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

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.

You work so hard. Does the pressure ever get to you?

Well, live TV is a lot of fun. I don’t really feel the stress. In the beginning, sure there was some stress. For example, I worried about ending the show within the time limit, or not saying anything that could get me in trouble. But now I’m just enjoying myself.

Is it true that you only sleep for three hours a night?

It’s true that when I’m at home I only sleep three hours, but then I have a couple of hours on my way to work and back. And then if you take today, for example, I finished working at 2 p.m. My next assignment was at 6 o’clock, which means I had another four hours to go to the gym, run and swim a little, have an oil massage and sleep for a good hour. So all in all, I am able to sleep for five hours if you add it all up.

How many hours a week do you spend on camera?

The average daily figure for live shows is about 5 hours 10 minutes. Add another three hours of recorded shows, and that makes about 8 1/2 hours a day; about 45 hours a week.

How do you spend your Sundays — the only day of the week you are not working?

No matter how late I finish the day before, I’m always up by 7 in the morning. Whether it rains or not, I go out in the garden and take care of my plants and the lawn. In any case I go outside, and as you can see I get a suntan — even though it’s worn off right now.

I hate staying idle, so when the rain is really heavy I’ll be indoors cleaning the bathtub, doing things like that. I enjoy cleaning around the house, and I get credit for that! I’ll organize the books on the shelves. I’m always doing something.

I heard rumors that you have half a bottle of beer mixed with juice for breakfast. Is that so?

Tomato juice. It’s good for the stomach and gives me an appetite. So I mix a drink of 50 percent beer, 50 percent tomato juice and then I have a shower.

And it doesn’t affect you?

No, I stay sharp. When my stomach is empty food doesn’t taste good. In any case, I really enjoy alcohol and I’m ready to drink anytime. Sometimes alcohol is served during a TV show. The staff say “please don’t drink, please don’t drink,” and then I wonder: Is this really whisky? (laughs) It’s so much fun. Whisky is my favorite, Scotch whisky.

Two years ago, you made a speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo, where the journalists in the audience seemed to be mainly interested in why you work so much, and whether you’re typical of Japanese people in general.

I believe that if someone needs me, then it is my duty to honor that. Japanese people worry about the possibility of not being needed anymore, and the feelings of redundancy and loneliness that accompany such a situation.

When Japan was left in ruins after the end of World War II, Japanese people reconstructed the country from scratch. They volunteered for all kinds of activities. When I was a child, my father used to do all kinds of jobs to secure food and clothes. With the gradual improvement of the economy, we could afford to be choosier.

Choosing is fine, but in the case of a profession, if you choose only one job and then lose it, you are left scrambling to find something else. And then maybe you end up doing something you don’t really like, and you lose interest in work. It becomes painful, and you start to complain. Then you jump from one job to the other. In the end, people don’t try to stick with a given job and develop their own environment within it.

I think that’s how we reached the current situation where we have NEETs [people Not in Employment, Education or Training], and people working as temporary staff, which allows them to work just as much as they want. But does that bring good results? I don’t think so.

So when I’m told: “Mino-san, you really work a lot” — it’s not that I mean to work a lot. I wake up at 3 in the morning for my show because people need me. That’s what drives me to do all those programs. Originally, I started working on radio and . . . I’m still doing a two-hour live program on Saturday afternoons. That was my starting point. When someone says to me “good night,” I feel like answering: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

You have a lot of influence in Japan. What kind of pressure are you under?

Sometimes an industry leader complains about what I’ve said on air, and asks to be removed as a sponsor. These people have an incredible amount of influence, you know. So you have to be careful with what you say, and I think that’s unfortunate.

In my case, I am completely opposed to war. That is why I strongly criticized a top official of the Self-Defense Forces who recently attempted to justify Japan’s invasion of Asia during World War II. That may sound like an obvious reaction, but the reality is that the Japanese government does not openly recognize that Japan invaded its neighbors during the war. Top officials and graduates of the National Defense Academy refuse to accept the term “war of aggression.” These people defend the idea of revising the Constitution. This is also a serious issue.

I would like to add, however, that the United States, France and Great Britain also enjoyed extraterritorial privileges on their concessions in Shanghai. China was not only invaded by Japan, but also by all these other countries. Therefore, I think it is fair to expect each country to recognize this as a fact. In turn, this would be a proper basis for Japan to express regret over its own actions.

Many people agree with this perspective, but they are keeping rather quiet, almost silent about it. Those who oppose this idea, on the other hand, make the most noise.

Any particular episodes in mind?

Once I made a comment about the Yasukuni Shrine issue, and a sound truck used by rightwingers came to my TV station. I have a lot of respect for the Emperor’s decision to no longer visit the shrine after Class-A war criminals were incorporated among the souls worshipped at Yasukuni.

I guess I could still understand it if we were talking about war criminals who actually died fighting on the front lines. But these guys were barking orders without ever setting foot outside the safe soil of Japan. They were poor leaders, and their responsibility in the war should be recognized.

Another example is the Japan-U.S. alliance.

One day I wondered aloud whether it wasn’t time for Japan to revise the treaty. The next thing you know, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked me to . . . say that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty is very important.

Then there’s the issue of [the relocation of U.S. forces from] Okinawa, Atsugi and Zama [both in Kanagawa Prefecture] to Guam. It’s necessary to speak out about those things.

I think it’s OK to give my opinion. That’s why I did, and I continue to speak my mind. However, it’s very important to get your facts straight. I verify the information, and if it’s historically correct then I feel free to talk about it. Facts are facts.

For example, Zhang Zuolin — one of the major warlords in China — was assassinated [by Japan, in June 1928]. The Japanese government at the time, and the [Japanese] Kwantung Army [in Manchuria], didn’t see that as a problem at all. That was a horrible thing to do to China. And the next step was the creation of the Manchurian Empire. No matter how you look at this, it’s a fact that Japan was invading [China], and that many people — including Japanese — lost their lives. It’s really sad.

I recall a documentary by [Japanese state broadcaster] NHK made in Nanjing, where they interviewed Chinese high-school students. It was really an excellent documentary. The producer asked this Chinese girl, right after she saw an exhibition about the massacre [committed there by Japanese troops in Dec.-Jan. 1937-38]]: “What kind of relations would you like to see between China and Japan?” And for one full minute after that — it’s all on camera — the girl looks at the face of the producer without saying a word — a full minute. I thought NHK did a terrific job of capturing that expression. And then the girl answers, dead serious: “I think we should develop friendly relations.” What an incredible moment, that minute. I was full of praise for NHK. Just imagine: that girl had just seen horrible things done by Japan.

Have you ever thought about becoming a politician?

If I did that, I would no longer be able to speak freely, and I wouldn’t like to be in that situation. And my income would shrink (laughs)! So no. Sometimes on my shows I joke about being prime minister of Japan. There is a whole list of things I would do. Unfortunately, it’s tough to be 75 in Japan right now, with the cuts in pensions and all. People are very insecure about the future. If something happens to you when you are 70, 80 or 90 . . . the fact is, right now, the government doesn’t look after you. That is my main concern.

If I became prime minister, maybe . . . well maybe what Japan needs right now is a dictator, a dictator with good intentions. If you spend your time discussing issues, then for example the [North Korean] abductions issue will remain unsolved. Certain things can only be achieved by a dictator. He can act decisively within a limited period of time.

How do you see the future of Japan?

Japan signed a security treaty with the United States, and more than 63 years have elapsed since the end of World War II. Society has changed a lot during the past 63 years, and the world even more so. The philosophy of the security treaty remains absolutely the same, and I think it is out of date. Japan, the United States, South Korea, North Korea, China, Russia and its enormous territory, the Southeast Asian nations, all have become powerful countries. The same is true of Australia [and] South American countries. That is why we need to think of international relations in different terms. I think the time has come to revise our treaty with the United States.

Japan is also the only country in the world to have experienced atomic bombings, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That is why Japan did not own, develop nor import nuclear weapons. It was supposed to uphold the so-called three non-nuclear principles [to not possess, produce or allow nuclear weapons on its territory] , but in fact we don’t know when U.S. nuclear submarines come in and out of Japan, and a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier also docks here.

I think we need to revise those aspects of the Japan-U.S. security pact. Japan has its three nuclear principles: the refusal to build, own or import nuclear weapons; and it should expect its ally to respect that stance.

Do you think about retiring?

My show “Omoikkiri Ii!! Terebi” will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2009. The other day, I was talking about this with my mother and my wife. Ten years make an era, and I’ve worked twice that amount of time. I think the time has come for me to think about my next step. For example, I could give up some of my daytime hours to a younger presenter. I’m over 64 now, and I wouldn’t want to start causing problems linked to my age. I think I’m at a stage where, after having thought about how to get a good job, I have to consider how to separate myself from that job in a pleasant way. I think that’s the period of my life I’m at right now.

So do you ever get worried during your shows, particularly when you are live on air?

I’m in good shape right now, but if something were to happen to me . . . like two years ago, I had an operation on my back and took two weeks off. It was really terrible. Everyone had to cover for me, and since they had to continue with my own style, my replacement had to adapt himself to that. You see, the sponsor is sponsoring a Mino Monta program, and so my two weeks off were really my responsibility. This led me to think that I might have to come to terms with it.

Actually, I ended up getting even more work! You see, when you try to lay low, you get offers; whereas when you try to get more, people tell you to take it easy for a while. It’s an interesting culture.