My days in Japan begin at eight in the morning when the ‘Morning drama’, ‘Renzoku Terebi Shōsetsu’, ‘serial TV’, or ‘Asadora drama’ begins, the TV set in my apartment, which doubles as an alarm, announces both the beginning of the day and a new episode. I get up and watch the drama, which is fifteen minutes long, as my wife and I get ready to face the day. I love NHK’s Asadora dramas; they are my guilty pleasure, and often a Japanese language learning aid, exposure to the spoken word being useful for one trying to learn.
For those who are unaware, the ‘Asadora drama’ or ‘Morning drama’ is a serial TV programme that runs twice a year on NHK, and each series is six months long, one begins in April and ends in September after which the next drama begins. The programme’s gender politics may be suspect, it certainly seems to be aimed at wives and children staying at home, and the theme of every drama is essentially the same, that of a young woman (and often incredibly cute), trying to succeed in life. When I arrived in Japan, in August 2012, it was ‘Umechan Sensei’ about a young woman trying to become a physician in post World War II Tokyo. Another notable mention was the 2013 drama ‘Amachan’ which included a pre-watershed depiction of the March 11th disaster, which I thought was quite daring.
So when, in November 2013, I read in The Japan Times, that NHK were looking for an actress to play ‘Ellie’, a fictionalised version of Jessie ‘Rita’ Roberta Cowan, wife of Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka Whisky, you can imagine this Asadora drama-loving, half Scottish (and therefore whisky drinking, obviously) was excited as a haggis lover on Burns night.
Therefore, when the Glaswegian Ellie (well acted by Charlotte Kate Fox) from the beginning spoke Japanese like a native, I must confess to initially being a little disappointed. But not only was Ellie fluent, so were her Scottish parents, their part, told in flashback, being dubbed in Japanese. After making such a fuss about finding a non-Japanese actress to play the lead, the producers had copped-out I felt, chosen the easy path. Why wouldn’t Ellie speak English, at least for a small portion of drama, until she learned Japanese, surely there was some room for a little bit of un-dubbed but subtitled English? Then I remembered the following news report.
In June 2013, NHK was sued for ‘mental distress’ by a Japanese gentlemen, the cause of his distress was the excessive use of English ‘loan words’ appearing in Japanese TV media. Apparently, words such as ‘terebi’ (TV) or ‘konpuraiansu’ (compliance) were over used and should be replaced by Japanese equivalents. He sought 1.4 million Yen (USD 14,300; GBP 9,300) for his distress.
The report got me thinking: suing for mental distress over loan words may seem excessive (although as an English teacher here in Japan, it’s a distress I share), but it also highlights how brave and radical NHK were in casting a non-Japanese actress in a lead role for the first time. The lead actress in the ‘Morning drama’ acquires instant fame, and is ubiquitous on Japanese TV in the year they play the part. In Japan, it is a fame comparable to being the new Batman or Doctor Who.
Japan it seems to some has often had issues with representing both foreigners and the English language. There are commentators on Japan, who see Japan not just as insular, but out-right xenophobic and take the lack of representation of foreigners in the Japanese media, or negative reactions to the English language in the media, as evidence of such xenophobia, and that is a reaction I have never understood. It would be nice of course, if more of the news were translated into English, but the lack of such translation, for myself at least, is a spur to learn better Japanese rather than request more news reports be rendered into English. It would of course also be interesting to see more foreigners appearing in Japanese dramas, other than the manga and 2010 film ‘My Darling is a Foreigner’, American actress Charlotte Kate Fox’s appearance in ‘Massan’ is the one of few high profile instances of foreigner taking the lead in a Japanese drama.
But let’s just stand back and properly appreciate that casting decision for a moment. For the first time in its fifty-three year history (the first Asadora drama ‘Musume to Watashi’ aired in 1961), a non-Japanese, an American, has been cast as the lead. I am no TV historian, but I can’t recall off hand, of another TV channel casting a foreigner in its lead role, the only one that comes close, is the Canadian William Shatner’s casting in Stark Trek, though when he was cast; it was hardly a flagship show. The lead in the BBC show Doctor Who, which is comparable to the Asadora, in terms of fame and status, has never cast a foreigner as The Doctor. In fact, The Doctor has never been anything other than British, white and male. If we are to partly judge the quality of a TV show on whether it presents many ‘diverse’ characters, ‘Massan’ pulls NHK into the lead ahead of Doctor Who at least, unless, based on the most recent incarnation of The Doctor, we are to view being Scottish as some weird and crazy ethnic identity. And personally, I congratulate NHK on ‘Massan’ not just for casting a foreigner, but for reminding me that Japanese whisky is really good.