Two weeks ago one of the big stories in the tabloid press was on Jurip Al-Asa, the father of popular TV personality Rola. He was in the news because the Tokyo Metropolitan Police had issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of swindling. Allegedly, Jurip, a Bangladesh national, conspired with a compatriot to defraud the national health insurance system of ¥875,000 in benefits by claiming that the compatriot, who lives in Japan and pays into the system, received medical care abroad and was thus entitled to be reimbursed. The police claim that the receipt for the medical care was forged. He has since fled Japan.
Anyone who watches any amount of Japanese TV will conclude that the story wouldn’t have warranted coverage if Jurip wasn’t Rola’s father; which isn’t to say that such fraud cases don’t deserve media attention, only that they normally don’t get it unless the amount of money is particularly large or there are extenuating circumstances, such as the fact that the suspect’s daughter is a media fixture. In any case, the combination of high-profile relation and foreign passport automatically makes tabloid reporters think: That’s exactly the sort of thing I’m supposed to cover.
The coverage was snarky but also fat-free. The weekly magazine Bunshun barely concealed it’s lack of genuine interest but acknowledged that it needed to address the story with a gratuitous one-page knockoff that took advantage of a brief telephone conversation one of its reporters had with Jurip seven months ago, when the magazine was pursuing a different story that implied he had brought relatives to Japan from Bangladesh to work illegally. The quotes used in the piece made him look rude and thus suspicious, but the article didn’t bring up anything new. The celebrity gossip magazine Asahi Geino suggested that Jurip might be a “mafia boss” in Bangladesh, based on police statements, and then speculated that as a result of the story Rola isn’t long for the show business world.
The mainstream press made more of the warrant than they normally would, and all mentioned Rola in their reports. Though the morning wide shows could be expected to cover the matter since Rola is one of their own, the national newspapers and wire services also dedicated resources to the story. There is no doubt that the warrant qualifies as news, but some journalists seem to be hesitant because covering it might confer some measure of responsibility on Rola. We still live in a world where the sins of the fathers, even those not proven yet, are borne by the children, and many people think it’s unfair that she has to answer for her dad’s alleged misdemeanors just because she’s famous.
However, a closer look at the way the story developed reveals something interesting. According to the Internet news service J-Cast, though the reaction on the infamous chat site 2Channel has been anything but sympathetic (“the daughter of the swindler should be made to pay the money back”), elsewhere people have questioned the press’s handling of the story and flooded social media sites like Twitter with Rola-positive comments that range from the self-serving (“without Rola variety shows are boring”) to the self-evident (“her father is her father; Rola is Rola”). And while Asahi Geino, for one, reported that the dozen companies who use her in their advertising are currently “restudying” her contracts, they don’t say that any have been cancelled. J-Cast conjectures that a company might think that if it fires her its image will suffer more than if it doesn’t. The hair-care products manufacturer Tsuyamoto Beauty, for one, has expressly said it does not plan to drop Rola.
If Rola hasn’t been hurt by the press attention it may be due to her peculiar star quality. Her odd behavioral tics, meant to enhance her adorability, include puffing out her cheeks and pursing her lips in an exaggerated fashion. Like her inability to speak polite Japanese and the resulting embarrassed effusions, they betray innocence and earnestness at the same time. Unlike other similarly talent-challenged female model-idols, whether wholly Japanese or mongrel, she gets away with the act because she doesn’t use it to suck up to her interlocutors. Three years ago, when she made her first appearance on the talk show “Odoru! Sanma Goten,” the host, comedian Sanma Akashiya, asked her bluntly, “Did your agency tell you to act that way?” She denied it did. Some of her fellow TV personalities still react negatively whenever she goes into Rola mode. Calculated or not, this set of traits is weird and distinctive enough to make her stand out. That doesn’t mean she adds anything compelling to the usual variety show nonsense, but within that already weird world she at least strikes viewers as being genuine. She talks back to her betters, and while the sting of impertinence is lessened by the artless attitude, it makes her different and the difference protects her.
The press feels it’s OK to take advantage of Rola’s notoriety in their coverage not just because of her quasi-alien status, which makes her an easy target, but also because her talent agency, Libera Production, isn’t very big. Last year, when the mother of AKB48 member Minami Takahashi was arrested for having “indecent relations” with a minor, the press was careful so as not to upset one of the most powerful companies in show business. In that instance, the relationship between parent and child was relevant to the story since the mother had reportedly gained access to the victim through her daughter’s fame. Rola is said to be close to her father, but no one, not even the tabloids, implies she had any involvement in or knowledge of the alleged swindle. She apologized by fax, saying she became aware of the warrant through the news, and that was that. She’s still on the air giggling and sticking her tongue out, resigned to the fact that there’s nothing she can do about it. Regardless of the effect of the coverage, her moment in the limelight will be over soon enough, so she might as well enjoy it while she can.