National / Media

'Sakura' -- or 'E.T. Comes to Japan'

by Glen S. Fukushima

One of the staples of Japanese daytime television for more than four decades has been the NHK Renzoku Terebii Shosetsu (serialized television novel), broadcast six days per week, Monday through Saturday, from 8:15 to 8:30 a.m. Begun in 1961, each “novel” runs for 26 or 52 weeks.

The series, which usually features a heroine struggling to overcome adversity and triumphing by the end of the story, has often been seen as reflecting the Japanese zeitgeist. The most famous example, “Oshin,” broadcast in 1983 and 1984, attracted a remarkable 52.6 percent audience share and was widely interpreted as an allegory of Japan’s century-long emergence as a modern state.

The current series, “Sakura,” which began on April 1, is the 66th NHK morning drama. What is unusual about this series is that the main character is not a Japanese woman but a 23-year-old yonsei(fourth-generation descendent of Japanese ancestry) from Hawaii, Elizabeth Sakura Matsushita. Having viewed the first 36 installments (April 1-May 11), I am tempted to subtitle the series “E.T. (the Extra Terrestrial) Comes to Japan.”

Just as E.T. comes to Earth for the first time from another planet, Sakura (the name the protagonist prefers to use) arrives in Japan for the first time at age 23, having studied Japanese literature and language at the University of Hawaii. And like E.T., Sakura is good-natured and well-meaning, although prone to stumble into one problem after another.

As drama, “Sakura” has a certain appeal. It provides humor, insight and entertainment. But like “E.T.,” it is ultimately a work of fantasy.

First, Sakura’s family members in Hawaii all speak Japanese at home. This is understandable for her mother and grandmother, both born and raised in Japan. But it is hard — next to impossible — to imagine that second-, third-, and fourth-generation Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii would speak to each other in flawless, standard Japanese, as they do throughout this drama.

Second, Robbie, Sakura’s Caucasian fiance, also speaks in fluent Japanese with Sakura and her family. In fact, the Matsushitas think and behave like a Japanese, not a Japanese-American, family.

Third, Sakura is depicted as speaking fluent and impeccable Japanese, and being “more Japanese than the Japanese” in her desire to preserve “traditional Japanese values” (respect for elders, etc.) that have largely faded from contemporary Japan. This makes the protagonist a stereotype who fits the unrealistic expectation held by some Japanese that even yonsei should think and act like Japanese nationals because, as Sakura’s father tells her, they “have Japanese blood.”

Yet, she is also shown at times to be a “rational American,” who questions and criticizes Japanese orthodoxy. In fact, the word she consistently uses more than any other is “Wow!” to express amazement at things Japanese. This depiction is little short of schizophrenic.

As the drama unfolds, what becomes clear is that although its main protagonist is Elizabeth Sakura Matsushita, the story is not meant to be an accurate or representative depiction of Japanese-Americans. Instead, Sakura is merely a vehicle, a convenient “outsider” (or E.T.) through whom author Kumiko Tabuchi raises questions about aspects of Japanese culture and society, including male-female and husband-wife relations; the nature of the family (especially the relationship between mother, son, and daughter-in-law); the nature of Japanese education; and the problems of English-language education in Japan.

By using Sakura in this way, the drama follows the time-worn Japanese pattern of relying on outsiders to provide criticism — and thus the impetus for change — of the domestic status quo. One can find elements of this in the oyatoi gaijin (hired foreigners) who helped Japan modernize during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), U.S. trade negotiators being asked to apply gaiatsu (pressure from abroad) to open the Japanese market for the benefit of Japanese consumers in the 1980s, and such individuals as Carlos Ghosn of Nissan and Mark Fields of Mazda currently being counted on to revive ailing Japanese companies.

Rather than creating the cardboard figure of Sakura, it would have been far more interesting, enlightening and true-to-life if the drama had focused on a kikoku shijo (overseas returnee) who, after returning to Japan, confronts major differences between American and Japanese society.

Alternatively, by examining Japanese-Americans in a more honest and authentic way, the drama could have shown the pluralism, diversity and complexity of American society, and thereby shed light on certain aspects of contemporary Japanese society.

But either of these would have required a more nuanced and sophisticated treatment of the drama’s protagonist.

With a 22.6-percent audience rating, “Sakura” is being viewed by roughly 11 million households in Japan alone. The series is also being broadcast abroad to some 4.8 million households in 90 countries and regions of the world (including Hawaii), so the global audience may be upward of 15 million. One hopes that in the remaining 20 weeks (and 120 installments) the series will break out of its fantasy world and deal with cross-cultural differences in a more serious, credible and realistic way.

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