‘Ainori’ teaches lessons in love … and soft power

by

Contributing Writer

Netflix Japan’s reboot of the reality show “Ainori” features plenty of drama — most of it interpersonal, but some geopolitical.

The streaming-era version of the show, a joint effort between Fuji TV and Netflix, debuted last fall. Like the original incarnation that ran from 1999 until 2009, the program follows seven people touring overseas in a pink bus dubbed “the love wagon.” Besides tourism, the participants try to find love among each another. They can confess their feelings to their intended and, if reciprocated, the couple then head back to Japan. If rejected, the initiator returns alone and a new person shows up in their place.

Sixteen episodes deep at time of publication, Netflix’s “Ainori Love Wagon: Asian Journey” boasts highlights galore. TV personality Becky shines as one of the hosts offering commentary between segments (after being the butt of “love gone wrong” jokes for the first five episodes). One episode ends up being a meta commentary on taking part in a reality show and even features a fight!

Just as intriguing, though, is the “edutainment” “Ainori” presents. These “a very special episode” moments also popped up plenty in the original run, with entire installments devoted to the cast learning about issues like global warming. The 2017 relaunch has featured long sections about the importance of family and how to be happy in the face of late capitalism (no, really). On their recent jaunt through Thailand, they even offer a comprehensive intro to LGBTQ issues, making this Netflix reality show more in-tune with the world than Japan’s most authoritative dictionary.

“Ainori” has also always served up a healthy dollop of soft power flexing — while the participants learn plenty about the world, they also get a chance to see how Japan is (more often than not, positively) viewed globally. Entire episodes focused on how much good “Ainori” — and by proxy, Japan — did for the nations they visited, such as helping to construct a school in Kenya.

“Asian Journey” restricts the love bus to the titular continent, and offers a glance at Japan’s place in it. Reactions range from straightforward exclamations of “Wow, what a cool place” to deeper looks at how Japan is helping nations develop. The episodes set in Myanmar (presented as one of the kindest countries in Asia — a little awkward considering the attacks on Rohingya Muslims there) climaxed in an entire episode focused on a Japanese doctor working pro bono in a rural part of the country.

Things get good when “Ainori” throws political shade, though. The Taiwan stretch of the show includes a segment about how much the people there love Japan. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, they donated ¥18 billion to affected areas in six months. But despite the Japanese government taking out thank you ads in newspapers in the U.S., France, Korea and elsewhere, Taiwan didn’t get one. Why? Because it isn’t recognized as a country.

“I felt ashamed,” one participant says on learning this fact. While the story prompts the team to repair a damaged bridge as a belated thank you (Japan — so kind!), the not-so-subtle message is that the real bad guy, China, is making it impossible to recognize Taiwanese decency.

These instances elevate “Ainori” from simple dating-via-travel show to one of the most interesting Japan-in-the-world programs running. Nobody has found love on the show yet, but we’ve gotten plenty of looks at how Japan wants to be adored.

“Ainori Love Wagon: Asian Journey” is streaming at www.netflix.com or via the Netflix app.