Media person of the year: Kim Jong Il
The world press is of two minds about the North Korean dictator. On the one hand, he’s a spoiled kid who revels in self-aggrandizement and plays at being a cartoon villain because it’s the kind of persona he understands. This view implies that North Korea’s political-military complex operates by bureaucratic inertia. On the other hand, some commentators feel Kim is a shrewd player who knows how to manipulate everyone’s fears to his own advantage; which means he’ll never end up in a spider hole like Saddam Hussein.
The Japanese media accept both views, even if they’re contradictory. The former is taken up by the tabloid press and the wide shows, which enjoy a good giggle over Pyongyang’s mass demonstrations, the bijo gundan (army of beautiful girls) cheerleading squad, and satellite photos of Kim’s theme park retreats. In this context, the tubby autocrat is only a notch above Michael Jackson in terms of extreme narcissism bordering on psychosis. However, serious news shows parrot the latter view and portray Kim as Japan’s most dangerous nemesis, a man who could hold Tokyo hostage by playing the United States, which nominally protects Japan from North Korea, against South Korea and China. The effect on the general population is open to speculation, but whichever he is — self-deluded clown or wily strategist — you can be sure Kim Jong Il is watching himself on Japanese TV and enjoying every minute.
Quote of the year: Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, when questioned by opposition lawmakers in the Diet last summer about the inability of U.S. forces to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “It’s like former President Saddam Hussein. Just because he hasn’t been found yet, can you say he doesn’t exist?”
Worst TV commercial: In a commercial for Kokumin Nenkin actress Makiko Esumi scolds a group of twentysomethings: “Who told you that you won’t get paid?” She’s referring to the widespread belief that the national pension system will be broke by the time the current generation of young people reaches retirement age. She’s scolding them because many who are unemployed or part-timers don’t contribute to the system, presumably because they don’t think they’ll get paid, but mainly because they don’t make enough cash to pay the monthly contribution. If they take offense at the commercial’s insulting tone — which implies they don’t need to know anything except what the government tells them — you can be sure they’ll be doubly determined not to pay.
Phrase of the year: “Baka no kabe.”
Anatomist Takashi Yoro coined this term for the title of his best-selling book, which is about the mood of incivility that has descended on Japanese discourse in recent years. Though baka usually means “stupid,” here it’s closer to “pigheadedness.” Yoro is mainly referring to everyday interactions, but the “wall of stupidity” is especially evident in the media, which has embraced debating as an adjunct of professional wrestling.
On shows like TV Asahi’s “TV Tackle,” politicians, pundits and show-biz talent get into verbal shoving matches defending their positions without listening to those of their interlocutors. Yoro’s idea is that listening is important because it’s impossible to know everything, but the people on these shows seem determined to prove that they don’t want to know anything.
Journalist of the year: The anonymous TV reporter who cornered 78-year-old Liberal Democratic Party member Ta kami Eto last fall after he announced he would not run for his Miyazaki Diet seat again but that his son, Taku, would and asked him if Taku’s candidacy wasn’t simply a case of seshu (hereditary succession). Eto exploded with rage and told her to get lost. After Taku was elected in October, the same reporter asked him at the victory press conference if he won because he was a seshu candidate. Taku admitted it was probably true, at which point his father, who was sitting nearby, again exploded with rage and told her to get lost.
Most valuable player: Tokio
On their long-running show, “The Tetsuwan Dash” (Nippon TV, Sunday, 6:55 p.m.), the popular boy band mercifully dispense with singing and embark on projects that are both productive and edifying. Some segments are trivial, but the program’s main ongoing project — the operation of a farm called Dash Village — constitutes a separate reality in which the five young men grow their own food and do their own carpentry and handicrafts.
Last year, a fire destroyed most of the farmhouse, which they had built from the ground up, and during the year we watched as they slowly reconstructed it while raising crops and making a water wheel to mill their grain. In a year that was marked by destruction throughout the world, “The Tetsuwan Dash” showed that nothing — certainly not fame — is better than making something with your own hands.
Most annoying TV fixture: Bakusho Mondai
This comedy duo is challenging Monta Mino to become the most overexposed talent on TV. They host or cohost at least one show every night, and given that they’re manzai comedians, their humor is based on set routines, which means you will hear the same jokes seven nights in a row. And they don’t get better with repetition.
Runners-up: Terry Ito, Dandy Sakano, the Nova rabbit.