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Frugality boom highlights fun and fulfillment of the simple life


As explained in this column several months ago, Japanese TV often adapts successful programming ideas from abroad. Still, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a local version of “Survivor.” Reality-based programming is already available in Japan. Years ago, “Denpa Shonen” moved beyond such simplistic ideas as sticking cameras in communal housing and throwing strangers together on a desert island.

In fact, reality-based programming has become so commonplace that it has begun to affect reality itself. At the moment there is a setsuyaku (frugality) boom that has been brought about in part by a popular segment of the otherwise unexceptional comedy-variety show, “Ikinari! Kogane Densetsu” (Asahi; Tue. 7 p.m.).

“Ikinari” is hosted by a young male comedy duo named Cocorico. As with other programs in the “Denpa Shonen” mold, “Ikinari” has no specific premise. It is essentially anything the producers want it to be, and relies a great deal on viewer suggestions.

Most of the show is quite unoriginal, but one segment has proven to be a hit. It chronicles the living strategies of young female tarento who must survive an entire month on 10,000 yen. That figure doesn’t include rent, but it does include everything else, even utilities.

The segment has been so successful that it’s been repeated several times. It has even spawned a best-selling book consisting mainly of recipes that were used on the show for ultra-cheap but nevertheless nutritious and delicious meals. The putative author of the book is the main “idol” of the segment, Michiyo Nakajima, who has been busy this past summer attending autograph sessions at selected bookstores. More than 200 people showed up for one session in Akasaka alone. Nakajima has also reportedly received dozens of marriage proposals. Though she started out as your average run-of-the-mill idol (bit parts in TV dramas, commercials) she has become a star in her own right, Japan’s first “cho-setsuyaku idol” (super-frugal idol).

For her current ordeal she has been saddled with a partner, which means two people have to live off 10,000 yen for a month. The partner, another idol named Rika Unuma, is younger and says that before she joined the show Nakajima was her hero and role model.

It should be pointed out that most of the money-saving ideas do not originate with the two young stars, but are sent in by viewers, mainly housewives, who have their own penny-pinching strategies. What Nakajima brings to the experiment is a kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm that goes beyond professionalism. Solving problems, even if the solutions are someone else’s, becomes a heady accomplishment week after week.

That’s because what these two women are doing isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially in Tokyo. Though the girls eschew air conditioning and don’t watch TV, their utility bills — water, gas and electricity — come to about 700 yen a week (excluding basic charges), which doesn’t sound like much but puts a sizable dent in their funds.

They’ve cut down on utilities as much as they can, so any suggestions in that area are more in the realm of coping with the attendant lack of creature comforts. (No air conditioning? Keep your clothes in the freezer.) If you’ve ever had to live on practically nothing, you know that the only budget component that can be cut immediately is food, and so that’s what the girls concentrate on. In a recent installment, they made an entire meal with soy-beans that were not cooked on the stove but soaked in a thermos of hot water overnight (no gas). With the soft beans they made homemade tofu, yuba and several other appealing dishes. They, in fact, made two meals from the beans, which cost altogether a little more than 100 yen.

Of course, since the girls don’t have regular jobs, they are free to spend their time thinking of ways to save money, so it isn’t “reality” as most people know it. But if the show has social resonance it’s because the nagging recession has already forced a lot of homemakers to think in the same way, and in that regard the segment has something important to say, even if the producers aren’t attempting to say it.

Japan is a land of ascetics, whether real or potential. People have been conditioned to do without large living space and the kinds of amenities that Americans take for granted. A commonly held opinion is that if the Japanese asserted themselves, they could live as well as Americans and Europeans. But while both the public and private sectors take advantage of the citizenry’s lack of political will, frugality is still considered a cardinal virtue by the majority. Despite the recession, savings levels have actually increased, and though on one hand that can be attributed to unease about the future, on the other it demonstrates a strong streak of practicality that should not be discouraged.

No government of a developed country, least of all Japan, is happy with the unavoidable task of figuring out how to make resource austerity jibe with economic growth. Somewhere in Michiyo and Rika’s trials may lie an answer. Most people will say they aren’t a reliable measure because they’re only being frugal for a month, but what’s appealing about their experiment is how much pleasure they get from saving money while still eating well.

We will all have to make do with less in the future. However, we’ve been led to believe that austerity automatically means hardship. That idea, in fact, is the subliminal message of “Survivor,” which is why the producers have to offer the last man standing a million bucks. Michiyo and Rika prove that living lightly by one’s own wits can be fulfilling in and of itself, not to mention fun.

I’d be honored to share a desert island with them, for free.