Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the media reaction to NHK’s New Year’s Eve song contest, “Kohaku Uta Gassen.” Part of the article discusses the Southern All Stars’ surprise appearance and the controversy that followed. I didn’t go into detail about leader Keisuke Kuwata’s apology, but it does bear further scrutiny if only because Kuwata is one of the few mainstream pop stars who has displayed anything like an independent personality over the years. Though his music has become redundant since the band’s strong run of albums in the early 80s, Kuwata tried to retain some of the iconoclasm normally associated with the American rock and R&B he grew up with. Unfortunately, much of that image had to do with lyrics that fixated on what the Japanese refer to as “the bottom half,” and thus just sounded off-putting the older he got, but since his presumed remission from esophogeal cancer he’s come out a little more forthrightly against the powers that be. The apology he released last week was less about the antics described in my column and more about his cavalier treatment of the medal he received from the emperor, an honor that he seemed to be making fun of when he displayed it on stage at one of the group’s recent concerts and jokingly tried to auction it off. I hadn’t known about that before the apology and probably would have been impressed if I had: It sounds like a good joke in that it conveyed the singer’s discomfort at being cited by the authorities as some sort of role model. As trite as it may sound, I still think artists who nominally identify themselves as rock and rollers should be automatically suspicious of positive recognition from the so-called establishment. Strictly speaking, it would have been better had Kuwata politely refused the medal, but I suppose that’s beyond the pale for a Japanese public figure of his standing, so joking about it is the next best thing.
Consequently, apologizing for the joke sounds like a betrayal of the values I thought Kuwata was trying to convey, and since he didn’t specifically retract his criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which he expressed at another concert, I suspect those values still hold. By all appearances he was pressured into writing the apology, likely by his management company, which had been picketed by right wing groups incensed by Kuwata’s actions; and that’s another thing that should be mentioned, because as far as I can tell none of the mainstream media has. Though all the newspapers and TV shows reported Kuwata’s mea culpa in detail, they didn’t say anything about those demonstrations. So while Kuwata’s about-face is disappointing, it fits a narrative about the power of intimidation whose familiarity is even more disappointing.