Suffer the little children; endure the fitness freaks

TV personality Tetsuko Kuroyanagi recently made her 20th journey overseas as a special ambassador for UNICEF. This time she went to Somalia and, as always, a TV Asahi crew followed her as she looked into the plight of children in the war-torn country. An account of her trip will be broadcast Sunday at 2 p.m.

Somalia has existed in a state of protracted anarchy for many years, plagued by ongoing civil war, drought and an acute lack of infrastructure, medical services and educational opportunity. One of the most serious outcomes of the country’s troubles is the large number of abandoned children. Because parents cannot feed or otherwise take care of their children, they often leave them in front of orphanages, public toilets and village wells. Many of these children grow up with severe disabilities owing to malnutrition and lack of sufficient sanitation.

Kuroyanagi will look into a practice that rarely gets discussed on television: female genital mutilation. Sometimes referred to as “female circumcision,” this very painful custom (it is performed on young girls without anesthetic) is still widespread in Somalia, where the acknowledged untouchable caste (or, more precisely, tribe) makes its living carrying out the operation. It is the only work available to them.

Besides being painful, the procedure is very dangerous. It often leads to deadly urinary-tract infections, and childbirth in later years becomes more difficult. The infant mortality rate for children of circumcised mothers is very high.

During his visit to Pyongyang last week, there were several topics that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did not discuss with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. One was Kim’s son’s apparent fondness for Tokyo Disneyland. The other was the group of Japanese leftists who hijacked a JAL passenger plane in 1970 and took it to North Korea, where they have been living every since.

The adventure, known as the Yodo-go Incident, after the name of the airplane, was — along with the Asama Sanso standoff that also involved leftwing youths — the first large-scale TV news event in Japan. A group of militants armed with swords and a pistol stormed the Boeing 727 on March 31 at Haneda Airport. There were 138 passengers and crew on board. The plane first went to Fukuoka, where about 20 hostages were released, and then on to Seoul. The plane remained in Seoul for three days as authorities negotiated the release of the rest of the passengers. Finally, a Japanese bureaucrat took the place of the hostages before the plane went to its final destination, Pyongyang. No one was injured.

Monday night at 9 p.m., Nippon TV will present a special two-hour docudrama about the incident. Real footage of the adventure will be shown, and testimony of people involved has been used to re-create in dramatic form what actually happened inside the airplane.

The timing is appropriate, since in July some of the surviving hijackers announced that they will return to Japan (some wives and children have already arrived here), where they face criminal charges. The group, in fact, has also been implicated in the North Korean abductions of Japanese travelers in Europe during the 1980s.

Last spring, TBS’s long-running sports game show “Kinniku Banzuke (Muscle Ranking)” was canceled after two participants were seriously hurt during one of its grueling events. After what was obviously considered the proper period of atonement, the show is returning as a regular series next month, but it will have a different name: “Taiiku Okoku Physical Education Kingdom.”

Impatient to get the moneymaker back on track, TBS will air a special two-hour presentation of the most popular segment of “Kinniku Banzuke,” the nearly impossible obstacle course known as “Sasuke” (Wednesday, 9 p.m.). Consisting of ropes, moats, huge weights, giant swinging hammers and other intimidating features, the obstacle course is open to amateur and professional athletes alike, but this special show will feature only “average people.”

“Average,” however, doesn’t really describe these contestants, many of whom have made the successful completion of Sasuke a lifetime goal. They returned month after month when the original show was on the air, and even rigged up similar obstacle courses near their homes so that they could practice. Among this week’s challengers are a gas station manager, a University of Tokyo student, a fireman, a fisherman, a doctor, a scientist, and . . . an Olympic medalist? How’d he get in there?

TV Asahi will present a completely different kind of “battle” on Thursday at 7 p.m. Three budding female idols will slug it out for the title of Penny-pinching Queen on “Ikinari! Ogon Densetsu (Suddenly! The Legend of Gold).”

The program is yet another special expanded version (three hours in this case) of a popular variety show segment. Each of the three contestants will be given 10,000 yen and will have to live for a full month on the money, not including rent. That means they have to save on food and utilities. The person who has the most money left over after a month is the winner.

Among the penny-pinching ideas the girls come up with is giving up makeup in order to save on water and purchasing a chicken to save money on eggs.