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Travel shows warp true globalization

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Now that Tokyo has been given the honor of hosting the 2020 Olympic Games, the city, as well as all of Japan, will spend the next seven years “internationalizing” (kokusai-ka), a term that becomes fashionable again every few years when something like this happens. Theoretically a circumscribed society can internationalize only once, and the consensus is that it happened to Japan in the 1980s after the economy had become strong enough to compel companies and individuals to go overseas. In media terms it was the era that generated TV travel shows such as TV Asahi’s now-defunct “Naruhodo the World” and TBS’s still-running “Sekai Fushigi Hakken,” which introduced viewers to exotic locales. These programs were sometimes derided for presenting other cultures in overly simplistic terms through a narrow set of values.

Some programs are still derided in accordance with the idea that Japanese people believe themselves to be unique members of the human race: Japan isn’t so much a part of the world as it is standing slightly outside of it, and while it is perfectly happy to interact it can’t do so without feeling self-conscious. In a recent post on his blog JAPANsociology, Ritsumeikan University associate professor Robert Moorehead discusses a Japanese symposium on internationalization where young people from other countries were asked their opinions on “the most impressive feature” of Japanese corporations. “In other words,” Moorehead writes, “they were asked to tell their hosts how great (the Japanese) are.”

This perception is still the basis for many TV travel programs, but the angle of contact has been altered. The traditional methodology is to send a TV personality to a foreign land and have them directly sample the culture and its trappings in a way that makes sense to Japanese viewers. There are also shows, such as Nippon TV’s “Woman on the Planet” and TBS’s “Dare ka Jiman Shitaku Naru Nihonjin” (“Japanese We Want to Brag About”), that cover Japanese people who specifically take the “challenge” of living and working abroad.

But a new type of series has developed in response to the realization that some Japanese people have gone overseas for reasons that aren’t always clear. The titles of these programs betray their parochial appeal. TV Tokyo’s “Sekai Nazo Soko ni Nihonjin” (Fri., 7:54 p.m.) asks why Japanese people would be living “in that place,” and borrows a conceit from investigative journalism by giving the impression that the “reporters” have to track down these persons. How they heard about them in the first place is a more relevant question, but answering it would spoil the fun. The presumption is that the producers are taking a chance by spending a great deal of money to fly a video crew to a faraway land with no guarantee that they will find this peculiar Japanese individual, but, of course, they always do.

A recent dispatch was particularly action-packed. The crew went to Zambia to find a Japanese businessman who was “on the run.” At first, it sounded as if he was a fugitive from Japanese justice, but soon it became apparent that the man was the target of bad intentions within Zambia. As on all variety shows, the suspense regarding the truth behind the implication was drawn out repeatedly with pre-commercial break teasers that included brief dramatizations of a native employee running into the man’s office and telling him of a rumor that his life was in danger, and a genuine newspaper article about a Japanese aid worker killed in Zambia some years ago.

The idea that the world is a perilous place is central to these reports, and Africa is portrayed as being more perilous than others, so it’s easy to generate tension, even if there’s a wink-and-nod quality to the drama. As it turned out, the businessman had gone to Zambia to save his family business, a Kyoto gas station, from bankruptcy by selling used Japanese cars, which are in great demand there. The rumors of bodily harm had something to do with a disgruntled ex-partner and turned out to be groundless. He seems to be a well-liked member of the community.

TV Asahi’s similarly titled “Konna Tokoro ni Nihonjin” (“A Japanese Person in Such a Place”; Fri., 9 p.m.) focuses as much on the celebrity reporter as it does on the subject. On last week’s show, former idol singer Nana Okada went to northern Australia to hunt for a Japanese woman who was rumored to be living in a remote village. Half the segment was taken up with Okada’s difficulties in finding out just where this village was, and since she was asking in Sydney answers weren’t forthcoming. Naturally, the crew knew, but for Okada to earn her fee she had to find out herself.

It took her another full day to finally reach her destination and locate the woman, who we learn had gone to Australia some years ago to study dance, married and later divorced an Australian man, and decided to stay after earning a teaching credential. She was an instructor at an elementary school for Aboriginal children. As with the businessman in Zambia, this woman’s story was interesting in and of itself, but by framing it in terms of confronting Japanese viewers’ expectations instead of making it about the woman’s own initiative it becomes less of a story and more of a stunt.

“Konna Tokoro” also has a regular segment in which comedian Seiji Chihara goes to an African country to find a resident Japanese person. Again, the focus is on Chihara rather than the subject as he reveals his unworldliness in the face of the unknown. It’s Chihara’s comic, sometimes patronizing innocence that’s stressed. In all the segments Chihara and the other celebrity reporters only speak Japanese and are constantly wheeling around their luggage, which is meant to show how difficult it is for them to do what they’re doing, though one has to assume that behind the camera is a personal manager and probably even a makeup and hair person. There are some things you just can’t leave home without.

  • Ron NJ

    Excellent article. The media here seems to really try to reinforce that “being in foreign countries is dangerous or difficult” line in the majority of their shows, rather than focusing on the good things that lots of these places have to offer – something a lot of people take issue with when people (rightly or not) criticize Japan. Even if not exactly so, it is certainly close enough to a pot/kettle/black situation to warrant thought and discussion; after all, what purpose does reinforcing the (often untrue) stereotypes the Japanese have about “the gaikoku” other than further insulating them from the international community?

    • Mark Makino

      It took me a long time to realize this, but “internationalism” in the mind of devout nationalists is just a means of making the borders between countries/cultures/races clearer. Hence the memes “I went abroad and realized how great Japan is” “One can only be international when one has a clear national identity” and my favorite “We want to learn the international language to teach foreigners to appreciate Japanese culture”.

  • Robert Moorehead

    Thank you for citing my blog! Here’s a link to the blog: http://japansociology.com
    and to the post you cited:
    http://japansociology.com/2013/09/08/tell-us-how-impressive-we-are/

  • wadih fayad

    i think that they somehow are right how many safe places can they travel to : some countries in far east, russia, europe, states, canada, oceania, not too much !

  • Tokumei

    Philip, I think you are too harsh in this article. I have watched maybe four or five episodes of these shows (can not recall show names), although human interest and formulaic, they do show the outside world. And the average watcher would turn off if it were a true documentary. It is a truth self evident that most of the world is dangerous, dirty and disorganised compared with Japan and other first world nations. Further I think it is unfair to claim these shows as completely representative of Japan – what about Japan’s vast print media? – or the western channels on pay TV? – onine media? – NHK?

    Also I would argue that Japan is not so inward looking. I used to think that myself but I have changed my mind. Many Japanese make the effort to travel abroad to a variety of places and to study languages. Based on my experience, comparative to Australia, I would claim that the Japanese are more worldly. It just doesn’t always feel that way when you are in Japan and you bet asked questions such as ‘Where is Australia? What language do Australians speak?’. (Yet I have met Australians who think that Japanese speak Chinese…)

    Back on the travel shows, in the end they are actually fascinating to watch – you just have to zone out of the filler material.

  • YourMessageHere

    Isn’t it rather more important that, irrespective of postive or negative slant, they’re treating the foreign country as simply a stage-set for Japanese people to behave on, and calling that the content of the show, rather than taking the foreign country, to say nothing of the culture or people, as the content of the show?

    If I watch a programme about (say) Swaziland, I don’t want some British talking head constantly behaving-to-camera and meeting some other British ex-pat, I want the programme to be about Swazi people. The entire point of this sort of thing is to show how people in other countries might do stuff differently but share basic things. Concentrating on your own cultural perspective and spending the whole programme othering the destination is self-defeating.

    • Tokumei

      But not everyone seeks high brow TV.

      England has an ‘An Idiot Abroad’… Which in some ways is a show of similar substances. Very funny show though.

      • YourMessageHere

        That doesn’t make it highbrow, it simply elevates it from navel-gazing, self-absorbed time filler. Besides, from what little I see of Japanese TV, if you do seek highbrow TV, you’re going to be completely disappointed.

      • Tokumei

        I agree but from the opposite perspective. I don’t watch western TV anymore save the odd doco. But I watch Japanese TV occasionally as it can serve as a window into japan (and helps my language skills). Japanese TV is no better than western tv… And yes little highbrow…. But I would argue that these travel shows are a cut above the average Japanese TV, and they are not being produced in place ofdocumentaries.

  • jpn_guy

    Having family in the
    Caribbean, I was delighted when a friend rang to say a TV show featuring our
    little country had just begun. I tuned in eager with anticipation and just
    missed the end of the only segment actually shot on the island (a brief introduction
    which must have lasted all of 3 minutes). The remainder of the show followed a
    TV crew from the island as they traveled around making a show about Japan.

    It
    then proceeded to get navel-gazingly worse as they cut back to the studio for a
    quiz. The celebrities in the studio had to guess how the West Indian TV crew
    felt about various aspects of Japanese life.

    To
    add another layer of intrigue, the erudite celebrities spent precious airtime
    discussing their own guesses about how the foreign visitors felt, which were
    soon to be proved wrong anyway when the quiz answers were revealed. I am
    not making this up!

    I
    am not sure if there is even a world in the English language for this kind of
    fatuous multi-layered narcissism.

    This
    is a fine article but, if anything, Mr. Brasor is not harsh enough!