- The Washington Times
Sunday, July 15, 2007


Hikari Ota is doing what he does best on his weekly “news” show: taking aim at Japan’s aging lawmakers.

“It’s easy to spot them nodding away during parliamentary sessions,” he tells the studio audience while a large screen onstage shows a napping lawmaker. “Sometimes they’re even dead.”

Mr. Ota’s treatment of the country’s leaders might seem tame by some nation’s standards, but in Japan it represents a bold foray into the formerly forbidden territory of political satire.

Japan’s traditional deference to authority has long limited comedians to nonpolitical slapstick routines. Freedom of expression has a relatively short history in Japan, and fear of violent right-wing groups also has stifled free speech.

But taboos have eroded in the last decade as powerful bureaucrats have been shamed by scandals, politicians have become more dependent on public opinion and ordinary people are growing more vocal.

These days, nearly anything is fair game. Mr. Ota, 42, and his colleagues lampoon the prime minister, joke about policies such as constitutional reform and even tread on the ultimate taboo — the imperial family.

“We try to dissect society with humor,” says Mr. Ota, who teams up with Yuji Tanaka as the comedy duo “Bakusho Mondai” — which roughly translates as “matter of a roaring laugh.”

On “Hikari Ota: If I Became Prime Minister,” Mr. Ota offers fake proposals — Japan should buy up all North Korea’s nuclear bombs, for instance, or impose competency tests on prime ministers. Then a panel of 20 guest lawmakers, academics and entertainers poses as parliament and holds a mock debate.

In a society where keeping your opinions to yourself is a sign of social finesse and maturity, Japan’s satirists are getting mileage from the pure shock value of broaching formerly untouchable subjects.

Comedian Minoru Torihada — whose stage surname means goose bumps — has built an underground following by spoofing figures across the political spectrum. His favorite targets are rightists who revere the emperor and yearn for a return of Japan’s wartime glory. He struts around onstage in tight-fitting uniforms or suits with the pants too short and the jacket sporting wartime slogans such as “Die for the Nation.”

He begins almost every performance by exhorting his audience to “salute the palace.”

“I recommend the policy of a prosperous nation and a strong military, requiring all men from 8 to 65 to be drafted and all women to be fertile,” he declares in a mock political campaign speech echoing Japanese wartime propaganda.

“How do we overcome the aging society?” he asks. “Let’s send them to the battlefront instead of nursing homes.”

Such themes reverberate in a Japan that is still feuding with its neighbors over its militarist policies of the 1930s and ‘40s. But Mr. Torihada says comedians have a responsibility to address the important issues of the day.

“We shouldn’t be just yapping about things that happen just a few feet away from you when, for instance, North Korea is firing missiles and testing nukes,” Mr. Torihada says. “We should be paying more attention to our time and society.”

It wasn’t always like this.

Masaharu Ibaragi, a specialist in politics and comedy at Tokyo University of Information Sciences, says touchy subjects such as political leaders, religion and the royal family have long been no-go zones for comics.

In the past, that has led to self-censorship — still the rule among mainstream entertainers, he said.

“In Japan, doing political satire is like performing before an ethics committee,” Mr. Ibaragi says. “As a result, the media and entertainment industries use self-imposed restraint.”

Not everybody approves of the new freedom.

Takami Takeuchi, an NTV producer of Mr. Ota’s program, says the broadcaster has received numerous audience complaints that the show went too far. Mr. Ota has also faced accusations from rightists of being anti-Japanese.

But other Japanese think the satirists should go even further.

“I hope to see Japanese comedians do more parody, like Monty Python,” says Nobuyo Owada, a Tokyo office clerk in her 30s. “They could be more opinionated.”

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