Everyone agrees 2016 was a terrible year, and not just because so many popular celebrities died. In addition to the wars, both hot and rhetorical, that continue unabated throughout the world, the political situation in Europe and America veered toward isolationism. Hatred ruled, and no resentments were as sharp as those leveled at the mass media. There is a pointed distrust of the press, over and beyond the prevalence of “fake news,” but how these biases manifest themselves is different depending on which side of the ideological divide you occupy. The situation applies in Japan, too, though in a more muted way. The problem here has more to do with what the media — on both sides of the divide and for various self-serving reasons — leave out; which isn’t to say you can’t get at some sort of truth, but you’ve got to dig.
Media issue of the year: intolerance
Much was made about a new law to curb hate speech, though not a lot of curbing was accomplished, since the law has no effective penalties attached. On the one hand, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was said to have passed the bill against its will, as a sop to people who believe the targeting of marginalized groups, such as resident Koreans by nationalist extremists, constitutes a human rights abuse. On the other hand, some think the LDP pushed the bill as a means of stifling its ideological opponents.
Tolerating intolerance only makes the matter worse, as we saw with the massacre of 19 people at a care facility for disabled people in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture in July. The man accused of committing the murders said he did it as a form of euthanasia, but further interrogation into his motives reveal an overriding view that people with disabilities should be eliminated. He even cited Hitler as a role model. But the media was distracted by the tragedy’s lurid appeal, and played up the alleged killer’s own mental incapacities (exacerbated by the use of marijuana) without addressing one of the key sources of his enmity: a social order that places a premium on fitting in and doesn’t do enough to protect the vulnerable. When the police decided to not reveal the names of the victims in a misguided attempt to protect their privacy and that of their families, the media went along with it, seemingly in sympathy, but they ended up dehumanizing the victims, who may as well have never existed in the first place, an attitude that epitomizes intolerance. If you completely ignore someone, you can make them disappear.
Media figure of the year: Yuriko Koike
After Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara decided to not seek re-election in 2012, Tokyo had two governors in quick succession who were forced out over their handling of money. The revolving door to the governor’s office finally stopped spinning last summer with the election of Yuriko Koike, who, running against the wishes of the LDP, which had nurtured her, proved especially popular, thus generating an image as a maverick, which is often difficult for someone whose outlook is as conservative as hers. The fact that she was also the first woman elected to the job was icing on the cake and gave her extra license to work outside the usual LDP comfort zone.
Though not as willful and provocative as Ishihara, she comes across convincingly as her own woman and nobody’s fool. When the controversial scheme to move the Tsukiji fish market from its present location to the Tokyo waterfront was confounded by poor planning and construction mistakes, she shut the whole thing down without any fuss and demanded a reckoning from those responsible. She’s cast a warier eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games than either of her predecessors, who acted as if questioning the ballooning budget and the breaking of promises made during the bid process was akin to blasphemy. In the end, such questioning in and of itself may be nothing more than a posture — one calculated to bolster her bona fides as a politician who isn’t afraid to stand up for what’s right even if nothing really comes of it. The media has gladly bought into that posture because it’s a lot more interesting than covering previous governors: dour iconoclast Naoki Inose or smug epicure Yoichi Masuzoe. And she’s a snappy dresser, too. Love those hats.
Quote of the year: Rokudenashiko
“I wanted to make a vagina car, but I couldn’t afford an engine,” artist Rokudenashiko said at her obscenity trial when asked during cross-examination why she decided to use 3-D printing technology to produce a kayak in the shape of her vagina.
Most valuable player: Chiki Ogiue
The host of the TBS radio show “Session 22” is not a journalist in the classic sense, though his strong suit is research. He’s mainly a media critic, and takes the job seriously in that he actually criticizes the media, not to mention those in power who would take undue advantage of that power. Last March, he questioned Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s motives after he announced he would reduce the waiting list for day care slots nationwide “to zero,” suspecting the remark had “political significance” and Abe would be calling a general election soon, which he did. Ogiue’s comments on everything from the widening income gap to endangered species to LGBT issues betray a healthy skepticism toward the press, which he views as being unwholesomely accepting of the status quo. And despite being caught up in a sex scandal this year, he wasn’t overbearing in his sincerity. Unlike similarly inclined commentators, he doesn’t approach his calling as something extraordinary, but instead acts as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. If only it were.
TV commercial of the year: S.T. Corp.
Since 2007, the on-air mascot of household products manufacturer, S.T. Corp., has been a bug-eyed bear called Monsieur Kumao, though he looks less like a bear than a genetically modified creature from The Simpsons’ parallel universe. In a spot for S.T.’s insect repellent, Mushuda, comedian Takeshi Nadagi, dressed in an insect costume complete with antenna and tail, competes with M. Kumao in various sports — tennis, rock-climbing, cycling, boxing. He loses each time, but finally wins at Jenga, the game where you have to remove blocks from a wooden tower in such a way that it doesn’t fall down. The victorious Nadagi receives packets of Mushuda, and comments agreeably, “Hmmm, they don’t smell.” Rest in peace, insect man.