Social media continues to undermine the influence of the more traditional kind exemplified by television and print publications, so my choices of most notable public phenomena of 2013 are qualified by the notion that maybe people aren’t paying as much attention to them as I might think.
But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be paying attention to them.
Media person of the year: Naoki Inose
The once respected writer and pundit’s humiliating exit from politics capped a roller-coaster year in the national — and sometimes international — limelight that mostly shined on the downhill part of the ride.
The media concluded hubris was Inose’s downfall, but that also happened to be the trait that made his predecessor in the Tokyo governor’s seat a success. Shintaro Ishihara’s staying power is predicated on his unflinching arrogance rather than accomplishments or ideological stance. The Japanese electorate is less enamored of reactionary right-wing positions than their voting record might indicate, but they do admire integrity, or, at least, the appearance of it. For all his blustery self-importance and narrow-minded demagoguery, Ishihara never contradicted himself, while Inose spent a good part of 2013 back-pedaling from statements and actions he obviously didn’t think through carefully.
Given Inose’s track record as an establishment-shaker who valued fiscal responsibility over political expediency, his inconsistency was disappointing. Ishihara didn’t invite him to participate in public affairs because of his ideology, which isn’t the same as Ishihara’s, but because he could stand up to entrenched bureaucratic interests. And he did.
He was a successful, established writer who didn’t need public office to fall back on. That’s why his explanation for why he accepted a ¥50 million interest-free loan from a wealthy family who would eventually be investigated for violating voting laws sounded stupid. At that time, Inose was a candidate for Tokyo governor and virtually assured the job thanks to Ishihara’s endorsement, but he claims he was afraid that if he lost he would be broke. That might pass as an excuse for a career politician with no real-life experience (which describes most of them), but Inose could practically print money by jotting off another historical tome guaranteed to be a bestseller — or having his handful of full-time assistants jot it off for him. His lack of foresight crashed headlong into his lack of hindsight. The embarrassing pas de deux in the Tokyo Assembly over how much cash can fit in a standard briefcase was the sort of performance the media relish, since all they have to do is run it without comment.
And then there was the Tokyo Olympic bid, a project he inherited and exhibited no noticeable interest in when he was vice governor. It took up almost all his time during his year at the top, his only solo accomplishment being the launch of a 24-hour bus service between Roppongi and Shibuya. Forcing himself to demonstrate enthusiasm for the games, he almost blew the bid twice, first in a New York Times interview where he showed off his ignorance of the world, and second in Buenos Aires when he made his pitch in faltering English accompanied by awkward gestures and one of the most insincere smiles in the annals of public relations. Inose is a lot of things, but he is not a smiler. The fact that Tokyo won despite his cringe-worthy performance only proves that the IOC had already made up its mind.
Topic of the year: Employment hell
The most popular TV series of the year was “Hanzawa Naoki,” the story of a banker out for revenge. Though the show’s dramatic appeal was the fall of someone in a high position, the underlying attraction was its setting — the go-go 1980s, when college graduates took secure jobs for granted. The drama was in the way the characters conducted themselves in their occupations.
Things are different in the 2010s. Drama nowadays derives from the process of getting a job and then surviving it, as demonstrated by the extensive coverage of “black kigy?,” companies that exploit employees’ anxiety about job security by overworking them.
The civil-servant comedy show “Dandarin” skewered the practice, but employment hell was more effectively addressed by three bestselling novels, two of them prize-winners, that describe the hardships of new recruits: Ko Shinjo’s “Saisho Teitaku,” about a young man trying, and failing, to make it as a real estate salesman; Hiroko Oyamada’s “Kojo,” about a young college graduate forced to work in a factory; and Ryo Asai’s “Nanimono,” which presents the job-search process as a life-and-death struggle.
What’s notable about these three debuts is that they were written by people who wanted good jobs and turned to writing only because they couldn’t get them: literature as last resort.
TV personality of the year: Hiroiki Ariyoshi
Formerly half of the comedy duo Saruganseki, Ariyoshi spent a number of years in show biz limbo after the act broke up in 2004. By the end of the decade, he had remade himself as an acid-tongued variety show regular, which paid off in 2013 with at least three hosting gigs. Often compared with Shinsuke Shimada, another popular comedian who parlayed a sharp sense of humor into a lucrative career as an emcee, and who eventually lost it all because of bad choices, Ariyoshi isn’t as mean-spirited. He is perfectly positioned to replace the biggest emcee in Japan, Monta Mino, whose own indiscretions finally caught up with him this year.
Best TV commercial: Fuji-Q Highland
Set to a fast chindon (traditional street music) rhythm, this animated CM features static, old-fashioned wood-block portraits of kabuki actors depicted in open-mouthed terror as they try out wooden prototypes of various rides at the famous Shizuoka Prefecture amusement park, including its notoriously scary roller coasters. The advertising copy asks, “Is it the great view or the screaming?” Actually, you can’t have one without the other.
Most valuable player: Minako Saito
The Japanese mainstream press doesn’t always address the status quo with the kind of skepticism it is supposed to epitomize. Saito, Tokyo Shimbun’s best columnist, not only questions the status quo, but does so with an incisive, pungent wit that withstands reflexive rebuttal, a talent best exercised in her ongoing criticism of the Tokyo Olympics. Writing about the bid committee’s reassurances to the world that the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is under control, she asked rhetorically if you would invite friends to your house for a party “if your toilet was broken.”