures in overly simplistic terms through a narrow set of values.
Some programs are still derided in accordance with the idea that Japanese people believe themselves to be unique members of the human race: Japan isn’t so much a part of the world as it is standing slightly outside of it, and while it is perfectly happy to interact it can’t do so without feeling self-conscious. In a recent post on his blog JAPANsociology, Ritsumeikan University associate professor Robert Moorehead discusses a Japanese symposium on internationalization where young people from other countries were asked their opinions on “the most impressive feature” of Japanese corporations. “In other words,” Moorehead writes, “they were asked to tell their hosts how great (the Japanese) are.”
This perception is still the basis for many TV travel programs, but the angle of contact has been altered. The traditional methodology is to send a TV personality to a foreign land and have them directly sample the culture and its trappings in a way that makes sense to Japanese viewers. There are also shows, such as Nippon TV’s “Woman on the Planet” and TBS’s “Dare ka Jiman Shitaku Naru Nihonjin” (“Japanese We Want to Brag About”), that cover Japanese people who specifically take the “challenge” of living and working abroad.
But a new type of series has developed in response to the realization that some Japanese people have gone overseas for reasons that aren’t always clear. The titles of these programs betray their parochial appeal. TV Tokyo’s “Sekai Nazo Soko ni Nihonjin” (Fri., 7:54 p.m.) asks why Japanese people would be living “in that place,” and borrows a conceit from investigative journalism by giving the impression that the “reporters” have to track down these persons. How they heard about them in the first place is a more relevant question, but answering it would spoil the fun. The presumption is that the producers are taking a chance by spending a great deal of money to fly a video crew to a faraway land with no guarantee that they will find this peculiar Japanese individual, but, of course, they always do.
A recent dispatch was particularly action-packed. The crew went to Zambia to find a Japanese businessman who was “on the run.” At first, it sounded as if he was a fugitive from Japanese justice, but soon it became apparent that the man was the target of bad intentions within Zambia. As on all variety shows, the suspense regarding the truth behind the implication was drawn out repeatedly with pre-commercial break teasers that included brief dramatizations of a native employee running into the man’s office and telling him of a rumor that his life was in danger, and a genuine newspaper article about a Japanese aid worker killed in Zambia some years ago.
The idea that the world is a perilous place is central to these reports, and Africa is portrayed as being more perilous than others, so it’s easy to generate tension, even if there’s a wink-and-nod quality to the drama. As it turned out, the businessman had gone to Zambia to save his family business, a Kyoto gas station, from bankruptcy by selling used Japanese cars, which are in great demand there. The rumors of bodily harm had something to do with a disgruntled ex-partner and turned out to be groundless. He seems to be a well-liked member of the community.
TV Asahi’s similarly titled “Konna Tokoro ni Nihonjin” (“A Japanese Person in Such a Place”; Fri., 9 p.m.) focuses as much on the celebrity reporter as it does on the subject. On last week’s show, former idol singer Nana Okada went to northern Australia to hunt for a Japanese woman who was rumored to be living in a remote village. Half the segment was taken up with Okada’s difficulties in finding out just where this village was, and since she was asking in Sydney answers weren’t forthcoming. Naturally, the crew knew, but for Okada to earn her fee she had to find out herself.
It took her another full day to finally reach her destination and locate the woman, who we learn had gone to Australia some years ago to study dance, married and later divorced an Australian man, and decided to stay after earning a teaching credential. She was an instructor at an elementary school for Aboriginal children. As with the businessman in Zambia, this woman’s story was interesting in and of itself, but by framing it in terms of confronting Japanese viewers’ expectations instead of making it about the woman’s own initiative it becomes less of a story and more of a stunt.
“Konna Tokoro” also has a regular segment in which comedian Seiji Chihara goes to an African country to find a resident Japanese person. Again, the focus is on Chihara rather than the subject as he reveals his unworldliness in the face of the unknown. It’s Chihara’s comic, sometimes patronizing innocence that’s stressed. In all the segments Chihara and the other celebrity reporters only speak Japanese and are constantly wheeling around their luggage, which is meant to show how difficult it is for them to do what they’re doing, though one has to assume that behind the camera is a personal manager and probably even a makeup and hair person. There are some things you just can’t leave home without.