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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 22, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 42

Why Are You So Strange?
A hit TV show is allowing foreigners in Japan to ask some blunt questions about their hosts

Former sumo great Konishiki makes a point, watched by (from the left) moderator Kitano "Beat" Takeshi, retired Brazilian footballer Rui Ramos, and TV star Terry Ito
Tokyo Broadcasting System
What is it about Japanese workers that makes them happy to spend hours each day crammed like cattle in commuter trains? Why do people who go to Japanese public baths walk around with a towel held in front of their private parts? Why do parents willingly deprive their youngsters of the joy of childhood by pressuring them to do homework until late at night? Why do respectable young girls go into seedy part-time prostitution with jaded businessmen?

All good questions - and all have come up on This Is What's Wrong/Funny With You Japanese, a popular television program that allows foreigners living in Japan to put locals on the spot about their lifestyles and idiosyncrasies. In a country that seems to have more oddities per square kilometer than anywhere in the world, there is no shortage of topics.

Television: Why Are You So Strange?
A show provides Japanese viewers with a crash course in what foreigners think about them and their ways

People: Glamor Girl in Trouble
An Anwar accuser falls on hard times

Books: Children of the Killing Fields
A timely look behind Khmer Rouge terror

French accusations fly in Cambodia

Why older people benefit from some extra weight

Theater: Speaking in Tongues
Why a Thai version of a Japanese play is a hit - in Tokyo

Books: Daring to be Different
Women who challenged Japan's hypocrisies (09/17/99)

Asiabuzz: Ah, Remember When....
Japanese fans are living in the past (09/10/99)

On a recent show, Saeki Yuzo, a 31-year-old Tokyo businessman, was in the hot seat over his extramarital affairs. He told the international audience he liked to have sex with his girlfriend in a car or on the emergency stairs of buildings. "My wife is too tired to make love at night any more," he explained. Women guests were outraged. "You should be ashamed of yourself?" bellowed an American. "What do you tell your children?" An Iranian said she would refuse to sleep with her husband if she found out he was having an affair. A British woman mixed indignation with a spot of advice on the art of seduction. "What you are telling us is unbelievable," she said. "You can make your wife feel romantic again by changing the light or some other little device."

Audience members all speak Japanese. They come from as far afield as Eritrea and Cuba, with, on an average night, about one-fifth from Asia. The producers prefer to shy away from high-flying international executives and instead invite students, restaurant workers, traders and the like. The host is Japanese comedian and movie director Kitano "Beat" Takeshi, who keeps things moving at a lively clip with a clever mix of friendly banter and provocative repartee. Among those alongside him on a panel of moderators are Hawaiian-born former sumo wrestler Konishiki, retired Brazilian soccer hero Rui Ramos and popular television personality Terry Ito. The taped show, which goes out on Wednesday evenings, has an audience of millions nationwide. After it is aired, the telephone lines at the Tokyo Broadcasting System hum with calls from viewers eager to add their views.

The producers say that while This Is What's Wrong/Funny With You Japanese is designed to be entertaining, it also serves a serious purpose - exposing locals to outside opinion and helping them to understand their own society and culture better. Emotions can run high, with members of the international audience shouting down Japanese participants or sometimes turning on each other. Fights have not yet taken place, but have sometimes seemed likely. Predictably, sexual behavior attracts some of the bluntest comments. "You bring shame on Japan," shouted a man from Benin, dressed in the colorful robes of his west African nation. The object of his wrath: a Japanese woman who had declared it gave her "great pleasure" to steal another woman's man. When a married Japanese woman revealed she had two lovers because she was sexually bored with her husband of 10 years, a Sri Lankan woman told her: "Try to remember we are human beings. We are different from animals."

On another occasion, teachers from regular schools and from juku (cramming establishments) were quizzed. When a teacher complained that children were not respectful and parents were interested only in their youngsters passing entrance exams to prestigious high schools, one foreigner retorted: "Have you ever asked yourself why it is your pupils have to go to juku?" Said another: "Perhaps your teaching methods are putting your class to sleep."

The international audience has its say
Tokyo Broadcasting System
Former Olympic gymnastics silver medallist Iketani Yukio was roasted when he tried to explain why he had gone into showbusiness. "I'm very disappointed to see you jumping around like a monkey on television," said a Korean woman. "I expect you to behave like a national hero." Other former sports heroes sitting with Iketani nodded in agreement when he argued that after years as an amateur, he needed the money. Not so, replied some of the expatriates. This was greed, not need.

On another show, an unemployed Japanese man set off a chorus of boos from foreigners when he accused them of stealing jobs from locals. The two sides then unexpectedly found common ground on the subject of landlords, who they agreed were guilty of discrimination when letting out their premises.

One of the program's most prickly issues is the relationship between Japan and China and how the two sides see each other. In one show, Yang Jianxiong, who arrived in Tokyo as a student 11 years ago, attacked the Japanese for not facing up to their recent war history. He was shocked, he said, to see that young people were not properly educated on the subject. Yang, 33, who owns a restaurant and a trading company, was later on the receiving end for a special one-off edition called This Is What's Wrong/Funny With You Chinese. Why were the Chinese so self-righteous, he and 49 other expatriate Chinese were asked? Why the sense of cultural superiority? How could they expect anyone to admire them or their country?

Yang declared himself satisfied with the exchange. It was healthy to clear up cultural misconceptions this way, he said. But he confessed there was one thing about the Japanese he might never get used to. "In public baths, I have a lot of trouble taking my clothes off in front of the women who run the reception desks." And that's the naked truth.

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