Arguably the most obvious misstep in the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis so far has been its free distribution of face masks, which many people found to be substandard, if not defective. At first, the reaction was mocking — some claimed the masks were too small and looked ridiculous on the wearer — but derision soon curdled into resentment when batches were found to be dirty and contaminated with hairs. The government’s supposed charitable gesture came across as both self-serving and patronizing.
There is always a cross section of the public who find fault with the authorities, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has his fair share of chronic critics. However, the mask debacle was beyond the pale for many and they saw it as being representative of the government’s overall handling of the pandemic.
Some of these critics are in show business, an industry whose members usually avoid anything smacking of politics so as not to jeopardize employment opportunities.
Among the celebrities mentioned in the May 2 edition of the tabloid Nikkan Gendai who have publicly expressed disappointment with the government is rakugo storyteller Tsurube Shofukutei, who, in addition to questioning the whole mask business on a recent radio broadcast, blasted the authorities for being indecisive in the early days of the epidemic.
Veteran pop singer Masanori Sera asked how the government could “have the nerve” to ask the public to be patient as they struggle just to survive in an economy that’s floundering.
Actor and theater producer Tomio Umezawa took issue with a certain government figure whose attitude he characterized as imperious with regard to the ¥100,000 payouts that all residents have been promised.
Yoshitaka Hori, president of the powerful production company HoriPro Inc., complained in an interview with the Japanese Communist Party organ, Akahata, of how the government’s grudging support for entertainment businesses threatens to wipe out centuries of cumulative cultural development. A show biz journalist told Nikkan Gendai that since Hori leads a major association of entertainment-related firms, he is effectively speaking for the whole industry.
But perhaps the most ardent and relentless critic from the show biz world is also one of its most unlikely in terms of image. Former idol singer Kyoko Koizumi has been dispatching tweets and retweets that are unstinting in their unfavorable regard for the government’s actions.
Koizumi uses the Twitter account of her own company, Asatte, as her conduit of protest. Online magazine Litera dates her complaints from March 28, when she shared a tweet by a woman who was demanding a reinvestigation into the suicide of her husband, a former Finance Ministry bureaucrat compelled to forge documents in order to cover up ministry malfeasance in the Moritomo Gakuen land purchase scandal. Around the same time, Litera found that Koizumi “liked” other tweets that criticized the cost of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics and first lady Akie Abe’s excursion to Oita Prefecture following her husband’s warning against such activities.
On April 20, Koizumi retweeted a message as a way of showing support for opposition party boss Taro Yamamoto, whom she cited as a politician working on the front lines of the crisis in implied contrast to the more laissez faire attitude of ruling party lawmakers. She also retweeted a message from Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii advocating greater financial support for entertainment companies and workers, especially those toiling behind the scenes, which she called “a serious issue.” Several times she retweeted critical comments by Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki, who is famous for challenging government officials to their faces, and came out resolutely in favor of canceling the Olympics in response to a Mochizuki tweet.
Her strongest comments were about the mask faux pas. On April 22, she tweeted that everybody makes mistakes, but the government’s “dirty lies” about the “moldy masks” are unforgivable. “I can’t help but view (the masks) as a manifestation of the government’s dishonesty,” she added.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Koizumi was the quintessential idol, with all the self-effacing, cheerful attributes normally assigned to the vocation, which made her at one point the most ubiquitous face in TV commercials. Since entering middle age, she has made a name for herself as an actor of some subtlety and distinction, mostly in indie movies, but seems to have removed herself from the scene recently. Reportedly, she is taking a self-imposed sabbatical, although some will simply think she’s washed up. In any case, she appears to have nothing to lose by airing her opinions.
Litera seems impressed by Koizumi’s sudden eruptions of bile, but an article in Nikkan Spa reported on Koizumi’s tweets with skepticism, essentially saying that celebrities who go in for bashing the government should reveal their political allegiances more clearly. Koizumi and the other celebrities cited above don’t necessarily constitute a movement, but a number voiced objections last weekend to the government’s plan to extend the retirement of prosecutors considered sympathetic to the current administration.
Mikio Date, half of the popular comedy duo Sandwichman, wrote on his blog that it’s pointless for citizens to criticize the government at a time like this when everyone should be working together. Litera pointed out that other celebrities, including singer-songwriter Tatsuro Yamashita and comedian Hikari Ota, have expressed similar sentiments.
It’s tempting to characterize this divide in terms of political partisanship. Celebrities tend to avoid stating opinions about policy, but many will support the official line if it is to their advantage. Two of the most powerful production companies in Japan, Johnny & Associates, Inc. and Yoshimoto Kogyo Holdings Co., Ltd., have collaborated with the current administration on various projects for PR purposes. What’s different about the verbal broadsides of Kyoko Koizumi and others is that they appear to be motivated by pure anger. Like an increasing number of citizens right now, they see something they don’t like and refuse to stay quiet about it.