As the title indicates, Jayson Makoto Chun's A Nation of a Hundred Million Idiots? is a study of a variety of Japanese television phenomena between 1953 and 1973. The study starts in 1953 with the debut of Japanese television broadcasting and ends in 1973, the first year of the oil shock. This period marked Japan's high-speed growth in both the economy in general and the television industry, after which, Chun argues, the pace of development in the television industry and media culture leveled off. In these twenty years, television became an integral part of Japanese life, and its development coincided with the rebuilding of postwar Japanese national identity.
Chun focuses on both the Japanese television audience and the derived popular media culture. His analysis of the Japanese television industry emphasizes its development along two tracks: public and commercial networks. He also shows how television rapidly spread in the countryside and shortened the distance between the urban and rural areas. Television becomes a vehicle for the exploration of Japanese identity.
The book begins with Ōya Soichi's famous attack on television, the source of the book's provocative title, and explores the ensuing debates among intellectuals and the public's responses. In the latter chapters, Chun makes his own position clear: “Hundred Million Idiots” is too arbitrary a judgment. The royal wedding, the Anpo protests, the Tokyo Olympics, the university riots, and the hostage “drama” were all major media events at that time; through Chun's analysis, readers will realize that audience reactions varied considerably. It is wrong to conclude that the communication was only one way—television force-feeding the audience—as Chun finds mutual interaction. Moreover, imported American television programming complicates the issue of Japanese national identity. Chun finds a hybrid postwar media culture in which television functioned to domesticate foreign culture.
The social critic Ōya Soichi argued in 1957 that Japanese viewers were more often drawn to low-quality television shows, and that the tendency to favor such shows would have a terrible influence on Japanese minds. His usage of “one hundred million” was a play on the wartime slogans “one hundred million hearts beating as one” and “one hundred million people as one bullet” (p. 161). However, Chun challenges the premise that Japanese television viewers lacked agency. The failure of Nippon Educational Television, a commercial educational channel, indeed shows that “noble” educational television could not beat out vulgar (teizoku) programs. But this was the audience's choice, even if intellectuals disapproved.
Chun argues that television filled the void that followed the collapse of national pride after World War II. He smartly delineates two competing discourses: what people said about television and what people did with television. In analyzing the new relationship between nation and people in the television era, he focuses on three salient events of the postwar era: television coverage of the 1959 royal wedding, the 1960 Anpo (Japan-America Security Treaty) protests, and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. These events had different meanings in the context of Japan's high-speed growth period, but, Chun argues, they all helped unite the nation and the people as one.
The three media events created a national audience. Chun emphasizes that women played a central role in these media productions, and helped to draw female viewers into these events. The media's hype over the royal wedding and especially Crown Princess Michiko reveals that television forced the ruling class to change its public strategy. The wedding marked a new way the authorities sought to attract the citizenry: through publicity. The atmosphere of national unity created by the media also distracted the public from other political issues at that time.
The 1960 Anpo protests were a way of creating a Japan ready to stand up to the United States. The death of the young female student Kanba Michiko dramatized the whole media event. Chun argues that the importance of the Anpo protest movement in the history of Japanese television lies in its “real-time” broadcasting of a social event. The images of police beating students greatly moved women; young adults, who had not experienced the suffering of the war, gained a different view of the United States. The featured event of the Tokyo Olympics was the Japanese women's volleyball team. Their winning of the gold medal created ratings of 85 percent. Chun argues that the combination of sports and the media “cemented into place a nationalism to help fill in the void left by the loss of empire” (p. 224). Television again united viewers around the country.
The three national events that form the core of Chun's analysis help to explain the formation of Japanese national identity. However, it is important to keep in mind that the women in each of these cases were not ordinary women, and women's reactions to these events were not significantly valued. It is hard to tell, therefore, whether, as Chun claims, Japanese women “were gaining a fair amount of voice in the creation of the television culture” (p. 226).
Postwar Japan–U.S. relations shaped Japanese media culture and national identity. The cheap American television programs and the impression of Americans created by the media influenced how Japanese people viewed their most important foreign partner. According to Chun, the encounter of Japanese and American popular cultures through Japanese television cannot be simplified to the invasion of the American capitalist media power. Chun examines the popular television character of Jess in the series Laramie, played by Robert Fuller, to show how Japanese television successfully domesticated the American figure by hybridizing Japanese and American cultural symbols. Chun identifies three steps of domestication: First, Fuller was dubbed to speak Japanese. “By speaking Japanese, Jess' American origin was somewhat shrouded, making him seem more ‘Japanese’” (p. 257). Second, Japanese media producers took Fuller to embody Japanese values. In other words, the media and audience reinterpreted the character in Japanese terms. Third, in a most extraordinary event, Fuller was even allowed to “coincidentally” encounter Emperor Hirohito while visiting the Imperial Palace gardens (p. 260). The encounter with the emperor secured for him a place in Japanese society, as proximity to the emperor defined one's place in society.
Beginning in the 1960s, the envy and attraction of wealthy America gradually declined in Japanese media culture. Fewer and fewer American television programs were broadcast on Japanese television. In addition to increasing numbers of Japanese-produced television programs serving a Japanese audience, Japanese anime production started growing and was exported to other countries. Chun argues that the process of producing Japan's own television programs was a way to help “stimulate a resurgent Japanese nationalism and growing national self-confidence” (p. 277). However, Chun might need a more cogent explanation for why his analysis of the Japanese television industry ends in 1973. Had a new Japanese national identity become mature by 1973?
Another interesting television phenomenon that Chun discusses is professional wrestling, which started broadcasting in 1954. Because of the scarcity of television sets at the time, watching television became a communal activity. The star wrester of early television was Rikidozan. Rikidozan was actually born in North Korea; during his heyday, he disguised his Korean identity to perform the role of the Japanese hero defeating “evil” foreigners, frequently played by the American Sharpe brothers. Rikidozan's victories evoked strong nationalist sentiments and provided consolation for the defeated Japanese mass after World War II. One sees in the rise and decline of television wrestling, Chun argues, the trajectory of the process of establishing a new Japan; with the advance of Japanese television production and technology to international standards, the symbolic meaning of professional wrestling declined.
Chun shows that television functioned not at the national level to build up the confidence of the Japanese citizenry, but at the level of individual affective relations. Chun frequently uses the concept of parasocial interaction to explain the relationship between television talents and audiences and argues that television become an indispensable part of Japanese family life, influencing people's financial and social decisions. One should point out that in Chun's discussion of television's function in Japanese national identity, not much attention is paid to advertising and commercials. The reader may well ask, what was the influence of major marketers in shaping Japanese identity? Would consideration of the corporation's role in the media change Chun's conclusions?