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Rounding up 2008′s media

by Philip Brasor

Media Figure of the Year: Tomohiro Kato

The indiscriminate killings of seven people in Akihabara on June 17 ranks as the most indelible Japanese news story of the year, and though the media quickly turned to other matters, it continues to resonate in people’s minds for various reasons.

The circumstances surrounding Tomohiro Kato, the man arrested at the scene for the killings, were quickly reported and analyzed because the 25-year-old temp worker had left a trail of bitter dispatches on the Internet. There was no mystery to unravel, no psychology to plumb. His desperation was there for everyone to read. In fact, it was chillingly articulate. Some commentators said that Kato displayed a fine literary style — terse and evocative.

Case closed, as it were. But with the world economic crisis coming to bear on Japan, Kato’s example has come back to haunt the media because he seems to represent the deadly culmination of a decade of social changes. The ostensible trigger for Kato’s alleged rampage was his fear of losing his job, and right now tens of thousands of temporary workers are in the same position, victims of a national policy that encourages Japanese industry to be competitive by allowing employers flexibility in using nonregular workers as so-called safety valves. An entire generation now recognizes its own disposability, and Kato wasn’t going into the dust bin without taking somebody with him.

His choice of Akihabara, the Geek Mecca, as the stage for his meltdown was meaningful in the most horrifying way, because Kato also represents a larger, less statistically defined cohort whose influence is also a result of social change. Kato had few if any close friends. His frequent BBS posts via cell phone were his only means of communication and a stark reminder of the atomization that Japanese society has undergone since the end of the bubble era. Takafumi Horie, the former CEO of Livedoor, provided perhaps the most cogent comment on the matter when he speculated on his blog that the Akihabara massacre wouldn’t have occurred if Kato had had a girlfriend.

Quote of the Year: “I can look at myself objectively. I’m not like you.” — Yasuo Fukuda, during a press conference to announce his resignation as prime minister, responding to a reporter’s insinuation that he always acted as if Japan’s problems didn’t have much to do with him.

Best TV Commercial: Workman

This ad has actually been around for a few years. The production values are drab, and while the original song that enka (slow Japanese ballads) singer-songwriter Yoshi Ikuzo croons is catchy, the overall package looks cheap; which may be understandable for a retailer that sells apparel to construction workers and tradesmen.

But the sentiments are sincere and down-to-Earth, because that’s Ikuzo’s appeal: an identification with the working classes and the values they represent. In front of images of blue-collar types — both men and women — going about their occupations with smiles on their faces, Ikuzo (whose name means “Let’s go!”) tells them that they should be proud of the work they do because it supports their families and, in turn, strengthens their communities.

Given the current economic situation, which affects those at the bottom of the ladder first, it’s nice to be reminded, however cornily, that it is they who made Japan the comfortable place it is. What the commercial shows is an oversimplified ideal, but it still looks like a nice place to live.

Worst TV Commercial: Gaitame Online

A woman is getting ready to leave the office when her supervisor approaches with a stack of papers. He dumps the load on her desk, telling her to finish it before she goes. “It’s for your own good,” he says, to which she replies with a sharp “Huh?” He repeats the phrase with greater care and raised eyebrows.

In another spot, the same woman is having coffee with two female friends, about to dig into a slice of cake. One friend asks her if she isn’t on a diet and snatches the cake. “It’s for your own good,” she says, and the other friend says the same thing.

This signature line in Japanese is “Anata no tame dakara,” which includes a pun. “Tame” can mean “for the benefit of,” but its kanji character is also used as part of the compound “kawase,” or “money exchange.” The ads are for a company, Gaitame Online, which facilitates foreign-currency exchange by lending money to clients so they can buy currencies for speculative deals. It’s basically a form of gambling, but the commercials’ snide tone seems to indicate that you’re a fool if you don’t take advantage of what they have to offer.

Neologism of the Year: Hinkon bijinesu

The selection of “hen” (change) as the kanji of the year was wrong, according to critic Minako Saito, who proposes “hin” (poverty) instead. For sure, the media has been obsessed with the poor and how they get by, especially in their coverage of the emerging “indigence business,” most of which is in the form of companies who provide accommodations to people with extremely limited means. These news stories are sympathetic to the less fortunate, but they’re no less mercenary than the businesses themselves. Last summer in Osaka there was a fire at one of those mazelike video parlors that people use as cheap hotels, and a number of customers perished. TBS did an in-depth report on the fire by reconstructing an entire floor of the destroyed building in its studio. With the money the station spent on that one report, all the men who died probably could have lived in decent rooms for a year.

Most Annoying TV Personality: Masahiro Nakai

At one time the leader of the boy band SMAP was refreshingly blunt about his lack of musical and terpsichorean talent, which is presumably why he cultivated his skills as a TV host. But his detached approach is off-putting. Nakai mistakes coldness for candor and smugness for confidence. If he considers himself above the game, why doesn’t he just quit show business? Runners-up: Yukie Nakama, Yu Aoi and Ichiro Ozawa.