On Jan. 14, 36-year-old comedian Sayaka Aoki made her last TV appearance before taking some time off to have a baby. The appearance was on Fuji TV’s noontime variety show “Waratte Ii to mo” (“It’s OK to laugh”), where she was a semiregular. The show’s host, Tamori, placed his hands on Aoki’s belly as a way of “praying for an auspicious birth,” but it wasn’t the first time contact had been made with her bulge. For more than a month prior to her “maternity leave,” Aoki was letting everybody cop a feel. On another Fuji TV variety show, “Uchi Kuru,” where she herself was the cohost, she even got young kabuki star Kantaro to lay his hands on her after she had pulled her pants down so that the baby bump would be more accessible. Kantaro didn’t seem to know what to do so he simply did as he was told.
A pin (solo) comedian, Aoki made it on TV with an extroverted personality and looks that are considered not conventionally pretty. As such she is given license for crude exhibitions that include baring her butt when the occasion calls for it. And since such female stars are deemed unmarriagable in the peculiar world of television, her union with a notably unfamous dancer was topical for a time, but not as topical as her subsequent pregnancy, which she made the most of for as long as she could.
Her baby is due in February, which means as an on-air personality she worked longer in her condition than Fuji TV announcer Kyoko Sasaki, who also opted to continue working through her own pregnancy last spring. Sasaki, whose baby arrived in early May, took maternity leave on March 27. She wasn’t subjected to all the groping that Aoki encouraged, but her circumstances nevertheless occasioned comments, and she tended to appear in front of a desk or podium instead of behind it so that we could see she was with child.
During Sasaki’s last appearance on the morning show “Toku Da Ne,” host Tomoaki Ogura commented that staff had found that no other on-air personality had continued to work as close to her due date. He added that many of the housewives who watched the show expressed concern. Sasaki acknowledged the concern but said she decided to continue working “because of all the encouragement” she’d received and thanked everybody for “their understanding.”
She may have been referring to the aforementioned housewives, but more likely she was thanking her colleagues and superiors at Fuji TV. Not long ago it was virtually impossible to see any television professional pregnant on the air for the simple reason that women usually retired when they married. Even those who remained single tended to be transferred somewhere else within the organization after a certain age because broadcasters preferred their on-air female personalities to be young. This still seems to be the case, and not just in Japan. Last fall the BBC was attacked for supposedly moving older female announcers off the air while allowing male colleagues to continue in front of the camera until decrepitude. The company has since made a highly publicized effort to hire female newsreaders who are over 50.
But British television has more than its share of pregnant women, epitomized by newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky of FIVE, who has been pregnant twice in the past two years after the station lured her away from the BBC with lots of money. If pregnant TV personalities still seem like a novelty, it’s probably due to the fact that they are part of everyday life. The situation of working women who have to decide what to do when they become pregnant has been a public issue since the women’s movement made it one in the 1970s, but it never really captured the public’s imagination until TV personalities started showing their bigness on the air, thus providing a daily reminder that women who work also have babies.
In Japan, such a reminder has special significance in light of the country’s dwindling birthrate. Working women aren’t having many babies, it’s assumed, due to various structural reasons ranging from loss of position (many companies still discourage female employees from getting pregnant) to lack of support in the form of day care and maternity leave. Broadcasters may thus see it as both a responsibility and a PR plus to show off their pregnant employees. The more important point is, are these employees allowed to resume their positions after they give birth? Last spring, TBS announcer Hiroko Ogura returned full-time to the air after taking maternity leave for a full year. In fact, the woman who had replaced her on one show took maternity leave herself when Ogura came back. TBS seems to have the most liberal policy in this regard, and not just for maternity leave. They have noticeably more older female newsreaders than any other commercial network.
But why limit such a policy to maternity leave? Actor and variety show regular Takeshi Tsuruno announced that he was going on hiatus following the birth of his fourth child last November. Tsuruno is not a company employee, but his decision has been described as “paternity leave” because of the peculiar nature of TV talenthood. Tsuruno is popular, but even four months out of the public eye (he said he would return in March) can be ruinous in such a fickle industry. Tsuruno should know. Ten years ago he was doing well as the superhero Ultra Man, but once he left the show he spent much of the following decade struggling for work. Then he caught a break as one of the pioneering baka tarento (stupid talent) on the popular quiz show “Hexagon II,” and has been working steadily ever since.
Maybe he has nothing to worry about. While cultivating a new career as a dim bulb, he’s also flaunted his experience as a loving father. In that sense, he’s obligated to take paternity leave, not just because he sets a good example, but because he has to maintain his image. And he doesn’t have to get people to touch his belly while he’s doing it.