Media Figure of the Year: Tepco

A fact of modern life that the Occupy Wall Street movement brought home to the average person is that corporations are nominally “persons,” meaning they have been granted the same “rights” as individuals, at least in the United States. In Japan, such legal definitions don’t necessarily apply to the same degree, but due to its almost constant presence in the news cycle Tokyo Electric Power Co. has acquired a distinctive image that scans closer to a personality than to an organization. Even the English rendering of the company’s acronym, Tepco — a capital letter followed by four lower-case ones — looks almost like a pet name.

Tepco did not cause the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku coastline and traumatized the nation, but in the months that followed it became the most convenient and deserving receptacle for the fear and loathing engendered by the disaster; and like an individual in such circumstances it became defensive, especially in relation to the people it ostensibly serves.

Because of its close ties with the government, not to mention its mutually dependent connection to the media due to its huge advertising and PR budgets, Tepco’s monolithic aspects remained constant even as its “human” failings with regard to the safety of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant became more apparent, and in the end the media’s initial obfuscation or avoidance of uncomfortable facts only succeeded in pushing public sentiment away from the kind of passive acceptance monolithic entities encourage and toward the kind of active resentment people direct at others they believe are lying through their teeth.

This resentment has been exacerbated by the understanding that Tepco isn’t going anywhere; that it, as well as all the other regional electric power companies, is an intrinsic part of our lives and cannot be ignored or wished away. Their reliance on and continued justifications for nuclear power has some bearing on these sentiments, but it’s mainly the fact that they’re monopolies. You can’t live with ’em and you can’t live without ’em.

Runner-up: AKB48

As long as we’re discussing monoliths, what else is there to say about this steamroller of adolescent pulchritude? As a cultural force, the all-girl-singing-and-dancing idol act was the only comparable entity that stood up to the wave of K-pop that inundated Japan in 2011. Born and headquartered in otaku mecca Akihabara, borrowing its aesthetic from manga, anime and “cosplay”; advancing a peculiarly Japanese ideal of feminine “service” and exported as a forthrightly commercial product, the brainchild of music producer/Svengali Yasushi Akimoto was seen by its detractors as setting Japanese pop culture back several decades.

If it were only a matter of Japanese girls wanting to be them and Japanese boys wanting to sleep with them, it would not mean as much, since pop stardom has depended on that kind of dynamic since time immemorial. But in terms of media exposure AKB48 is everywhere all the time, thus making the dynamic seem like a manifestation of national purpose. They’re just like K-pop, only more coy about it.

Best TV commercial of the year: Daihatsu Motors

It was no secret that the government’s “eco point” campaign was designed to sell merchandise even before it was promoted as a carbon-reduction measure, and Daihatsu Motors’ animated, anthropomorphic deer was one of the related advertising characters that survived the campaign’s expiration. The bespectacled ungulate’s saucy sense of humor had a sardonic edge. He was hip to the subterfuge and assumed the viewer was, too.

This attitude was maintained in Daihatsu’s commercial for its Move model mini-car, which was promoted with some ¥300 million worth of gifts for people who went in for test drives. As the romantic strains of “A Summer Place” played on the soundtrack, the deer waltzed into the frame throwing roses. “If you think this is baramaki,” he said, “then maybe it is.” “Baramaki” means to toss things about indiscriminately and was used by opposition parties to describe the government’s consumer stimulus schemes.

Worst TV commercial: ST

Miguel, the kid from Portugal who thinks he’s Jose Carreras, isn’t the first CM talent to have a hit song with an advertising jingle, but the one he belted out for ST’s Shoshuriki air freshener was pretty atrocious, and his artless adorability guaranteed its ubiquity. ST’s commercials are famous for their head-scratching sense of the absurd; most of the time, as in this case, you have no idea what they’re selling. But I’ll take the guy in the moth-eaten blue bear costume over Miguel any day.

Best vernacular newspaper: Tokyo Shimbun

Basically a regional offshoot of the Chunichi publishing group, which is based in Nagoya, Tokyo Shimbun doesn’t have the reach or resources of the nationwide dailies, but its subscription rates outside the Tokyo metropolitan area grew noticeably this year even if the subscribers had to settle for receiving it a day late. That’s because TS was considered the only Japanese-language newspaper of substance to report on the reactor disaster and related developments in a forthright manner.

Nuclear energy advocates characterized this stance as being “antinuclear,” but that’s just because everyone else took the industry’s and the government’s word at face value, at least initially. What some characterized as liberal bias was merely healthy skepticism; meaning, with regards to the most important news story of the year, Tokyo Shimbun did what it was supposed to do, such as translating the authorities’ barrage of euphemism and jargon into plainspeak.

Neologism of the year: souteigai

Almost everyone who read or heard this word when it was used by Tepco right after the tsunami immediately thought of former Livedoor CEO Takafumi Horie, who popularized it and its opposite, souteinai, to describe what he did and didn’t “presume” about things. It was a linguistically unusual means of qualifying his observations as being strictly personal ones.

Tepco adapted souteigai for its own purposes, saying the quake and tsunami that destroyed its reactor were “outside the imagination,” meaning it was something that couldn’t conceivably be predicted by anyone. Aside from the fact that subsequent investigations have proved that such a scenario was indeed imagined by persons in Tepco’s orbit, if not directly in its employ, the apocalyptic subtext was meant to forge solidarity with regular people who had lost loved ones and property, and was thus used not just as an excuse but also as a bid for sympathy. Obviously, it backfired, but for what it’s worth this bolder use of the word will probably supplant Horie’s. After all, he’s currently in prison, while no one from Tepco will ever see the inside of a courtroom.