MTV Japan’s Local Globalization Awards

It's generally agreed that the first MTV Japan awards held at Yurakucho's International Forum in late May [2002] were less than a perfect success. Scheduled for a 7pm kick-off, the show started half an hour late, possibly because of a sudden torrential downpour. Just like the early stages of the World Cup, many of the seats remained unfilled, while some of the guests who did turn up could be seen nodding off in the lengthy pauses that dragged proceedings out by one and a half hours to finish well after midnight.

When, after 4 hours of intermittent excitement, Chinese singer Fay Ray asked stubbly actor Vincent Gallo of Buffalo 66 fame if he was tired, he joked, "No, not at all – I slept through the whole show."

Of course, these problems could be put down to teething troubles, and the sheer scale of the event, which included live performances mixed with the presentation of awards by a varied cast of international celebs. One of the more amusing moments was when ex-sumo wrestler and yokozuna Akebono took the stage with the lovely German supermodel Heidi Klum and used his height advantage to obtain an aerial view of her cleavage before they presented the 'Best Male' award to Ken Hirai.

But the real cause of the confusion was probably the fact that MTV Japan has set itself some challenging objectives. One of these is an attempt to develop a rapport between Japanese and Western youth culture. Unfortunately Japanese artists have extremely limited appeal outside Japan, so the traffic is all incoming. Nevertheless, on the night of the awards, MTV Japan made a brave attempt to create the impression that Japanese popular music is on an equal footing with its Western models by having top Japanese and Western talent sing together or at least accept awards from one another. But this can be a risky strategy as we saw when Japan’s 'Best Male' performed a duet with the relatively unknown American soul singer Joe. Warbling his shaky notes alongside a real black soul singer, Hirai couldn’t look anything but what he is, an ersatz soul man, feebly trying to sound black. 

Ken Hirai
Indeed, one of the most noticeable aspects of the evening was the wholesale adoption by Japan's singing elite of alien – especially black urban American – styles, gestures, and fashions. The 'Blackest' dudes on the block were Rip Slyme, Dabo and S-Word, who all probably feel that assuming the attitude of black gangstas gives their music more authenticity. It doesn't.

Youth culture has always been about having a bad boy image, and coming across as an American ghetto punk, pimp or pusher probably pushes more of those vicarious danger buttons than the Japanese equivalents of slightly naughty high school boy or noisy motorbike rider. When TJ asked Boyz II Men about this phenomenon, they called it a 'Beautiful thing.'

Giving awards to Japanese and foreigners – including supergroup Oasis whose real reason for being here was clearly the World Cup – basically reflected Japanese fans' wonderfully eclectic tastes, but somehow I doubt if the favor will ever be returned. There would need to be major vote rigging before Ayumi Hamasaki or even Hikaru Utada (who wasn’t here tonight) ever exchanged their MTV Japan 'sumo-man' statuettes for an MTV America 'moon-man.'

Not only were foreign acts honored with awards, they were also treated like visiting royalty. It was probably the big effort required in terms of interpreters and being painfully polite to such illustrious dignitaries that resulted in most of the delays!

Sumoman statuette
Another challenging goal MTV sets itself is to associate itself with anarchy and teenage rebellion, while at the same time making sure things don't get too out of hand. One way they do this is to routinely edit out offensive profanity from music videos, usually those featuring rappers. MTV's well worn formula of success is to cultivate the image of danger or chaos without its reality.

Dangerous stunt act, the Tokyo Shock Boys, who did an amusing dry-ice swallowing performance, more or less admitted this afterwards when they told the press: "What we do looks more dangerous than it really is."

Although it might be expected that the awards ran behind schedule because of poor planning, ironically the reverse was true. There was over-planning with MTV Japan running a tight if somewhat slow ship. The elaborate and rigid structure of the show meant each delay had a knock-on effect. Indeed, a little bit of anarchic chopping and changing would probably have got the show back on schedule, but, then, some big egos would have been bruised in the process!

The strict organization was seen to best effect in the press interview room, where award winners and other dignitaries appeared for a cursory interview in front of the MTV cameras with rather inane questions like, "What award do you want to win next year?" This clearly freaked out the bolted-to-the-stage Canadian rockers Nickelback who replied, "Best Dance by a Rock Band."

Questions from the press corps were also allowed, but this was tightly controlled through microphone access and the constant excuse that the stars didn’t have enough time. In fact the head of PR revealed to TJ that most stars previously stipulated the number of questions they were prepared to answer from the floor. When Japan's biggest star, Ayumi Hamasaki, appeared, she merely made a brief statement before flickering away like Tinkerbell as hands shot into the air. As for rock supergroup Oasis, they seemed to be suffering from withdrawal symptoms of some kind as they shyly slouched onto the press room stage to mumble a reply to one question, before slouching back off, asking if anyone had any paracetamol. Perhaps they had given up hope of finding anything harder in the relatively drug-free environment of Japan.

Supermodel Heidi Klum proved more forthcoming than these surly rockers.
"The people are very nice here," she beamed. "As soon as they see you with a map they come to you and want to help." 
But, then, she probably gets that treatment anywhere she goes!

When she informed us that MTV was really big in Japan even though she’d never been here before, TJ had to ask how she knew this.

"It's very big over here because Japanese people are really into fashion," she replied with impeccable supermodel logic.

In the struggle between PR people and journalists, the former definitely have the edge here in Japan, where press conferences are so controlled. However, there were rebellious stirrings. Singing legend Namie Amuro appeared, preceded by a statement that she wouldn’t be answering any questions, meaning questions from the floor. But one irate journalist took this to mean all questions, so that when the MTV VJ Maiko Kodama chimed in with her pleasant little question about what award she would like to win next year, the grumpy hack shouted out, "Hey, no questions!" much to the surprise of Ms. Amuro.

With questions limited and exchanges kept short, it was difficult to get beyond platitudes and discuss important global issues like, erm… globalization, raised by MTVs first awards in Japan. Luckily the next visitor to the press room was Sheryl Crow, whose tough but sexy image as a liberated woman with brains meant she was more than happy to tackle such thorny issues.

As PR people winced, TJ asked her if she thought MTV was part of a globalization phenomenon, including Gap, Starbucks, and McDonalds.
"MTV is sort of the mother network to all the MTVs all over the world," she demurred. "I don't know if you’d call it franchising or not."
We then asked her if she had noticed any unique Japanese elements with MTV Japan.
"It’s very similar to what's going on in the United States," she admitted. "But great videos are being made here. As an art form some of the videos I've seen here have been extremely progressive, even more so than maybe what’s going on in the United States."
Great! So the uniqueness of Japanese culture has now been reduced to few quirky music videos.

In an attempt to cause trouble and get answers on behalf of TJ readers, we were clearly overstepping the mark. Suddenly there was a gentle tug on the microphone cable and we were told that we were out of time again.

As cable TV spreads in Japan, MTV is bound to play an increasing role in Japanese youth culture, speeding up the rate at which impressionable Japanese youth pick up lifestyles, fashions, and attitudes alien to their social environment. This will either be a liberating or a disruptive process. Either way, MTV, it seems, is here to stay. 

Colin Liddell
Tokyo Journal
July 2002
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