* Media persons of the year: Takafumi Horie and Taizo Sugimura.

The big economic story of the year was Japan’s return to sustained growth and its effect on people’s sense of well-being. The former is partly seen as proof that the country’s business leaders are getting used to a merit-based, nonlifetime employment system and paying greater attention to stockholders; the latter points to a populace that has begun to recognize the inevitable social stratification that comes with these changes.

Takafumi Horie, the self-made billionaire CEO of Internet service provider Livedoor, personified this story. Horiemon, as he’s popularly called, began the year as the be^te noire of the media industry when he attempted to buy controlling shares in Nippon Broadcasting System as a means of gaining access to the management reins of Fuji TV, whose own stock was held by NBS. At first, this “hostile takeover” was blasted by industry pundits as being un-Japanese and greedy, while foreign journalists hailed the move as welcome stimulation to Japan’s moribund business culture.

Eventually, the entrepreneur and the network made nice and Horiemon shed his iconoclast status to bask in his celebrityhood. Never one to refuse an interview request or press-conference-on-the-run while he was rising in the business world, he embraced his reputation as one of Japan’s most eligible bachelors and a fount of common sense to become one of the most sought-after TV tarento, appearing on quiz shows and travel programs where he traded bland pleasantries with the usual posse of comic airheads. It appeared that Horie’s ambitions all along were not to become rich and powerful or to change the way the Japanese media operated, but rather to rub shoulders with the likes of super-emcee Monta Mino and comedian Sanma Akashiya, who represent the true Japanese elite.

Despite his fame, Horie lost his bid for a Diet seat last September, but the 26-year-old Taizo Sugimura, a complete unknown, won a seat through a fluke of timing and political calculus, becoming one of the youngest members to ever gain office in the Lower House despite scant work experience, let alone scholastic achievement or civic ambition. When his remarks about his huge new salary and what it could buy embarrassed himself and other Liberal Democratic Party members, he quickly learned the price of fame, but, as with Horie, fame remained the ultimate attraction, the perk that made the job good.

These two stand at opposite ends of the new economic model — the self-made elite and the freeter — and are both equally celebrated for it.

* Neologism of the year: celeb

Though this katakana word, an abbreviation of “celebrity,” has been in circulation for a decade, it came into its own in 2005 as a perkier successor to makeinu. Both words describe certain kinds of women in relationship to their marital status, but while makeinu — literally, loser dog — describes a single woman who has given up on marriage or is otherwise out of the running, celeb is a woman who marries a rich man. In fact, the woman who made celeb a household word in 2005, actress Kaoru Sugita, started out the year as a makeinu before she married a venture capitalist. The fact that she divorced before the year was up did little to tarnish the golden appeal of the word.

Variety shows spotlighted celeb women, concentrating especially on those who did nothing except spend their husband’s money. In a year when the government fought desperately to excise “gender-free” terminology and policies from the public school system, and homosexuals made in-roads on television as long as they exhibited stereotypical feminine qualities (the “hard gay” tarento Razor Ramon, it should be noted, is famously not gay in real life), it seems obvious that we still like our sex roles the old-fashioned way — clear-cut and uncomplicated.

* Quote of the year: “You have to experience standing in line if you really want to appreciate this Expo” — Anonymous man interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun as he waited three hours to get into the Aichi Expo last summer.

* Best TV commercial: Takano Beauty Clinic

In the past, TBC used famous and beautiful people in their ads, most notably David and Victoria Beckham and SMAP heartthrob Takuya Kimura. Consumers immediately got the point though may have wondered if it was a point worth getting. These celebrities were already attractive and desirable and their need for TBC’s “aesthetic” services seemed less than pressing. Or were we supposed to believe TBC would make us look like them? Now, TBC uses middle-aged rocker Eikichi Yazawa, who appears on a nearly empty set dressed in pristine white, dancing and singing one of his raunchy songs without musical accompaniment. Like Mick Jagger, Yazawa is wrinkled and wiry, and his flawlessly executed bumps and grinds come off as both brave and silly. At first glance, it would seem to make as much sense as the Beckhams and Kimutaku commercials: Yazawa doesn’t look like the kind of person who would seek a physical makeover. But if the target demographic is specifically persons of the same age, it starts to make sense. I don’t know many fifty-somethings who look as good as he does, though I know quite a few who behave as ridiculously.

* Worst TV commercial: “Scratch Lottery”

TV actress Tomoko Yamaguchi and some friends laugh and carry on in a leafy outdoor setting while scratching the instant-win takarakuji cards that are being advertised. The aim is to infect viewers with the giddy joy depicted, but given what they’re doing the effect is totally the opposite. The idea of making money you haven’t earned — lotteries don’t even count as gambling if you believe successful wagering requires at least some cleverness — becomes even more off-putting when presented by people who look as if they’ve just huffed nitrous oxide.

* Most valuable player: Asashoryu.

The sumo star proved that the dignity expected of a yokozuna can accommodate warmth, excitement and, most important, a sense of humor.

Runners-up: Author/documentary filmmaker Tatsuya Mori, SDP leader Mizuho Fukushima

* Most annoying player: Ken Shimura

The veteran comedian’s clueless exploitation of women and animals for the sake of a laugh enjoyed a kind of renaissance as a new generation of funnymen copied his example.

Runners-up: Sexy idol-cum-actress Eiko Koike, LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe.

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