Penn sans Paper


I’ve written the weekly “Televiews” column for the Daily Yomiuri since March 1987. This week, I decided to bring it to a close. It’s always hard to know when to bow out and when to carry on. Then, sometimes, something unexpected happens to hasten the decision and make the choice obvious. Late on the evening of March 1, I received an e-mail informing me the Friday, March 2 column, which had already passed through the weekly copyediting process two days before without incident, would not appear.

Sure enough, the next morning a wire service story on Lady Gaga sat in my usual spot along with a tiny notice: “Televiews does not appear this week.”  The March 2 column I wrote was all about the TV specials scheduled to commemorate the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

The article began by describing a silly Beat Takeshi variety program that had a very touching story tacked on to the end of it–a Japanese man’s brave rescue of three German tourists and two elderly Japanese near Sendai during the tsunami. The column went on to detail a long list of Japanese and bilingual satellite TV March 11-related specials and ended with this paragraph:

“Despite this huge selection, I can’t find anything on the two topics that interest me most. I’d love to see a roundtable of international experts discuss the pros and cons of josen (decontamination) and a documentary chronicling how the disaster has affected and energized Japan’s antinuclear movement.  TV coverage of the latter seems to begin and end with personal profiles of actor-turned-nuclear activist Taro Yamamoto. No, I can’t seem to find my dream specials anywhere in the lineup. Maybe next year? Or perhaps, they’ll be tacked on to the back of a silly variety show too. You just never know.”

Yes, you just never know. The March 1 e-mail explained the column had been pulled one hour before the final deadline and that the primary reason for the decision was: “The management was anxious about the space of the introductions that occupied in the story.” No further explanation of that sentence has been forthcoming.

For twenty years, the Daily Yomiuri never touched a word I wrote (except to correct my grammar;-). That was a very nice time but, now, it was obvious that it was time to call it quits. I was asked to reconsider that decision but my mind was made up. I felt I couldn’t, in good conscience, continue–especially at this time as Japan continues to cope with the aftermath of March 11, 2011.

The job of a columnist, even a lowly TV columnist, is to aim for the truth, give expression to their conscience, be loyal to their readers, develop a “voice” and opinions (as the late, great Andy Rooney said: we’re paid to have an opinion) and,  hopefully, be funny too.  Over the years, I have tried to aspire to those goals. After 25 years, I was not interested in spending my last years at the Daily Yomiuri teetering on the slippery slope to self-censorship. If I can’t write relatively freely on one of the most important media topics of the day, really, what’s the point of continuing?  It’s time to move on.

The farewell column below—celebrating Televiews’ 25th anniversary and my departure—appeared in the March 9, 2012 edition.  Who knows? Perhaps I’ll be tempted to start blogging on Japanese TV in April when the new spring season starts? For now, I’m just going to take a nice long TV break.    Wilhelmina Penn

TELEVIEWS / After 25 years of TV observations, Televiews says farewell

Wm. Penn / Daily Yomiuri Columnist

Somebody grab the glitter. I’ll recycle the Christmas tree tinsel. It’s time to celebrate Televiews’ Silver Jubilee!

This column was born 25 years ago this month on Monday, March 30, 1987–a time when the then eight-page Daily Yomiuri and I were both a lot younger and thinner. That the column still plods on week after week a quarter-century later is a miracle and a tribute to its loyal readers and the Japanese TV world. Only a topic as endlessly amusing as Japanese TV could make that possible. It just never stops giving. Even when it’s not entertaining, “terebi” is a gold mine of trivia, quirkiness and sociological observations.

It hardly seems like 25 years have passed already–until I remember that those early columns were composed on an electric typewriter and mailed express to The Daily Yomiuri office. Over the years, this column has moved all over the page–top, bottom, left, right and center–and tried out every day of the week before settling down here on the Friday page in 2007. Now, it seems time to move off the page completely.

All good things have to come to a close sometime. After a quarter of a century, it’s time to retire the Televiews column and move on to new adventures. I have always tried to follow my conscience, and it tells me that now is the appropriate time to call it quits.

The lovely thing about the writing profession, of course, is that one never really has to retire. As long as one can push a pencil or click a mouse, the writing life continues. It will probably be hard, maybe impossible, to break the TV habit too, so I’ll be posting occasionally on my blog ( Readers who wish to contact me can do so via that website.

Who knows, if an old bird can learn new tricks, I may even get with the times and teach myself to tweet and twitter too–after a few weeks of vacation from the TV to clear my head after 25 years of total immersion.

My only regret is not having had the good sense to number these columns like Beat Takeshi does with his weekly magazine columns. The best guesstimate is that Televiews passed the 1,200-column milestone in the winter of 2011 and is now near the 1,250 mark.

I’ve often been asked how Televiews started. (I sent a few sample columns to The Daily Yomiuri, they hired me and, to their credit, let me write unhindered for two decades.) Yet, I’ve never given much thought to how it should end. Composing a top 10 list like that of American late-night TV host David Letterman might work, but I’m running out of space.

So let’s conclude with: Televiews’ Top Seven List of Quirky Favorites and Memorable Moments:

7. Most Memorable Actors:

Yuji Oda, Etsushi Toyokawa, Yosuke Eguchi, Takako Tokiwa, Emi Wakui, and all the other fortysomething stars who reigned over Japan’s golden age of dramas in the 1990s.

6. Favorite 21st-Century TV Lifesaver:

The arrival of South Korean dramas.

5. Most Memorable TV Roller-Coaster Ride: In May 1988, NTV spent 12 million dollars to celebrate its 35th anniversary with a live transmission from atop Mt. Everest, then interrupted it to plunge viewers back to sea level for the rest of the Hanshin Tigers-Yomiuri Giants game.

4. Favorite TV Break:

(Australia, 1989-90) Heather Ericson held down this column for 20 months until I said sayonara to Neighbours, The Flying Doctors and dear Mr. Squiggle.

3. Craziest Penn Project:

Self-publishing The Couch Potato’s Guide to Japan in 2003 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Japanese TV. Perhaps it’s time to tackle a 60th anniversary e-book sequel.

2. Most Memorable Televiews Mistake:

(Nagano Prefecture, circa 1995) Forgot to turn off the modem box after sending the column to Tokyo. The Daily Yomiuri and I were linked in cyberspace for 19 hours. (This one could also be included on a list of the 10 easiest ways to blow 40,000 yen.)

1. Favorite Letter from a Reader:

“I would really like to know what kind of psychological fortitude it takes to be a critic of Japanese television for as long as you have. I really have no idea how you manage to do it without snapping unless you already have, of course, and are writing the column from the confines of a penal or mental institution. Anyway, take care of yourself.” (I might even frame that one.)

Yes, Televiews has had a very good run. The years and the readers have been kind. I’d like to thank everyone at The Daily Yomiuri who has assisted with this column over the last quarter-century, and most especially, you, dear readers, who have made it all worthwhile. My trusty remote, Rosinante, and I bid you a fond farewell.

(Mar. 9, 2012)