Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Another Professional Wrestler in the Diet: A Portent of Things to Come?

(I thought of giving this one up to The Cryptic, but then, why should he have all the fun?)

The resignation of Heizo Takenaka, the peripatetic economic czar (never economic tsar, but you knew that because you've been googling, haven't you?), had the unintended effect of bringing yet another professional wrestler, Ms. Shinobu Kandori, to the Diet as his automatic replacement. What is it that draws people like Ms. Kandori, Atsushi Oonida, and Hiroshi Hase to lawmaking? It's not like the Diet needs the muscle; it's been quite a while since the Diet was the site of many a televised brawl between the LDP and the loyal opposition. This is all the more striking since, currently, there are no former professionals from other sports at all. No baseball players, no sumo wrestlers, no tennis players, no golfers, no soccer players. (There are two winter sports athletes, one speed skater and one Nordic combined, in the Upper House, but they were technically amateurs.)

The pro athlete part is not hard to understand, when you see the list of tarento giin (celebrity legislators), belonging mainly (though by no means exclusively) to the LDP. They are the pretty faces of the party, intended to attract independents and strays. They are a welcome addition to the second-, third-, x-generation candidates, who can be counted on to pitch in with their share of the family heirloom. But professional wrestlers? I mean, no offense, but aren't pro wrestlers supposed to be kinda… ya know… dumb?

Actually, no. Not these people, anyway. One is a former high school teacher (no, not Phys-Ed, in case you were wondering), and another earned a high school diploma and worked his way, so to speak, through college, as a Diet member.

The real reason becomes clearer when you look at the other tarento giin and realize that they are for the most part TV journalists, i.e. newscasters and announcers. It is not enough for the face of the party to just stand around and smile, like those leggy companions at industrial shows. And if anyone not only can walk the walk, but also talk the talk, it’s the professional wrestler.

Americans know that WWF, I mean WWE, has long since evolved into a never-ending kabuki, a roving CD-Comics extravaganza of a loosely-scripted, long-running soap-comedy, complete with character development and relapses, from heel to face and back again. Likewise, with a little moderation -- this is Japan -- the Japanese version.

Unlike cosseted movie stars, professional wrestlers engage in constant interaction with the crowd. They are physically disciplined performance artists, engaged in improvisational, interactive theater. Unlike pure actors, they must also always be on the alert for physical hazards, to both themselves and the often raucous crowds. The ring is definitely not a place for the unintentionally dimwitted. Nor is the ring a haven for the pure athlete, like the sumo wrestler, whose only real demanding interaction with the public may come in the form of sports clichés mumbled into a microphone in answer to non-questions after they've bumped off the Grand Champion. (In their defense, sumo wrestlers have become far more eloquent since the days of my childhood, when gods (Taiho and Kashiwado) walked among us.)

Ms. Kandori is a welcome female entry into the upper echelons of the body politic. And do not be surprised to see more of her ilk in the future. The shelf life of a professional athlete is short and brutish, that for a female celebrity likewise brief.

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