A Year To Remember

A Year To Remember

A pictorial guide to the highs and lows of 2009


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on December 2009

Illustrations by Chip Boles

Illustrations by Chip Boles

2009 was a year of extremes in Japan. For every Oscar-winning Departures that stirred national pride, there was a drug-sniffing Noripi who brought fans down to earth. Almost as soon as a fresh political party assumed power, its leader became embroiled in an old-school funding scandal. Sometimes, the year’s highs and lows were embodied in a single person: a teen golfing sensation inspired awe by winning the Japanese money title, and revulsion thanks to his hideous fashion sense (see page 22). For our pictorial wrap-up of 2009, we looked beyond the headlines to uncover the lesser-known stories that best represented an extreme year.

Mino Monta’s bright idea

Japan’s variety programs usually steer clear of political hot potatoes, since entertainers have a history of foot-in-mouth disease. Yet veteran TV emcee Mino Monta, 64, managed to embarrass himself in May when he glibly suggested on his TBS morning program that Japan should offer to buy back the four Northern Territories from Russia. The occasion? A state visit by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Monta made the remarks to four panelists, all of whom avoided any response. He went on to say that because of the depressed state of the Russian economy, Moscow should jump at the chance to earn some extra cash. Monta’s comments immediately caused problems for the Foreign Ministry and, the next day, TBS representatives released a statement saying the remarks were inappropriate but made in jest.—Chris Betros

Must-see BeeTV

Giving new meaning to the term “portable television,” the emergence of BeeTV was the most notable—and most notably Japanese—entertainment success story of 2009. The keitai-exclusive broadcasting service, co-produced by cellphone giant Docomo and entertainment group Avex, launched fully formed on May 1 with a roster of top-name talent, led by the doyenne of female entertainers, Akiko Wada. Some 350,000 users signed on for the monthly service (at ¥315 a pop), and the number is expected to grow to 3.5 million in 2013. With brief (5-10min) episodes of all-original programming that subscribers can tune in to whenever they like, BeeTV offers a tantalizing glimpse of the future of television.—Steve Trautlein

Koizumi’s last jam

An ignominious end to a memorable political career: that sums up the events of July 21, when former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi missed his last-ever Diet session… because he was stuck in traffic. During his tenure as PM from 2001-2006, Koizumi displayed a populist touch, and thanks to his maverick leadership style (and trademark mane of silver hair), he became the most recognizable politician of his generation. The humiliating finale to his 37-year Lower House career came as he got hung up during the commute to Tokyo from Kanagawa—a situation that, like so many of Koizumi’s maneuvers, his admiring countrymen could identify with.—Steve Trautlein

Ozawa’s Princesses

2009 will forever be remembered as the year the DPJ wrested power from the good ol’ boys of the LDP. But it might also be known as The Year of the Woman. By enlisting a cadre of female political novices to run against entrenched LDP stalwarts, DPJ honcho Ichiro Ozawa helped ensure a landslide victory for his party. Foremost among “Ozawa’s Princesses” was Mieko Tanaka, a 33-year-old former sex columnist who once appeared topless in a horror film called Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf; other candidates included a swimsuit model and a former hostess. Tanaka’s opponent in the Ishikawa Prefecture No. 2 district race, dour 71-year-old former PM Yoshio Mori, groused, “She was picked only because she is young and has a nice body.” Perhaps. But Tanaka acquitted herself so well that she made it to the Diet under Japan’s proportional representation rules; in total, she and her sisters claimed 96 Lower House seats.—ST

Fashion (non)sense from the boy king

Brave boy, Ryo Ishikawa. The teen golfing phenom took on the world’s best and returned home to win the Japan tour’s money crown. He played with skill. He played with guts. And it looks as if those guts were used to decorate his clothing. There’s nothing wrong with pushing the envelope when it comes to golf fashion, but when you use vomit as your primary color—as Ishikawa’s clothing supplier Yonex has clearly done—then we have to draw the line. If you’re going to wear outrageous, it helps if you are: a) really outrageous; b) strong on irony; c) coordinated; d) Ian Poulter. Ishikawa was none of these things and came across as a kid with an overbearing fashion-designing mum who’s strung out on acid. Hopefully, with $2 million in his pocket, the King can buy some new clothes.—Fred Varcoe

Men’s volleyball flying high

Japanese volleyball reached its peak in the ’60s and ’70s, when the women’s team took two Olympic golds, two silvers and a bronze, while the men won a bronze, silver and gold in successive Olympics (1964-72). The women have occasionally sparkled on the world stage since then, but the men have struggled after taking the silver medal at the 1977 World Cup. However, things have finally started to come together thanks to a stable, tough and progressive coach (Tatsuya Ueta) and a number of world-class players, including spike-happy Kunihiro Shimizu. After qualifying for the Beijing Olympics, the men did even better this year, taking the bronze at a major international volleyball event—the World Grand Champions Cup in Nagoya—for the first time since 1977.—FV

The Gallagher bros. crack up

Granted, I’ve never much liked alternately whinging and preening Oasis. But even from the perspective of their expectant fans at this year’s Fuji Rock Festival, it was obvious that the group was just a highly paid headliner going through the motions. Guitarist Noel Gallagher and singer bro Liam didn’t so much as glance at each other; less than a month later, the band had split up amid reports of fraternal guitar smashings. Wish we could say farewell and good riddance, but apparently Liam and the Oasis backing boys have the misguided idea of continuing on without main songwriter Noel. Talk about going out not with a bang but a whimper…—Wendy Miner

Tokyo gets festive

With arts budgets deflating as fast as a banker’s bottom line, Tokyo’s decision to throw cash at the sinking Tokyo International Arts Festival and reinvent it as the Festival/Tokyo was nothing short of miraculous. Granted, Governor Ishihara had the ulterior motive of securing the Olympics by fostering a hypothetical “New Wave of Culture from Tokyo.” But if the end result was not one, but two full-fledged international theater programs in one year—who cares? Under the sure hand of Chiaki Soma, F/T brought cutting-edge dramatics to Tokyo. And at a time when English-language theater is scarce, we were even treated to the rare spectacle of productions by leading contemporary Japanese playwrights captioned in English. In the wake of Tokyo’s failed Olympic bid, will the cash run dry? Over 100,000 delighted theatergoers hope the answer is no.—Dan Grunebaum