Media persons of the year: Toshikazu Sugaya and Atsuko Muraki

Toshikazu Sugaya’s 1992 conviction for the murder of a little girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, was reviewed by judges in 2009 after years of pleading by his defense team, which claimed the DNA evidence that sent him to jail for life was inaccurate. The reporters who covered the case over the years never questioned this evidence until the Tochigi district court allowed for a new trial, which resulted in overturning the earlier guilty verdict last March. Sugaya received an apology from the bench but not from prosecutors.

Atsuko Muraki didn’t have to wait 17 years for vindication. An official with the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, Muraki was accused of allowing an organization to misuse a mail discount system for the disabled. In September, judges dismissed evidence submitted by prosecutors, saying it was unconvincing. Afterward, the head prosecutor in the case was indicted for tampering with evidence, an accusation he eventually owned up to.

The two cases couldn’t be more dissimilar. Sugaya was an unmarried bus driver, while Muraki was an elite bureaucrat with a family. The media bought the prosecution’s initial case against Sugaya because he fit their image of a child murderer: lonely, inarticulate. Muraki, on the other hand, was portrayed as yet another pawn in a neverending and basically self-serving scheme by prosecutors to show the public that they aren’t afraid of anyone, even politicians and elite bureaucrats.

Coming within six months of each other, the acquittals brought long overdue attention to the questionable methodologies of police and prosecutors, marking a significant sea change in perception now that the lay judge system has gone into effect. The new system was engineered to speed up trials and provide popular validation for prosecutors’ efforts, but on the contrary it seems to be reflecting this new skepticism. Among the five capital cases tried by lay judges so far, one resulted in a life sentence and another ended in acquittal. Even one of the three death sentences handed down was qualified as warranting an appeal by the sentencing judge. These atypical outcomes also clarified how unreliable the coverage of criminal cases is in the mainstream media, which rarely if ever pursue even obvious discrepancies. For once, prosecutors and police are on the defensive.

TV personality of the year: Matsuko Deluxe

He’s a cross-dresser and he’s fat; attributes that allow this sometime editor-essayist and full-time big mouth to flout whatever passes for political correctness in Japan and say anything he wants about anyone he’s ever heard of, not to mention everyday topics that normally make TV personalities uncomfortable, like menopause. When the recent scandal involving Ichikawa Ebizo broke, he was the first pundit to make fun of the hard-drinking, brawling kabuki star, though, in truth, what he was making fun of was the media’s obsession with the scandal. “Ebizo, Ebizo, Ebizo!” he yelled at reporters during a promotional event whose real subject no one remembers because wherever Deluxe goes his outsized personality overwhelms the context. “Do you care about anything else?” All the reporters laughed, though whether it was at Deluxe’s outburst or themselves was difficult to tell.

Runnerup: Akira Ikegami, who as a “news explainer” has single-handedly taken up the slack of traditional news departments (see “Nontopic of the Year” below).

TV commercial of the year: Suntory’s Kinmugi

Ex-Takarazuka star Rei Dan’s impersonation of a perky housewife in the non-narrative ads for this “third type” malt liquor isn’t as aggressively clever as Softbank’s “White family” saga or as slyly imaginative as the adventures of “Jones the alien” in spots for another Suntory product, Boss canned coffee. But whereas Dan was insufferable when the series premiered several years ago, she’s turned into a distinct presence, a character with her own indelible persona that transcends the idea of a devoted homemaker waiting at home with a cold one when her husband walks through the door after a hard day charging the ramparts of industry. The campaign’s success prompted other near-beer manufacturers to copy it, and for a while the airwaves were filled with fetching brides addressing the fourth wall in cooing tones that promised more than just a brew and a buzz.

Despite gender-identified arguments over the appropriateness and credibility of her character in these ads, Dan is very different from the other CM housewives. She may be old-fashioned but her behavior acknowledges the pride she takes in her domestic labors; She is every bit the equal of her unseen hubby. It explains why she often appears to have already rewarded herself with a can or two of the amber liquid by the time he arrives home. Some people will naturally be concerned that the commercials sell irresponsible drinking, but Dan is clearly enjoying it and, even more clearly, she’s an adult. The same doesn’t go for some other alcohol ads, like the ones for Suntory’s Torys whiskey with Yuriko Yoshitaka. She is also clearly enjoying it but doesn’t look or act like an adult — or for that matter a teenager.

Neologism of the year:

Danshari The word is composed of three Chinese characters that stand for, in order, refusal, disposal, separation. It sounds like a zen concept and any explanations for the danshari fad, popularized by a number of books that appeared this year, are usually presented in the media by Buddhist priests.

In this instance the idea of getting rid of the clutter in one’s life has little to do with environmental responsibility. Danshari is both deeper and more general, divorced from any back-to-the-earth movement. On one NHK report, an expert explained how danshari can be applied to technology, in particular keeping your computer desktop “clean,” meaning no folders or documents in sight. The implication was inescapable: Don’t leave a mess where you live.

A corollary of the danshari craze is the “power spot” boom, which also has quasi-religious associations. Certain locations, such as Meiji Shrine, are said to offer concentrations of energy that can help one recharge the old spiritual batteries. Commentators believe these movements show that the Japanese are becoming less material, which is true. Materialism is expensive, especially during a recession with no end in sight.

Quote of the year:

“A country won’t last long if its politicians are stupid.” — Former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama to a group of bureaucrats.

Nontopic of the year: The World

Much has been made of Japan’s youth turning inward, a situation best represented by their aversion to overseas travel. The news media may be following suit. Though many networks have overseas correspondents, conventional news shows this past year, NHK’s included, have given short shrift to breaking international stories that don’t involve Japan, such as the war in Afghanistan. In fact, as NHK’s general interest fare increasingly mimics the style of commercial TV, with its reliance on celebrities whose public exposure stands in inverse proportion to their worldliness, the public broadcaster’s self-generated news content has become more parochial. This development is by no means limited to Japan. American TV news is also shutting out the world and, in the process, turning viewers into self-aggrandizing hicks.

Phillip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.

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