It’s been almost a year since we started hunkering down in our homes waiting for the virus to go away. In times of uncertainty we turn to the news for reassurances about the future, and it’s not the messenger’s fault if those reassurances don’t arrive as readily as we want them to. We still pay attention, and here are some things that caught my attention in 2020:

Media story of the year: Public response to COVID-19

When trying to explain why Japan has not suffered the same disastrous rates of coronavirus infection and attendant fatalities seen in Europe and the United States, domestic media have sometimes overreached for cultural indicators. Masks? Hardly uniquely Japanese. A spoken language with fewer plosives? Give me a break. “Mindo”? Does anyone really know what that means? The best they’ve come up with is a Japanese tendency to think that what’s good for your neighbor is good for yourself. Again, such a tendency is not distinctly Japanese, but it’s as good a cultural explanation as you’re going to get.

More to the point is the political response to the pandemic. If Europe and the United States failed, it wasn’t because their people, with exceptions, wouldn’t do what was needed, but rather because their leaders lacked the will to enact and enforce necessary measures. In places where such will was apparent — New Zealand and Taiwan — the virus made no headway.

Like those two democracies, Japan is an island, so geography may also have something to do with it and, in that light, it’s tempting to wonder if Japan would have been spared much of its current anxiety if the political will were as committed. Instead, we’ve gone through one officialized deviation after another: From the need to keep the spirit of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics alive to a state of emergency that wasn’t very urgent to ill-timed government stimulus campaigns such as the Go To Travel and Go To Eat promotions. It’s a roller coaster, and the media is hanging on for dear life.

Media person of the year: Naomi Osaka

In 2019, Naomi Osaka said she would renounce her U.S. citizenship and play on Japan’s tennis squad in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The games have yet to take place, but, in the meantime, Osaka’s star has risen spectacularly thanks to her athletic accomplishments and her identifying as a Black American, stories the Japanese media never quite articulated. In a real sense, it was impossible to celebrate Osaka’s performance on the court without referencing her uncompromising support for the Black Lives Matter movement that has dominated the American news cycle for much of this year, since the two issues were inextricably linked as she rallied to victory during her finest hour at the 2020 U.S. Open.

As the most famous Japanese athlete in the world, Osaka’s activism, which sprang from the part of her identity that had less to do with her birthplace, was problematic for many Japanese reporters. It wasn’t so much that they had to explain the BLM movement, but that they had to explain it in a way that made it meaningful to Japanese people. Some got it and some didn’t, a wavering response that was mirrored in the online reaction to a Nike commercial featuring young Japan residents, some of mixed heritage, who turn to sports as a means of asserting their individuality and self-worth in the face of bigotry. Is there racism in Japan? The media could try asking Naomi Osaka herself, or, for that matter, Yu Darvish and Rui Hachimura, two other proud Japanese athletes of mixed parentage who also, as The New York Times put it, “promote social justice” in the country where they currently make a living — the United States.

Most valuable player: Yuko Shimizu

It’s unlikely that Yuko Shimizu, a successful, controversial entrepreneur who hosts the YouTube talk show “Hitotsuki Mansatsu,” actually reads 10,000 books a month, as the title of the program suggests. His web page says it’s more like 1,500 to 3,000, but given his grasp of current affairs, as well as his ability to produce up to five hour-long programs a day stuffed with hard data and informed opinion, it doesn’t appear to be an empty conceit.

Still, there was no media outlet this year that showed up the deficiencies of the mainstream press with more thoroughness and credibility than “Hitotsuki Mansatsu,” especially when it came to the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Frequent guest Ryu Honma, a longtime critic of the games, continually discussed his conviction that they are doomed. Another freelance journalist, Hiromichi Ugaya, went beyond the usual gripes about the country’s press clubs to savagely question the whole purpose of the mainstream media’s coverage of the government on a range of issues.

During an August discussion of the machinations behind the government’s reservation of millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine from foreign pharmaceutical companies, University of Tokyo professor Ayumi Yasutomi marveled at Shimizu’s command of the topic and wondered if “Hitotsuki Mansatsu” was the only place where you could get such information. Perhaps, but only if you have a lot of free time.

Most relevant TV drama series: “Stranger” (Netflix)

In a year when video streaming came into its own, Japanese content was dominated by anime, fantasy and, before it was canceled, “Terrace House,” but the narrative series that may have been the most pertinent was actually South Korean. “Stranger,” or “Himitsu no Mori” (“Forest of Secrets”), takes place in the Seoul Prosecutor’s Office. Its hero, senior prosecutor Hwang Si-mok, is literally incapable of empathy due to a neurological condition caused by an operation he underwent as a boy. He has no emotional investment in his cases, nor in the hierarchical intrigues that typically play out in bureaucratic organizations. He cannot be bribed with perks or intimidated by threats of demotion or transfer. Nothing matters to him except pursuit of the truth.

Consequently, Hwang is a handful for his colleagues, especially his superiors, some of whom he exposes as being corrupt and venal during the course of his investigations into other matters. The show is acutely relevant to the current situation in South Korea, where the president is waging a fierce battle with prosecutors. In Japan, prosecutors in TV series are usually portrayed as staunch protectors of society, so a local version of “Stranger” would probably be difficult. However, given the testy relationship between the current administration and the Tokyo District Prosecutor’s Office, I’m sure there’s probably a lot of great story material available.

See www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.

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