Veteran freelance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka was finally freed last month by kidnappers after five months of captivity in Afghanistan. Though the Japanese media reported the kidnapping when it happened last April, and then Tsuneoka’s release on Sept. 6, any details about his confinement or what he was doing in Afghanistan when he was taken are more readily available through foreign news services. As he told Shukan Kinyobi magazine in a recent two-part interview, the only other vernacular Japanese news outlet that has done a story on him since his release is TV Asahi, which ran a brief feature on its Sunday news program.
According to Tsuneoka, the foreign ministry told its attached press club not to cover him. The Japanese government provides the current administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai with aid, and Tsuneoka’s story might make people question the wisdom of such aid, since, as he told Kinyobi, the civilians living in those parts of Afghanistan controlled by the Karzai government hate the authorities, and they hate Karzai’s American enablers even more.
“Last year, the people were happy when it was said that Karzai and the Taliban might negotiate,” Tsuneoka says in the interview. Those positive feelings faded when the Taliban gave up on peace overtures after the United States announced increased troop levels last December.
Kinyobi’s editor says that Tsuneoka is the only Japanese journalist bringing back these kinds of stories from Afghanistan and that the media here is effectively ignoring them. But the media is ignoring Afghanistan in general, and the neglect has less to do with government interference than with an overriding mentality whose priorities are closer to home.
Right now, the most visible war correspondent in Japan is Yoichi Watanabe, who has skyrocketed to fame in a matter of weeks. The 38-year-old photographer has worked as a freelancer in Rwanda, Kosovo, Colombia, Iraq, Darfur and every other recent war-torn region in the world. He is now concentrating on Afghanistan, and even covered Tsuneoka’s kidnapping last spring.
However, his popularity is only tangentially related to his principal line of work. In the past month, owing to his odd style of speech and gregarious personality, Watanabe has become ubiquitous on variety shows. Invariably clad in his signature uniform — a gray beret and photographer’s vest — and sporting a dashing goatee and a winningly genuine smile, Watanabe is the latest overnight tarento (TV personality) sensation, which in the variety-show world are, by definition, extremely short lived. Watanabe will likely be washed up by Christmas, but for the time being, TV producers can’t get enough of him.
What Watanabe offers in terms of entertainment is difficult to explain. Variety shows are dominated by comedians, and the photojournalist’s deliberate form of keigo (polite speech), invariably accompanied by grand gestures, stands in stark contrast to their rapid patter. Though he never says anything funny, the way he says it cracks everybody up. Comedians find him a challenging foil since his measured cadences tend to be a drag on their own speech patterns, thus throwing off their comic timing. That imbalance is itself a source of laughs. “I can’t adapt to his rhythm,” comedian Hiroiki Ariyoshi said on one recent show, as everybody rolled on the floor.
When Watanabe is the focus of attention, the job of variety show emcees is made easy. They’ve accompanied him to his elementary school, his parents’ house, his office. They’ve visited his home in Yokohama, where he’s discussed his new married life and his baby daughter. The Fuji TV show “Uchi Kuru” took him to several of his favorite restaurants, where he and various comedians were joined by some high-school classmates, who recalled that Watanabe was just as unusual as a teenager. “He’s always talked like that,” one friend confirmed.
Watanabe’s profession is not ignored on these shows. If anything, it adds authenticity to his image as an eccentric. He talks at length about his adventures in dangerous places, and his curious locutions and elaborate delivery override any discomfort the listener may initially feel about the subject matter. On “Uchi Kuru,” Watanabe was joined by ex-mercenary Terence Lee, and the two traded war stories that avoided the death and destruction of the battlefield. They talked about how you could always find a Chinese restaurant in the most dangerous places, and how insects were more of a problem than “soldiers with guns.” Everybody found it amusing.
Watanabe doesn’t discuss what he actually covers in these hot spots. Afghanistan is a good topic on variety shows inasmuch as he can show American soldiers blowing stuff up, but he never describes the stuff they’re blowing up, or why they’re blowing it up.
It’s an understandable tradeoff. Variety shows are not typically forums for heavy-duty news topics, and Watanabe is happy for the exposure. If people are interested in him as a TV personality, maybe that interest will extend to his reporting, thus making him more in-demand as a photojournalist. Moreover, the good money he’s making as a tarento pays for his next trip. As a freelancer he has to bankroll himself, and as he’s said repeatedly, he’s continually in debt.
But as the Tsuneoka incident shows, maybe Watanabe’s reporting will end up floating off into the ether. On his website, Watanabe explains that he became a war photographer after he took a solo trip to Zaire as a student and found himself in perilous situations. When he tried to explain back in Japan the kind of civil strife that many Africans lived with on a daily basis, people didn’t understand, so he’s trying to enlighten them. It’s a worthwhile endeavor, but perhaps people just don’t want to know. The media doesn’t seem to.