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Hatoyama and sex changes? Time for our media awards

by Philip Brasor

Media person of the year: Noriko Sakai

In terms of the details of their respective scandals, Tiger Woods and Noriko Sakai seem to have little in common. The golfer got off with a small fine for crashing his car, while the idol singer spent weeks in jail and ended up with a criminal conviction and a suspended sentence. Tiger’s confessed sin was sleeping around (and around and around) outside his marriage, while Nori-P’s was smoking methamphetamine.

But their falls followed the same trajectory. Both started from a position of public trust in their carefully cultivated personas, so the distance of the drop was farther than what you normally see in similar scandals. Once they hit bottom everyone asked themselves the same question: How could we have believed they were that “good” in the first place?

This is especially true in Sakai’s case, since Woods is a man and while he successfully projected himself as a loving husband and father, how many men get caught fooling around every year? Sakai was the product of a celebrity-making machine that invests in illusions, and regardless of whether or not you believe the current campaign against celebrity drug-users is a witch hunt, Sakai’s regular use of “stimulants” so utterly clashed with her image as a pure and innocent kokuminteki idoru (idol for the masses) that severe and lasting damage has been inflicted on this machine.

The appeal of scandal is seeing someone who is better than us — or, more precisely, better off than us — pulled down to our level. And it’s even more appealing when they’re pulled lower. Since Sakai had further to fall, it seemed as if it took a lot longer than it really did, and we couldn’t help but watch.

Runnerup: Ichiro Ozawa

The Democratic Party of Japan gained a Lower House majority in the last election despite the participation of its current secretary general. And even if Ichiro Ozawa hadn’t been caught in a money scandal last spring, which forced him to resign the party presidency, the DPJ would have probably won anyway. The people hated the Liberal Democratic Party that much.

That’s saying something considering how unappealing Ozawa is on TV. Though his policies may differ from those of his former LDP pals, he seems to belong in their company. There’s the same stuffy air of entitlement, and if he’s in a situation where he has to answer reporters’ questions, he acts as if he were suffering an attack of indigestion. He can’t hide his discomfort and often responds with petulance and condescension. And now that he’s finally in the driver’s seat he has even less motivation to hide his ill humor.

Best TV commercial: Tokyo Gas

As the star of this year’s Sunday night NHK historical drama, Satoshi Tsumabuki didn’t have much time for anything else, but now that the series is over he can get back to doing what he does best, which is appearing in Tokyo Gas’ little domestic comedies.

Two new ones focus on gas ranges. Tsumabuki’s home is invaded by bus-tour groups, as if it were a sightseeing stop on some kind of anthropological field trip. The first group is Japanese, and he’s persuaded by the perky tour conductor, complete with uniform and flag, to show them how easy it is to clean his new range. He grudgingly complies.

In the second he’s making pancakes, apparently for the first time, when a group of foreign tourists walks in and peers over his shoulder as he cooks nervously. “Time to eat,” the guide chirps after he sits down to enjoy his breakfast, and everybody tries to join him. “Go home,” he keeps saying, but they all ignore him, particularly the bespectacled guy with the “I heart Roppongi” T-shirt, who insists on having his picture taken with “the master of the house.”

Worst TV commercial: PlayStation 3

A lot of people seem to love the “Playface” series, which features closeup head shots of people of both genders, various ages and body piercings presumably playing PlayStation games, but I find them creepy. The shock edits and sound effects emphasize the emotional extremes that people experience while playing the games, but I’d prefer not knowing what happens between a person and their computer monitor in the privacy of their own room.

TV personality of the year: Ai Haruna

For at least a decade, gender-bending tarento (TV celebrity) have been fixtures on television, and the most popular one at present is transsexual Ai Haruna, who supplanted makeup artist Ikko, who several years ago supplanted choreographer Kaba-chan, who previously supplanted somebody else. The accepted term for the demographic these individuals represent is LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender — but in Japanese show business all you really get is men or former men (“new halfs”) acting ultrafeminine. TV no longer seems interested in female-to-male transgenders (“Mr. Ladies”), and sexual orientation doesn’t even enter into it except by implication.

What makes Haruna noteworthy is that when she’s not on TV she has sometimes talked about the difficulties that members of the LGBT community experience in Japanese society, and how the only way she can make a living in show business is to be “the oddball.” Though she gets a lot of work, even on NHK, which not long ago shunned LGBT talent, she understands that she is playing a role for everyone’s amusement. That’s why she tends to be drawn into situations that compromise her hard-won feminine identity. Under normal circumstances her husky voice could be considered sexy, but on variety shows her fellow showbiz drones joke about how manly she sounds.

Most Valuable Player: Seiji Maehara

You may not like the new government, but you’ll have to admit that they cut a decidedly different figure than that of the LDP. When the LDP was in power, the only thing they were good for news-wise was internecine brawling. Now reporters also have to talk about policies.

Of all the DPJ honchos, land minister Seiji Maehara is the most distinctive. Stiff, reserved, unflappable, he projects a coldness that puts off many who work with him. His handling of the Yamba Dam issue has enraged some of the residents of the area where the dam was going to be built. They have been jerked around by the government for the past 40 years, and Maehara is not afraid to jerk them one more time for the sake of a principle: Why should we go ahead with an expensive project that everyone knows was initiated for the sake of political expedience?

This position may not last into the new year, but so far Maehara has expressed no regret or remorse over his decision in the face of average people with an ax to grind, and as a result the media has mostly given those average people the benefit of the doubt while portraying Maehara as someone who doesn’t care about them. And maybe he doesn’t. At least he’s honest.

Best show: Jigyo Shiwake

No TV programs were as entertaining and enlightening as coverage of the Administrative Reform Council, the group in charge of jigyo shiwake, or the screening of budget requests. It’s the hottest ticket in town. Even rock stars are trying to get a seat. Surveys have shown that one of the things the voters want the DPJ to do is reclaim for lawmakers some of the authority held by the bureaucracy, and what they’ve got as an ancillary bonus is a real show: sessions open to the public featuring confrontations between smug, entrenched bureaucrats and zealous, needling politicians.

The most zealous is DPJ Upper House member Ren Hou, who leans into her interlocutors with the tenacity of a pit bull, whether they be some land ministry flack with a comb-over stumping for a highway or a middle-aged school teacher defending her “women’s center.” A former pin-up model and TV news reporter, she knows what the camera sees and makes the most of her time in the spotlight. The media absolutely adore her. For once, a TV personality who cashed in her notoriety for political office puts her former calling to good use for the sake of the people.