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Japan’s No. 1 playboy hardly a lady- killer

by Philip Brasor

Talk-show host David Letterman obviously did the right thing when during a recent monologue he confessed to having had sex with some of his female staff. He made the admission to pre-empt news that he had been blackmailed for his indiscretions, but whatever the revelation said about Letterman’s lack of workplace propriety and faithfulness to his significant other, it certainly proved he’s a shrewd judge of publicity. His show’s ratings soared afterward, probably because Letterman’s viewers never thought he had it in him.

Some celebrities actually make a living off of such revelations. Junichi Ishida has always been described as an actor, though I’ve never actually seen him act in anything. The son of a well-known NHK announcer, he’s a fixture on variety shows where he pimps his erudition, worldliness and unique sense of style — if you can call an aversion to socks a sense of style.

He is often hired to appear at publicity events because his presence guarantees that the press will show up. Sponsors know that Ishida loves to shoot the breeze about romance and his relationships with beautiful women. Ever since he said in 1996 that all great culture has been inspired by “infidelity,” he’s promoted himself as a charming home-wrecker, though a close look at his scandal rap sheet indicates he’s really more of a serial monogamist. At 55, Ishida has been married and divorced twice, and he’s about to get hitched again.

In fact, the whole process of his courtship of 33-year-old pro-golfer Riko Higashio and the long leadup to the romance was the subject of a special three-hour edition of the TV Asahi variety show “London Hearts” broadcast Sept. 29.

“London Hearts,” hosted by the comedy duo London Boots, is predicated on hidden camera setups involving unsuspecting members of the public and celebrities. Many of the setups are romantic in nature. The show likes to tag along surreptitiously on dates.

Back in 2005, when Ishida broke up with his girlfriend after a long relationship, Atsushi Tamura (one-half of London Boots) waylaid the actor at Narita Airport upon his return from New York with a proposition. He wanted to closely cover Ishida’s love life up until the point he got married a third time.

The three-hour special was a record of that coverage climaxing with Ishida popping the question to Higashio at a resort on the Greek island of Mikonos in August. The show was then followed by a press conference carried live as it happened, with Ishida taking reporters’ questions about the courtship and his upcoming nuptials.

When Tamura first put the idea to Ishida, the actor seemed reluctant to have his every romantic notion and action recorded by cameras, but he accepted, probably knowing that the coverage would allow him to keep up appearances as “Japan’s No. 1 playboy,” a reputation basically self-promoted and the main source of his livelihood.

This reputation is maintained with the help of tabloids and weeklies, in particular Friday magazine, which for a time appeared to have a photographer specially assigned to Ishida. Every so often he would be caught at night with a young woman, presumably on their way to some love nest, but when Tamura cornered him about these sightings they turned out to be nothing. Usually, he had been out drinking with friends and was simply escorting one of them home. One time he was photographed lying on a sidewalk passed out drunk, a potential embarrassment he turned around by re-enacting it on “London Hearts” for the benefit of a hidden-camera prank.

In fact, the show had to really stretch to find anything salacious in Ishida’s life. At one point, they made a big thing about a barbecue beef restaurant where Ishida always brought his dates, but except for discovering how he rates these dates (the more expensive the wine he orders, the more he likes a particular woman), there seemed to be little evidence that any of them developed into one-night stands, much less relationships. In 2006, the women’s weekly Shukan Josei reported that Ishida was trying to make up with his previous girlfriend, thus indicating a certain degree of desperation.

It’s easy to believe that all of this was invented for the sake of a narrative, but one thing that seemed credible was the rapport between Tamura and Ishida. As it became clear that Ishida’s love life was actually pretty arid and the tabloids were finding fewer reasons to follow him, he opened up more with the comedian, who was encouraged to stop by Ishida’s increasingly deluxe bachelor pads (whatever else it is, Ishida’s brand of self-promotion is definitely lucrative) anytime he wanted.

Which is why Tamura found out about Higashio before the rest of the media did. Ishida revealed to him in April his intention to ask her to marry him, at which point Tamura persuaded him to allow a TV crew to videotape the proposal without Higashio knowing about it. What followed was several months of preparation, including Ishida rehearsing the speech he would make to her father, Osamu, the infamously gruff former manager of the Seibu Lions, who reportedly wasn’t too keen on the idea that his daughter was dating a man four years younger than himself.

The proposal couldn’t help but be anticlimactic since Ishida told the press in July that he planned to pop the question eventually. Higashio must have expected it, though she did seem surprised when it happened on Mikonos. “I’m not wearing makeup,” she cried when Tamura’s hidden cameramen revealed themselves after the proposal.

So how does Ishida make a living now that he’s a married man and can’t exploit his playboy image? For a while, he can cash in on the marriage itself, as long as Higashio is game — or even if she isn’t. As Ishida said, infidelity makes the world go ’round, especially when you’ve got a good publicist.