In praise of tireless women

In Japanese, a jagged stretch of coastline is referred to as riasu, which is taken from the Spanish word “rias.” The word is most commonly used on the northwestern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, or Galicia, which is characterized by hundreds of small coves that provide homes for a rich variety of sea life.

This week, the travel-variety show “Sekai Ururun Taizaiki” (World Sojourns; TBS, May 11, 10 p.m.) follows 32-year-old actress Kaoru Okunuki to a small village on the Galician coast where women do all the fishing.

In this region, the men traditionally undertook long voyages to fish the ocean, leaving the women to fend for themselves and feed their families in their absence. Consequently, coastal fishing has become an exclusively female occupation. In the village Okunuki visits, permits for coastal fishing are limited to 400 women, and there are 5,000 waiting for slots to open.

Okunuki spends a week living in the Castro household. The father of the house is 64 years old. He retired from deep-sea fishing at the age of 37 (most deep-sea fishermen in the area retire at about 40). His 60-year-old wife, Vistacion, however, has a coastal fishing permit (as do the couple’s two daughters) and still brings in seafood, mostly crab, shrimp and shellfish. Regulations limit Vistacion’s work to five days a week and two hours a day. And she is only allowed to use the simple tools that have been the coastal fisherwoman’s stock in trade for hundreds of years.

Okunuki goes out with Vistacion to learn how to fish the coast and finds that it is much more difficult than she imagined. She quickly develops painful blisters and has an epiphany about married life.

Another hardworking woman of the house is the heroine of a five-part NHK drama series that starts this week called “Mabodofu Wife” (NHK-G; Monday, 9:15 p.m.). Mabodofu is the ubiquitous Chinese dish of tofu in a spicy red pepper sauce. The series is based on the career of Kenmin Chen, a local Chinese cook who helped popularize Szechuan cooking in Japan in the late 1950s. His son, Kenichi, is now one of the most famous chefs in Japan. He owns several restaurants and is a popular TV personality.

The series is a fictionalization of Chen’s early career, and centers on his wife, Yoko (Keiko Matsuzaka), who was his muse. Komin Song (Tetsuya Takeda) is a great chef, but he can’t seem to hold down a job at any of Tokyo’s Chinese restaurants. He quits one job after another, frustrated that owners won’t tolerate Szechuan cooking, which they say is too spicy for Japanese tastes. In addition to supporting his wife and two children, Takako and Koichi, Song has two apprentices who live with him. The family is constantly broke.

Song is ready to throw in his wok and move to Canada, where an old friend is now living. The friend has offered him employment, but Yoko is adamant that the family not be broken up. She convinces him that he must open his own restaurant.

In the opening episode, Yoko returns home from her daily grocery shopping to find a crowd outside the house. Apparently, a neighbor called the police when he smelled something odd. The something odd is tobanjan, the hot Chinese mixed spice that Song makes from scratch.

Another true story, and one that almost all Japanese within proximity of a TV for the past six months surely know, is the basis of the 2 1/2-hour docudrama “Kita Chosen Rakuchi: Megumi, Okaasan ga kitto tsuket ageru (North Korean Abductions: Megumi, mother will help you without fail)” (TV Tokyo, Wed., 8:54 p.m.), which uses both news footage and dramatic re-enactment to tell the story of Sakie and Shigeru Yokota and their 25-year struggle to find out what happened to their daughter Megumi.

Megumi was 13 years old in 1977 when she disappeared on her way home from school in Niigata Prefecture. For one week, the police treated the case as a kidnapping. Then they turned it into an “open investigation.” There were never any clues, but her mother, Sakie (Keiko Takeshita), and father, Shigeru (Go Kato), never gave up hope.

In 1997, a former North Korean spy said he had met Megumi, and since then the Yokotas have been fighting, mostly with the Japanese Foreign Ministry, to find out what happened to their daughter. The docudrama also refers to other North Korean abductions.