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This year’s highlights and lowlights


Media figures of the year:

The “Right Brothers”

Conservatives supposedly made a comeback in 2012, but if you believe Japan’s social outlook is basically conservative to begin with, you have to wonder what they were coming back from. The country’s fiscal policy is anything but conservative, which is perhaps why the widespread use of the term is so confusing. The media clung to it as if it were a talisman, a means of making sense of the implosion of the nominally “liberal” Democratic Party of Japan less than three years after its decisive victory in a general election. Is the whole country, as the foreign media implies, turning “to the right”? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Picking up on conservatism’s rich entertainment potential, critics applied a punning label to the three most prominent figures of this so-called shift — Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and Liberal Democratic Party president Shinzo Abe — dubbing them “Raito Sankyodai,” or the “Three Right Brothers.” After all, Ishihara and Hashimoto made their names in showbiz, the former as a bestselling novelist and brother of the most popular actor of the Showa Era, the latter as a TV personality who spun his legal career into a gig as a freewheeling “traditional values” pundit. Both loved the limelight more than their ostensible professions and so it was only natural they became politicians.

In fact, they developed respective hard-line images in order to substantialize their roles as media magnets, even as they made a point of deriding the press for paying too much attention. Hashimoto was genuinely incensed by a magazine article that tried to explain his psychological evolution as a public figure, but which he interpreted as a concerted attempt to connect him “genetically” to social undesirables. Ishihara’s confrontational relationship with the media has been in flux for so long it’s become reflexive, and every so often he feels compelled to let loose with a zinger about old ladies, foreign residents or “Shina” (a name for China usually associated with the Japanese occupation) so as not to disappoint journalists who might otherwise ignore him.

If Abe seems the odd man out, it’s because he’s a national politician who has to contend with real-world matters. Thanks to their joint participation as the twin heads of a new political party in the recent Lower House election, Hashimoto and Ishihara can now realize their brand of conservatism on the national stage, which tends to be less forgiving of the kind of demagoguery that flourishes at the local level. Hashimoto’s war on tattoos and Ishihara’s attempt to buy the Senkaku Islands expressly to tick off China were bold gestures meant to burnish their luster as men beholden to no one but themselves, and probably would have been more difficult to pull off had they already been national political players.

While some of Hashimoto’s pronouncements have made him look petty and parochial, Ishihara’s have at least had their intended effect, which means he’s learned how to use his celebrity status. Whether Abe has learned anything since his humiliating first stint as prime minister remains to be seen, but he seems to be bending to reality, thus proving once again that a country gets the conservatism it needs even if it can’t always get the conservatism it wants.

Media figure runner-up: Kim Jong Un

With his unflattering hairstyle and pudgy physique, North Korea’s new boy leader is the perfect subject for morning wide shows and their mix of straightforward news and tabloid frivolity. For a while after he assumed the post of Dear Leader following his father’s death from over-indulgence, Kim Jong Un was given the benefit of the doubt: Maybe he won’t be so anal about refusing to acknowledge that his people are starving and the world thinks his government is a joke.

That turned out not to be the case, but the Japanese media’s fascination with Darling Commander has been repaid in ways that were never satisfied by Kim Jong Il, who despite the tacky lifestyle and philistine demeanor never gave off much of a personal vibe.

The Beloved Big Cheese exudes an air of botchan (spoiled rich kid) entitlement with a strong whiff of middle America-style exceptionalism, especially in that officially sanctioned photo of him monitoring the successful launch of the test missile earlier this month. Slouched at a table and watching the launch on a big screen, a cigarette dangling from his fingers and a grin on his face, he could have been some autoworker hanging out at the bowling alley.

Media word of the year: “datsu

This handy morpheme negates any word it precedes, like the English prefix “de-“, though it can be active as well as passive. This year, it was most prominently used in the word “datsu-genpatsu,” or “leaving nuclear power,” in reference to the popular movement against reopening nuclear power plants, and thus gained a shorthand utility in these volatile times, where it’s all about rejecting things.

The practice has become so habitual it’s reached double-negative proportions. Not only do we now have the term “datsu-datsu-genpatsu” to describe the new ruling party’s determination to reopen nuclear plants, but the same party’s scheme to reignite inflation is being called “datsu-defure,” or “getting out of deflation.”

When political kingpin Ichiro Ozawa left the DPJ earlier this year, the party was said to have entered a “datsu-Ozawa” era, so now that the party seems to want him back does that mean it’s entering a “datsu-datsu-Ozawa” era? Progress means always moving forward, even when its couched in the negative.

TV series of the year: “Shiawase no Jikan” (Fuji TV)

The title means “Enjoyable Time,” but such an anodyne phrase is surely meant to be ironic when used to describe a soap opera about middle-aged housewives’ wild sex lives. Or maybe it’s meant to describe the viewing experience of the real housewives, who put down everything they were doing in the afternoon to watch the show — supermarkets reported empty aisles when it was on — which scored record-breaking ratings while at the same time drawing criticism for its graphic content. Apparently, the latter worked, since the producers eventually agreed to tone down the raunchiness. You have to wonder if those housewives — the ones at home, not the ones in the show — were getting any at night.

Best TV commercial: Kagome’s Rabure

In Japanese advertising, indirection is a specialized skill that has never been more effectively applied than in this spot for a yogurt drink. The product’s intended health benefit, bowel regularity, is hard enough to put across delicately, so the copywriters went in the opposite direction and had actress Atsuko Asano partake in agressive physical activity meant to symbolize the often difficult morning ritual of elimination. She is surrounded by a circle of stationary punching bags, which she strikes furiously; and she attacks a stack of thick wooden disks with a mallet, knocking off one at a time with a huge wallop, all the while exclaiming victoriously. Yes, it feels likes winning, doesn’t it?