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‘Country of cowards’: Comedy duo’s political satire stands out in gun-shy Japan

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

In what was perhaps a make-or-break moment for their careers, comedy duo Woman Rush Hour did something on prime-time television in December that most of their fellow comedians try their best to eschew: They talked about politics.

The 5-minute-long manzai act lampooned Japan’s purchase of military equipment from the United States, the abundance of nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s fizzling populist boom, stunning a nation where political satire seldom plays a part on mainstream entertainment shows.

“There are too many words considered taboo in Japan,” said 37-year-old Daisuke Muramoto, the more outspoken half of the duo, in a recent interview with The Japan Times. As a comedian, he said, “you tend to stay away from saying aloud phrases like ‘nuclear power’ and ‘(U.S.) air bases in Okinawa,’ for example, because you’re afraid you might get scolded or blacklisted somehow for saying those things” on television.

“Japanese people are too sensitive,” he said. “It’s a country of cowards.”

The duo’s comic dialogue that aired on Dec. 17 was like nothing else.

On the program, Muramoto asked his partner, who goes by the stage name Paradise Nakagawa, to identify numerous topical issues faced by prefectures such as Fukui, Okinawa and Tokyo, machine-gunning a spate of news terminology that was arguably incongruous with “The Manzai,” an annual comedy competition run by Fuji TV.

They segued from one topic to another, taking playful swipes at the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who was never mentioned by name — and other public figures like Koike and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, eliciting bouts of moderate laughter from the audience.

The duo wrapped up the performance by concluding that the biggest crisis of all, however, is the sheer scarcity of attention these topical issues attract in news shows, overshadowed by coverage of sleazy love affairs by politicians and celebrities “because this is the kind of stuff popular with viewers.”

“So what is it that we really need to be worried about?” Muramoto asked.

“The political apathy of Japanese people!” Nakagawa answered, with a stern-faced Muramoto then pointing a finger toward the audience to fire a parting shot.

“It’s you guys we’re talking about.”

Muramoto said his dismay at Japanese people’s lack of interest in politics was what motivated him to perform satire.

While interacting with fans on social media, Muramoto said he noticed a peculiar phenomenon one day.

Although his fans eagerly respond to tweets “when I post a picture of a yummy pancake I ate or introduce some funny conversation I had with a cab driver,” they give him the silent treatment whenever his posts veer into politics.

“I found that shift in attitude spooky,” Muramoto recalled.

“I wondered why. And my guess is that these people can only comment on things they feel comfortable talking about or are within their comfort zone,” he said. “That probably explains why coverage of adultery sandals by celebrities often takes priority in news programs. This is the true nature of this country.”

Once broadcast, Woman Rush Hour’s performance immediately made waves on social media, making the duo the darling of Abe’s political foes, including Japanese Communist Party head Kazuo Shii.

“Woman Rush Hour has amazing talent. … Their political satire was rapid-fire. Laughter is the best weapon of satire. More laughter to Japan! And more satire!,” Shii tweeted a few days after the duo’s act aired.

Japan does have its own history of political humor, although it has rarely found a place in modern showbiz.

In the Edo Period (1603-1868), political satire was banned through multiple edicts, preventing cartoonists from openly poking fun at the Tokugawa shogunate or samurai warriors, experts say.

In reality, however, according to manga and caricature expert Isao Shimizu, some cartoonists managed to get facetious images out, including a painting by artist Katsushika Hokusai portraying a samurai defecating in a lavatory while his three attendants nearby writhe in disgust at the smell.

The crackdown by officialdom persisted even after the Meiji Restoration, with the government issuing many edicts against what it regarded as “light-hearted” entertainment, according to Ofer Feldman, a political psychology professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

Subject to the clampdown were forms of manga-oriented journalism, such as the Osaka-based Kokkei (Humorous) Shimbun, which was published by journalist and media historian Gaikotsu Miyatake.

The most prominent example of Japan’s postwar political satire is perhaps the weekly NHK radio program “Nichiyo Gorakuban” (“Sunday Entertainment”), which carved out an enormous following for its stinging satire of the establishment. It is said to have boasted listener ratings of a whopping 80 percent in its heyday.

Such was the impact of the program that its content came under harsh scrutiny in the Diet in the years after the war.

Official records show lawmaker Saburo Shiikuma grilling Tetsuro Furukaki, then chairman of NHK, over the program’s perceived lack of political neutrality in a 1951 committee meeting on telecommunications.

Shiikuma, the minutes show, went so far as to accuse speechwriter Toriro Miki, the mastermind behind the show, of trying to disseminate “nihilistic” ideology through the program.

But today, Japan seems to lack as scathing a display of political satire as “Nichiyo Gorakuban,” with Feldman citing The Newspaper, a nine-man comedy group known for its parody of high-profile politicians such as former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, “as close as Japan can get to political humor.”

Even caricatures in newspapers have lost their edge, becoming more of “explanatory” cartoons that merely amount to descriptions of political affairs, Shimizu said.

Alarmed by the dearth of political humor, noted brain scientist Kenichiro Mogi, for one, took to Twitter to express his frustration last February.

“With (Donald) Trump and (Steve) Bannon getting out of control, it’s amazing how in late-hour shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” comedians have gone all-out in challenging (them) and successfully increased ratings. Japanese comedians, meanwhile, never critique authorities to get a laugh. TV here is so pathetically over,” Mogi tweeted, causing an online debate over the status quo of the nation’s comedy.

Observers attribute the lack of political satire to the overall attitude of the public.

“I really think the general public isn’t that interested in society. They’re pretty laid-back, Japanese people,” Chad Mullane, a Tokyo-based Australian comedian who in December published a book titled “Yonimo Kimyona Nippon no Owarai” (“the very strange world of Japanese comedy”), said in a recent interview.

“Japanese people are really cool. They don’t get all excited. They accept that there is s—- in life. And they have fun with what they have.”

The apparent nonchalance shown by Japanese, Mullane said, has left comedians searching for a “better idea to expand upon and make fun of” than some of the most cliched themes of Western comedy, such as politics, religion and race. As a result, Japanese comedians are less focused on coming up with Western-style intelligent quips than “actually making people laugh out loud,” Mullane said.

Beyond the general public, TV stations and comedians themselves, it seems, are to blame for the lack of political humor in showbiz.

Takaaki Hattori, a media studies professor emeritus at Rikkyo University, said he wouldn’t be surprised to find that TV stations have grown more reluctant to broadcast political satire under the administration of Abe, which has sometimes been criticized for its heavy-handed attitude toward the media.

Former communications minister Sanae Takaichi stirred controversy in 2016 by asserting that her ministry was legally authorized to suspend TV broadcasters that ran programs deemed politically unfair, per a broadcast law stipulating the principle of political neutrality. In 2014, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party reportedly issued a statement urging major broadcasters to keep their programming politically neutral ahead of a general election.

Hattori, however, voiced skepticism that the law directly dissuaded TV stations from engaging in political satire, saying the “neutrality” in the law doesn’t necessarily mean “they are banned from attacking the right and the left,” but rather that they are expected to report on an event from “multiple points of view.”

Muramoto of Woman Rush Hour, meanwhile, blames comedians’ inseparable ties with TV for foreclosing on political satire.

Unlike the U.S., where the culture of stand-up comedy is more popular, making TV appearances is often the biggest career goal for comedians in Japan, who jockey for spots on entertainment shows, Muramoto said.

“TV is their main battlefield in Japan. That’s where they make their money,” Muramoto said, adding that he himself places an emphasis on stage performances in comic theaters.

As such, the maverick comedian makes no secret of his contempt for his peers who complacently embrace their roles as hinadan geinin (supporting comedians) in TV shows and never attempt political satire or anything that may disrupt the proceedings of the shows they have been invited to appear on.

“So many things are considered delicate topics in this country that comedians who know better than to discuss these sensible matters are the ones who tend to be appreciated” by TV producers, Muramoto said.

“It’s only after the culture of TV dies that political satire can take off in Japan,” he said.