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Media, O English Media, Where Wert Thou?

October 5th, 2005

Okay, now on to the topic I first promised some time ago. Sorry for getting sidetracked. Three days until the 20-year anniversary, though, so there’s still time.

When I arrived in Toyama in October of 1985, I simply did not know what to expect in terms of living there. Does it snow? Yes, so bring warm clothing. I could predict simple stuff like that. But what about the fact that Japanese shoe stores stock sizes that end three centimeters short of my size? How about the (then) ludicrous prices for eyeglasses? I could tell stories about those, but what really got to me more than anything else was the dearth of media.

Today it is far, far different. Today there’s cable and satellite TV with CNN, Super Channel and so on, endless English TV. But back in 1985, even the aptly-named BS TV (alas, it stands for “Broadcast Satellite,” though the obvious alternative does apply) was not there yet–at least, I believe it started in 1987 with minimal service. I recall getting bad piped-in reception in my last apartment in Toyama just before I left, mostly just beginning programming with Yu Hayami’s “Let’s Get Happy” repeated endlessly as the theme song for the new service.

So mostly television was not English-friendly. Yes, the TVs even then had “bilingual” ability (essentially, the left audio channel of the stereo broadcast carries English while the right channel carries Japanese), but it was not used enough for English speakers to depend upon as a media carrier. In fact, aside from the English translation of NHK news, sometimes the only bilingual broadcast you could look forward to was the Wednesday Foreign Movie Roadshow (or some title along those lines), a weekly showing of foreign films that all too often featured dreck like Death Wish III, which I swear to God I saw broadcast several times in my first several years in Japan. There may also have been the Sunday Movie Theater, hosted by Nagaharu Yodogawa, the little grey-haired guy who spoke in a birdlike manner and always signed off with his famous “Sayonara! Sayonara! Sayonara!” But those broadcasts were not always foreign movies, as I recall. And what movies were broadcast were usually crap. And we watched every one of them, usually all of the teachers from the Y together, like a weekly event. It reminds me of the Woody Allen joke where he recounts two elderly ladies complaining about the food they were served; one said, “such terrible food!” and the other chimed in, “yes, and such small portions!”

My TV addiction may also have been frustrated by the fact that I lived in Toyama. Now, even in Tokyo there were only 8 or so channels, including the two obligatory NHK channels (General and Educational), which would have been considered sparse for any metropolitan American area. But Toyama was limited to four channels, two of them NHK. So that left the video rental store, which probably kept most of us foreigners from going mad from lack of English entertainment.

Books were even more scarce. Kinokuniya was the place you went to for English books, and out in the countryside I had to travel to Kanazawa in Ishikawa prefecture to get to the Kinokuniya bookstore which had an English-language rack, sparsely populated of course. Not ideal. Even in Tokyo, where the whole 6th floor of Kinokuniya was dedicated to English books and magazines, you had to deal with usurious prices. Kinokuniya posted an “exchange rate” by which you could take the price of an English book in dollars and translate it to yen. It was about double the real exchange rate, making any book cost twice as much as the list price. And forget about magazines or newspapers.

Even as late as the mid-nineties, the book situation was not all that good; the alternatives included English-language used book stores and the Foreign Buyer’s Club, and I seem to recall there was a book seller by mail order somewhere, but most of those got knocked out when Amazon Japan started up after the turn of the century. But back in the 80’s, the best way to get books you really wanted was to go book shopping when you went back home on holiday. That’s what I did, stuffing perhaps half of my suitcase with paperbacks. And maybe the sparsity of books is how I got into the habit of re-reading books again and again and being happy with it.

Today, there is the Internet. Amazon.com and other stores for books. Cable and satellite TV. As much media as you can eat. It’s hard to express what a difference there is. And I have to admit that it may not be a completely positive one, and not just because of the media itself, but because of the draw it provides away from the country in which we live. It allows us to keep perhaps too strong a tether to home and to our native media. I should watch Japanese TV more, but I don’t so much. But frankly, if it’s a choice of too little or too much, I choose too much. There ain’t no ginger*.

Next: food and other stuff you buy.

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  1. ykw
    October 5th, 2005 at 14:58 | #1

    What is this about ginger?

    What did you do for fun, when you did not have tv and reading?

  2. Luis
    October 8th, 2005 at 03:13 | #2

    About ginger, click on the asterisk.

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