I watch a lot more TV in Japan than I do in the States since my wife and I don’t own a TV. The only time we watch TV is on vacation. And on this most recent trip to Japan, I probably watched even greater amounts since the London 2012 Olympics were running while I was there. Along with catching more hours of judo, field hockey, women’s wrestling, and table tennis than ever before, I think I can say now that by year’s end I will have watched a greater number of Japanese commercials this year than American.
Japanese commercials tend to be shorter, often just 15 seconds. (And because of this, they are occasionally doubled-up, meaning you will see the same 15-second commercial follow itself to provide a déjà vu-ish 30-second spot.) I find this brevity a great relief from the longer versions imposed on U.S. terrestrial television. From watching these commercials, an outsider like me can become familiar with the Kardashian-famous-for-being-famous Japanese celebrities through the ads and the extension of their personal brands on variety shows. I am way more familiar than I’d like to be with the boy group Arashi and the girl group AKB48, the latter the pop group that best exemplifies the industrialization of Japanese pop idols and the commodification of their bodies discussed in Hiroshi Aoyagi’s Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Symbolic Production in Contemporary Japan (Harvard University Asia Center, 2005).
While watching these commercials this year, I took particular note of how often dance choreography is included in Japanese commercials, something I hadn’t noticed during my first trip. As I note in my travelogue piece “A Tale of Three (Yamaguchi) Theatres“, this basic choreography is easy to pick-up, particularly for kids. When utilized to promote a kids’ product, children imitating the steps from the commercial extends the brand’s reach through a mimetic physicality. Our mirror neurons encourage us to imagine ourselves performing the same steps even when not literally performing them. As a result, we are more likely to feel the brand. The brand becomes embodied.
But the commercial that most stood out to me doesn’t have any dancing. It is an ad for the Tokyo Metro which can be viewed above (alternately, a non-embedded version can be viewed here.) This version is a longer version of the abridged one I saw on TV. Although it contains no dancing, it does contain falling dominoes, so it resonates with another cultural televisual presence in Japan, “Pythagorean Devices” (ピタゴラ装置), what are called “Rube Goldberg machines” in the U.S. Unlike the dance choreography found in some Japanese commercials, Pythagorean Devices are often quite complex and elaborately set-up to propel one object into another into another, and so on, all begun with a simple nudge. Since 2002, the Japanese network NHK has produced a show called ‘PythagoraSwitch” (ピタゴラスイッチ,) and a shortened offshoot called “PythagoraSwitch Mini”. As a result, these seemingly constant motion machines maintain a constant presence in the minds of Japanese. In this Tokyo Metro commercial, the child becomes the dominoes that propel her from her home to the Metro, an obvious allusion intended to resonate with this already established cultural meme of Pythagorean Devices, a meme, again, ‘felt’ physically through our mirror neurons just like the simple choreography on other commercials.
The commercial intends to demonstrate how safe the Tokyo Metro is for children traveling alone, yet the commercial is not about placating fears of stranger danger. It’s a given in Japan that children should be able to travel alone on public transit. In this commercial, the safety concern alleviated is how you need not worry about a child being struck by a train thanks to the new barrier walls that keep a young child from approaching a still moving train until it is safely time to board.
What I love about this Tokyo Metro commercial is how completely unthinkable it would be in the U.S and much of elsewhere. Syndicated U.S. columnist Lenore Skenazy was dubbed “The World’s Worst Mom” by, in my opinion, the world’s worst media outlet for daring to let her nine-year-old ride the New York subway by himself. Nine years old! The kid in the Tokyo Metro ad looks like she’s barely six. A mother in Rockville, Maryland was recently told by her school district that they would be contacting child protective services if she continued to allow her ten-year-old to take a public bus to school. In the August 23, 2012 edition of the New Zealand Radio National program At The Movies, Simon Morris made this cultural difference a highlight of his review of Hirokazu Koreeda’s I Wish (which, by the way, we also reviewed here) a film in which seven kids venture far away from home to the spot where two bullet trains meet in order to summon their deepest childhood wishes. Emphasizing that this trip is taken sans adults, Morris doubles up the adverbs, “The film becomes a journey, again, inconceivable to Western parents, that’s taken by half-a-dozen children, alone and unaccompanied to the magic spot.”
In this way, some of what I enjoy about the longer film I Wish is embedded in this tiny Tokyo Metro ad. As much as I prefer to stay away from ads, this Tokyo Metro ad is one of those gems that successfully underscores cultural memes in its home country, while unintentionally highlighting significant differences between Japan and other countries regarding child-rearing and investment in public infrastructure.