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Monday, March 11, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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In Japan, TV News Is A Different Ball Game

Peter Jennings, running for mayor of New York City?

Faith Daniels, leaving NBC News to get married?

``The CBS Evening News with Monte Hall''?

In Japanese TV news, it happens.

Two of Japan's nightly newscasts now air in Seattle and numerous other U.S. cities. They look a lot like what American viewers are accustomed to. For differences, look beyond the flashy graphics and peppy music.

Newscasters, for example, may rise through a Japanese network's ranks straight from college. For an announcer, proficiency in reading complicated Japanese characters counts more than a background in journalism.

Female announcers often quit to wed. Even respected anchors might do double duty hosting game shows. One anchor at NHK - Japan's closest analogy to PBS - is campaigning for mayor of Tokyo.

A colleague, Karuna Shinsho, hosts ``Today's Japan,'' a 30-minute English-language NHK newscast that has appeared on numerous PBS stations since 1989. It airs in Seattle on KCTS-9 weekdays at 1 a.m.

Notwithstanding the steady trickle of U.S. fan mail sent her in care of WGBH-TV in Boston, which distributes the show, most Japanese anchors attain less celebrity than their American counterparts. And though they at times inject their opinions and reactions into a newscast, usually they serve a function more akin to England's ``newsreaders.''

``If there's ever an individual endeavor, it's anchorman,'' observed Bill Stewart, who headed ABC's Tokyo bureau from 1983-86. ``Japanese don't relish standing out as individuals. It's anchorman as part of the group.''

``Supertime,'' a Japanese evening newscast from the Fujisankei network, now airs in half a dozen U.S. markets. In Seattle, KTZZ-TV (Channel 22) carries it from 6-7 a.m. weekdays.

Akio Ueda, a 38-year-old former soccer star and insurance executive who joined Fuji TV in 1987, co-anchors the program's main segment.

His anchormate, the serious, almost dyspeptic-looking Yuko Ando, 32, attended the University of California at Berkeley and joined Fuji from rival Asahi National Broadcasting Co., where she hosted such news programs as ``Television News Scoop'' and ``The World Today.''

They stand to deliver the news from a spare and brightly lit set. When signing off the newscast, they bow slightly to the camera. After a videotaped package, they often bark ``hai,'' which means ``yes,'' or ``I see.''

Though Japanese networks own the latest broadcasting hardware, they often use it in ways that can strike a U.S. viewer as unusual. Correspondents don't bother to hide their earphone cords; cameramen choose not to record natural sound when photographing an event; instead of creating an electronic graphic, producers fashion a map from cardboard and press-on lettering, then prop it on an easel.

``Eighteen months ago,'' said Gordon Joseloff, CBS News Tokyo correspondent from 1981-84 and bureau chief from 1984-89, ``I thought of them as five years behind the U.S. in their method of presentation, their graphics, the way they do things. It's a matter of style.''

There are certain stories, though, at which Japanese newscasts hurl all their resources and ingenuity.

A lengthy report aired last month on ``Supertime'' examined Gulf War weapons and tactics. It employed a giant tabletop sandbox, complete with scaled down trenches, bunkers, camouflage netting, land mines, anti-mine rockets, artillery pieces, dozens of tanks, planes, helicopters and a full-size cannon shell.

In 1985, when a JAL jumbo jet crashed into a Japanese hillside, one network sent a photographer into the almost inaccessible, wooded area, lugging a portable microwave transmitter. Meanwhile, back in its Tokyo studio, the network built an elaborate miniature of the crash site.

With an intensity befitting the tracking of a cholera epidemic, Japanese networks follow the northward march of the blooming cherry blossoms. One observer described it as a combination of New England fall foliage mania and religious spectacle.

``Japan is a complex society,'' noted Donald Hellman, a professor of international studies at the University of Washington's Jackson School, ``and there are parts of it that are utterly crazy.''

In a memorable example of what would strike most U.S. viewers as network absurdity, Japanese stations once broke into regular programming to carry a live press conference with the European movie actor Alain Delon. Delon, revered in Japan as Jerry Lewis is venerated in France, had called a Tokyo airport press conference to promote cologne.

James Fallows, The Atlantic magazine writer who lived in Asia for four years and is at work on a book about Japan called ``Looking at the Sun,'' values Japanese TV for the window it opens on everything from the latest fads to centuries-old taboos.

A ``Supertime'' report on radiation leaks at a Japanese power plant, besides showing officials seated on tatami mats around a low conference table, noted that electric company executives apologized for the leaks. Such a public apology would be almost unheard of in this country unless a judge demanded it.

A complicated taboo covering discussions of cancer played itself out on Japanese newscasts during the illness leading up to Emperor Hirohito's death on Jan. 7, 1989.

``You would have seen a summary four or five times a day on how much rectal bleeding he had,'' Fallows recalled. ``But never once would they have said he had cancer.''

Japanese newscasts may also allow U.S. viewers a glimpse of the real story, or honne, as opposed to the official story, or tatemae, doled out to the foreign media.

``There's some assumption in the U.S. that whatever is said internally is also heard externally,'' Fallows said. ``There's the opposite assumption in Japan. There's a sharp distinction between talk within the family and talk for outside consumption. Part is culture, part language. That's one of the big payoffs in being able to see news from Japan.''

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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