The Gist List: ReDotPop’s Most Memorable Moments, circa 2004 (part 2 of 3)

6. The Soga Saga One of the biggest stories of the ReDotPop year was both prequel and sequel to the episode I described last week involving those “Psycho-Neighbors-to-the-North”. You know, the neighbors who always manage to come calling with gifts of never-ending nightmare? This time the bad guys got into ReDot face with the case of the Japanese girl — now grown woman — who was kidnapped along with her mother in 1978 for the purpose of training North Korean spies in the arts of language so that they might slip into ReDotland, then pass as regular Japanese. Typical of the North Koreans, their imagination exceeded their competence: the teachers they presumed they were kidnapping turned out to be a housewife and a nurse-in-training!

Once these two were released from their blindfolds and introduced to half-filled bowls of moldy rice they were also informed that they had to elucidate the intricacies of speech particles and intransitive verbs to Stalinist thugs. An easier task couldn’t have been had if these women were named “Atlas”. Presumably, it proved too much for the mother, who went missing (which in North Korean is a euphemism for having her bones burned five different times and mixed with those of 13 other people). But the young girl survived; first teaching language, then meeting, marrying, and mating with Charles Jenkins, the Marine Corps sergeant who went AWOL along the Korean DMZ in 1965.

The Jenkins story received extensive play in Japan, generally because there was a Japanese personage smack dab in the middle of it. Jenkins was a compelling enough character — what with his fool-hearty decision to repudiate American citizenship four decades before, his faltering health, elephantine ears, and disarming bouts of public weeping. But it was the story of his wife — a pitiable, innocent girl-turned-woman during the course of extended unjust imprisonment — that captured the eyes and ears of ReDotPop.

The saga began with the extrication of Hitomi Soga, along with four other abductees, from North Korean hands. Next came the protracted negotiations between the Japanese, American, and North Korean governments to reunite the family that Soga had left behind. This meant not only Charles Jenkins, but the couple’s two daughters — Mika, 21, and Brinda, 19. After an end-game that saw feverish negotiations between two governments that were once-and-still bitter rivals, the Soga-Jenkins reunion was allowed to eventuate in Indonesia. Of course, Japanese TV — ever intent on punching every emotion button on the viewer register — ate that right up, offering blanket coverage, live from Jakarta. With TV on hand, viewers didn’t miss any detail: from a memorable impassioned kiss on the tarmac, to stiff upper lips, handholding aplenty, copious weeping, scads of colorful bouquets, and legions of breathless reporters. In short, more than enough purloined intimacy cropped up to keep the entire national family soldered to their sets.

Of course, most of this was fit through the Japanese filter: with a focus on the preparations, reunion, and aftermath from the perspective of a “typical” Japanese mother and wife seeking to reassemble her family after seven months of forced separation. Following reunification, the media frame turned to the problem of what to do with that troublesome rapscallion, Jenkins. For, his agreement to relocate to Japan would require his surrender to US authorities, a court martial, and, likely jail time. This played out well for the press, though, as it provided dramatic — if not absurd — scenes of a 64 year-old sergeant reporting to duty in a decidedly underused army uniform, his surrender to the US military authorities, his trial and sentencing, internment in the brig, and subsequent release one month hence. After his release, the story still proved to have legs. For, there was still a need to deliver closure for the now-emotionally bonded viewer. Thus were ReDotPoppers treated to stories of reintegration into Japanese life: for the mother, the displaced American, and their “alien” children. Curiously (but tellingly), throughout this saga, the Japanese press remained resolute in referred to the woman by her maiden name. Hitomi was a Soga, not a Jenkins, no matter what the marriage certificate (wherever it might be) says.

This is not a trivial observation, insofar as it exposes a major, underlying principle of Japanese society: nationhood is the common denominator, it is the frame that ties all tribal members together. “Soga-not Jenkins” is also an important observation insofar as it reveals a motive force of ReDotPop: locate and communicate emotional proximity between story and public… and interest, then consumption, will logically follow.

5. Ichiro If this story wasn’t an example of relative values incarnate, it is hard to imagine anything else that would be. For those of you who may not know what “relative” or “incarnate” means, then look up “Ichiro” in the dictionary. Right there it will say: “relative to any other baseball player, the best there is”; under “incarnate” it will tell you: “embodies every possible quality of perfection in a baseballer”. But, as this story came to demonstrate, those dictionaries would all be written in Japanese.

Before we get to that point, let’s cover the basics. For those of you who have been trekking in the outback for four years, Ichiro is a baseball player. But, not just any old player; he’s one of the greatest ever. Unless you live in America… in which case, Ichiro might just be one heck of a good player with peer — a number of them — and possibly even with su-peer-ior. Wherein lies the point of this 2004 moment.

After seven years of tearing up Japan’s professional leagues with his supple stroke, speed nonpareil, uncanny reflexes and defensive prowess, Ichiro made the jump over the pond to America’s “Major League” — becoming the first everyday (or “position”) player from Japan. A not inconsiderable number of naysayers projected a rough fit for a player slight of build and possessing limited power. The rest, of course, has become an ongoing case of ingesting humble pie. Not only did Ichiro win the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in his first year (a feat only accomplished one other time in American League history), he also has notched two batting titles (for highest batting average) and became the first player to garner over 200 hits in his first four seasons in the league. This past year, as Ichiro worked on securing that record, he also eclipsed the 84 year-old standard set by Hall-of-Famer George Sisler, for most hits in a season. This record — along with records for most months with 50 hits or more (3) and most hits over a four year span (919) — netted Ichiro goods (notably his bats, batting gloves, elbow and shin guards and batted balls) the honor of permanent display in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

As with all things Ichiro, as well as all Japanese success stories in foreign sporting realms, the media ate this story up. News stations took to erecting life-size computer animated “steps” which they superimposed next to their evening broadcasters. The steps indicated how many hits Ichiro obtained over X number of days, calculating his pace and the likely day or days that he would surpass Sisler. Most stations sent reporters overseas, who then offered live remotes from the stadiums, often in the pre-dawn hours when the only other people on the streets were the homeless and trash collectors.

Given the inordinate attention accorded Ichiro — especially after the record was secured — it came as a certain shock that he only managed to garner fifth place in the MVP balloting. This amounted to an appearance/reality disjunction on the order of American conquistadors scouring Iraq for nine months and discovering that there were no weapons of mass destruction. “How could that be?” Japanese asked in stunned denial. Well, for the record, let’s observe that Ichiro is a great guy, so maybe the analogy is not the best fit. But, as Iraq became for Americans, to a Japanese public primed by its messengers to believe that Ichiro’s hits amounted to the biggest achievement in baseball in decades, no MVP was as hard to wrap a brain around as no WMD. A “truth” that simply could not compute; a proposition that the “facts” simply did not support. And while the American baseball pundits might posit valid reasons otherwise, for the regular ReDotPopper, the Ichiro MVP snub stood as a plausible plank in the on-going certitude that those of ReDot ilk are undervalued in the larger world. Is this not verification, ReDotPoppers roundly wondered, that when it comes to things Japanese in the US, racism will always manage to rear its hateful, hoary head?

4. Cheap Hollywood Imitations Belying this qualm, however, was the extensive attention paid to Japanese cinema and cinemators by the West. If it wasn’t Beat Takeshi scoring big at film festivals with Zatoichi, then it was Sofia Coppolla’s quirky, sensitive, endearing Lost in Translation, a movie that employed Japan as mechanism as much as milieu, helping to explain Americans to themselves. Then there was the Tom cruise vehicle, The Last Samurai, treating Japanese with sympathy, less than curiosity; transporting world audiences into the arcana of Japanese military and political history. And if that wasn’t thrilling enough for natives, an unexpected plum was the Oscar nomination the movie netted for Japanese actor, Ken Watanabe (in Japan: “Watanabe Ken”). This, of course, provided TV, newspapers and magazines alike with weeks of opportunities to chronicle Watanabe’s Hollywood travails, his American acculturation, the nomination process, and most important of all: Japan’s close call (in the aegis of its actor/national representative) in capturing a mainstream Oscar. In short, Watanabe’s Oscar bid ended up becoming one sustained exercise in Japan patting itself on the back for something Japan had very little to do with.

More of this sort of self-congratulation and over-the-shoulder respect-seeking attended news of the remake and release of the Japanese horror flick, The Ring – itself following on the heels of a Hollywood production of The Grudge (originally titled “Juon” in its Japanese incarnation) and preceding remakes of Shall We Dance (starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and J-Lo) and Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa’s dark, brilliant study of a conservative bureaucrat-turning non-conformist in his decisive, dying days.

The bottom line, trumpeting by the oracles of ReDotPop was that Hollywood had finally discovered creative, challenging, entertaining cultural products other than anime, cute cartoon characters, and card games emanating fromReDot minds. And along with this discovery surfaced the perception that Japanese were finally receiving their popcultural due. We’ll have to stay tuned in 2005 (and beyond) to learn whether this conclusion proves something more than wishful thinking.

3. The Royal, Royal Family Flap This story probably belongs to the category of wishes, as well . . . as in: be careful what you wish for (for it might become true). In the case of this tale, there are any number of people — on any number of sides — who likely have muttered that sardonic maxim, most likely as they kicked themselves along the corridors of majesty, after another encounter with the verities behind the words.

But let’s kick off the story this way. Japan is home to the oldest existing hereditary monarchy in the world. Its current emperor, Akihito, is the 125th Imperial sovereign in an unbroken line from Emperor Jimmu, who was installed in about 660 B.C. Akihito has two sons, Princes Naruhito and Akishino. Both men are married and, as Princes are supposed to do, they earnestly embarked on a course of creating heirs. And, this, as they say, is where the soup slickens. For, those heirs have turned out all to be hers. Between the two of them (well, four, but, as you’ll see the women in this equation don’t much count!), they’ve sired three girls. The presence of these three females, or rather, the absence of any male children, has caused consternation with a capital “Jeez are we up a creek!” for the powerful, extremely conservative, moribund, intractable, Imperial Household Agency (IHA); or as we in ReDotdom prefer to call them: the bureaucratic muscle behind Japan’s throne.

For about the last 11 years — since Naruhito married a woman named Masako — the IHA has been running around like the class know-it-all who has the answer if only the teacher would call on him. There he goes again, thrusting his hand in the air, left and right, shouting out “I know, I know, I know”, but can’t get one ounce of respect. What he (or in this case, it) knows is that if Masako doesn’t give birth to a male heir — but soon — Japan will be in danger of plummeting into a “crisis” of nation-threatening proportions; whereby the male-only monarchy would be threatened with termination. Of course, in the IHA version, this is a calamity that is entirely of the Princess’s making. (They may not know what mea culpa means in Japanese, but they sure do have a handle on how to live it over here).

Anyway, what the IHA (conveniently) fails to mention is that this “male-only” moniker is a myth. Empress Suiko, a woman, became Japan’s 33rd imperial ruler from 554 to 628 A.D. Seven other women have ruled, the last being number 48, in 764 – 770 A.D. Masako, herself, might make a worthy candidate. As the daughter of a career diplomat — the former ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to the Soviet Union, and ambassador to OECD — Masako had the pedigree for high level foreign service. So, too, did she have the predilection and predisposition. She lived in various countries, graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in economics, received post-graduate training from Oxford, then joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Who knows what she was thinking when she agreed to utter “I do!” to Prince Naruhito, but as a former diplomat, a speaker of six languages and fluent in three, perhaps she had visions of becoming a Japanese Diana, representing ReDotWonderland around the globe. It only goes to show how simple-minded smart people can be.

For what Masako experienced in her role as “spouse-to-the-next-in-line-for-the-Chrysanthemum-throne”, was a steady diet of harassment and distress. Those IHA bullies who constantly carped around her heels, chiding chided her for not giving birth at all — even heartlessly following a miscarriage in 1999 — then moaning aloud (and often) about the insufficient offering she finally provided the world in 2001. That’s right: a girl. The culmination of this barely-concealed brow-beating was Masako’s hospitalization this year for shingles, a painful skin rash often induced by stress. Following her infirmity, Naruhito went public, bluntly denouncing the IHA for “negating (Masako’s) career and character.” The Prince then departed on an official 12-day European tour, which included the wedding of the crown prince of Denmark — alone, the media took great pains to trumpet. Naruhito later rescinded this unprecedented outburst (you know, as in: “I didn’t really mean it, I was just having my fun”), but in four short days his rant succeeded in prompting 700 emails from the public, nearly all critical of the IHA. It also elicited an Asahi newspaper editorial which asked: “Can’t the Imperial Household give them a little more freedom?”, as well as a magazine cover vituperating: “Why was Princess Masako’s personality stamped out?”

Considering these events one realizes that Japan may be changing, but in many ways, not fast enough. While opinion polls show that the public blames the IHA for battering the Princess’s psyche, and, moreover, would not be opposed to a female on the throne, political and administrative forces seem resolutely determined to block such “radical” social change.

2. Boffo Came the Korean Boom As I have mentioned before, Korea is suddenly big in Japan. While kimchee has always tantalized the Japanese palate, over the past two years the ear has been seduced by the sonority of BoA, a once chubby songstress who has worked assiduously on her Japanese, refined her dance moves, and slimmed down enough to prove Uncle Frank’s dictum: “if I can make it there, I’ll make it an-y-where…” This appears true, not only in the case of song, but with RedandBlueDotPop of all kinds — be it soccer, baseball, animation, or music: for K-poppers, Japan plays NYC to South Korea’s Ozarks.

Until now, that is. In 2004 a certain cultural creation from the RedandBlueDot over there managed to turn the tables of bi-cultural flow. Suddenly, Japan’s cross-strait cousins were fat all over the ReDotPop map. The major perpetrator was Winter Sonata, a schmaltzy soap that, despite abysmal production values and even paltrier levels of creativity, managed to colonize the Japanese imagination, if not capture Japanese hearts. Winter Sonata is even more embarrassing on screen than it sounds in print (if that is possible), but, for the sake of edification, here goes…

A couple deep in love during their high school years become separated when the guy side of the bond gets himself on the “ouch” side of a traffic accident that leaves him absent memory and his gal convinced he’s dead. The girl grieves, but, in time, moves on, life not being a fantasy-romance. Ten years pass. The girl, now a woman, is engaged to — as Bernie Taupin once so eloquently put it — “some other guy”, when she happens into an encounter with her former lover, Mr. Exalted Perfect One. Get this: she recognizes the resemblance (she’s not the one with the amnesia, after all) but never suspects that he is actually her long lost Mr. Everything. He, of course, having suffered severe script-writing intervention, is simply stupid in love with her, though he can’t produce a ready reason why. I guess he should have asked the writers. But in any case, nothing on the order, say, of “hey, it’s déjà vu” or — how about this? —: “I have a picture of you in my wallet”.

Well, if you think that strains credibility, then try this one on for size: he can’t proffer any means of establishing his identity. This is convenient as it forestalls the heroin from rushing headlong into his anxious embrace, screaming: “Yes! I remember you. Your signature is in my high school yearbook, your mom lives down the street from my parents, my dog recognizes your scent.” Okay, so everyone’s a critic. But, basically, you know the drill: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, then… boy, for the life of him, can’t remember girl enough to get her back. Of course, this isn’t only because he’s vacuous but also because she is as virtuous as a swizzle-stick in an empty gin and tonic. And, for those of us rooting for an emotional reunion and happy ending, she turns out to be about as useful. Thus is it that the early part of the drama is all about her excruciating dilemma: liking newly-met boy, but trying her best to avoid falling in love with him. The key element in this struggle is her battle to avoid seeing him as a reincarnation of the other, earlier high school chum: long lost Mr. Exalted Perfect One.

The “him” in this case is Pe Yon Jun — or, as every middle age biddy in Japan calls him, simply “Yon-sama” (sama being the honorific reserved for those we Japanese tend to view as “Mr. Exalted Perfect One”). The irony, here, is that no more than 50 years ago, these women’s grandfathers were feverishly dashing about trying to expunge “Mr. Exalted Perfect One’s” progenitors!. Meanwhile, back in TV-land, you wouldn’t believe it, but what “Mr. Exalted Perfect One” looks like is no one if not a Chicago accountant on vacation in Vermont: decked out in environmentally-enlightened, tertiary colors — mauve and puce and strawberry orange — plastered on scarves, wrapped around turtle necks, swimming inside open duffle coats. Yon-sama sports John Lennon specs and beams through slightly pudgy cheeks that are worn with boyish enthusiasm. Indubitably, though, it is his eyes that make the biddies weak in the knees: those doleful irises that speak of scrabble-dabble life experiences which have produced keen insights beyond his years. This haunted little-boy look, as well as his role in the soap as a victim of life’s cruel twists and unfortunate trajectories, has won Yon-sama an enormous following in ReDotPopdom. So large, in fact, that Japanese women traveled in droves from the farthest reaches of the archipelago simply to witness his arrival at Narita airport!

Anyway, back in the world where everything makes sense in the end: Yon-sama falls in love with his old lover (unaware, of course, that she once went by that designation), who, of course, is tempted beyond all reasonable bounds of fairness to reciprocate. Upon learning of this burgeoning affection, the woman’s fiancé promptly becomes so depressed that he wastes away to nearly nothing. Hospitalized for enervation, emaciation, and general lack of interest in caring for himself, the fiancé attempts suicide by unencumbering his forearms of their precious intravenous taps. Yon-sama, being such a stand up guy, then understands perfectly why his true love MUST return to her pathetic, suicidal partner. Professing his love, he demonstrates his honor by stepping aside. Yet, even for saints, there are limits to moral display. Thus, episodes later, with the tides of love drawing the two inexorably back together — and despite learning that the male rivals are actually half brothers (!) — Mr. and Ms. Yon-sama are encouraged by their present partners (who have spent the entire series conniving to keep the past lovers apart) to run away with one another. Thus is it that the eternal circle is completed and the emotionally depleted audience is delivered a happy ending. (I bet you didn’t think that was coming, did you?).

My wife, being in her . . . well, of a particular age and nationality . . . is more of an authority on these things than I. Thus, while I often don’t listen to her about some things, I tend to listen to her when she explains why all of this is important to the project of theorizing ReDotPop. On her account, the reason Winter Sonata has made it so big over here is because it is just like the dramas she used to watch as a teenager. You know. . . way back (I can’t tell you for reason of personal health) when. Not only are the production values of the episodes laughably amateurish, but the conception of romance borders on the platonic. You won’t be seeing tongues probing the inner recesses of mouths, or fingers groping feverishly over impossibly-accentuated bumps or into acutely-contoured crevices of skin-tight slacks. Far from it: these stories mirror the puppy-love tales of an earlier generation; where pecks on the cheek were considered bold and holding hands was the means by which emotional commitment was conveyed.

On this logic, Winter Sonata has such an immense following among a cohort of aging women because they lived through it all. . . way back. . . when. And, conditions having changed so dramatically in their ReDot world, they pine for the return of this brand of innocence; transport back to a place and time from which they long ago were snatched. More, they yearn, above all else, to experience this innocent passion once more before the gong declares their corporeal demise. Believe it or not, this psycho-cultural condition has borne phenomenological fruit. As The Korean Times reports, the annual number of passengers on ferries between Pusan and Japanese cities has well exceeded its previous high, sparked in large part by Japanese housewives, who have flocked to “South Korea to visit some of the locations where (Winter Sonata) was filmed.” The 2 hour, 40 minute boat trip costs about 8,400 yen, or 82 US dollars. The memories (and tears) come free of charge.

Part 3 of “The Gist List: ReDotPop’s Most Memorable Moments, circa 2004”, concludes next week, focusing on the rebirth of Japan’s most beloved game: baseball.