While it is usually conducted for the benefits of television and print media, the press conference is a pseudo-event and therefore always theatrical, from the razzmatazz of film festival press junkets to the slick Abracadabra-moments of Apple whenever it announces a new major release. This is even more so when the press conference has been called to respond to a scandal and crisis — and when it involves a public apology. These may include a fair share of squirming or passing-of-the-buck, though can also resemble a kind of public breakdown as contrition free-falls into tears. Awkward questions might derail the proceedings and carefully planned reasons will flounder in the silent face of an unsympathetic audience.
In 2014 Japan witnessed a series of high-profile press conferences so ripe for parody and imitation, they could almost have been deliberately staged with the intention of going viral.
Haruko Obokata, the darling of the media at the start of the year, found herself at the eye of a storm raging through Japan’s scientific establishment, casting doubt on the quality of several researchers’ qualifications and, most damagingly, Obokata and RIKEN’s claim to have replicated STAP cells. The much-anticipated press conference where she answered her critics only seemed to add more fuel to the fire. Her plaintive, schoolgirlish “STAP saibō arimasu” immediately became notorious and her supervisor, also implicated in the scandal, later killed himself.
The journos who entered the room to hear Hyogo Prefectural Assembly member Ryūtarō Nonomura explain why his expenses were so high in July could surely have little expected how hard he would fall on his own sword. After demanding all the press give him their business cards, he then began to answer questions in a meandering, evasive way that culminated in a series of wails as he struggled to speak.
Earlier in the year, the popular composer Mamoru Samuragochi (the “Japanese Beethoven”) was exposed as a fraud who for years had employed a ghostwriter and could actually partially hear. His press conference was remarkable not least in how, appearing without his trademark dark sunglasses, it almost literally unmasked a man at the pinnacle of his success. The public was shown the other man lurking under the “brand” Samuragochi had constructed.
These teary-eyed press conferences provided some of the source material parodied in All Apologies, a series of performances devised by Noriyuki Kiguchi and staged at the tiny SNAC in December 2014.
Kiguchi is the leader of Akumanoshirushi (literally, “Sign of the Devil”), a loose performance group he set up in 2008. Its name is derived from the Black Sabbath song Symptom of the Universe.
Kiguchi and the group are likely best known for their series of “carry-in” projects, inspired by Shinto festivals, where local people are involved in helping to transport an arbitrary object through a space. He also staged a meta-theatre piece at Kyoto Experiment 2014 about his father, a modestly successful painter.
All Apologies starred a variety of talents as real-life penitents, including Shōta Mori, the oddball who created an “iPhone Quick-Draw” system for retrieving your mobile device à la Taxi Driver. Mori performed in a frock as Obokata, who in Mori’s version attempts to prove that the disputed STAP cells exist in okonomiyaki.
While satire does not enjoy a long history in Japan like in Europe — needless to say, there is no equivalent of Charlie Hebdo — there is still plenty of edgy comedy and performance if you look beyond the mainstream. Parody is alive and well.
The small venue, usually a gallery, sold tickets where there was a discount for people who volunteered to “jeer” at the performers, adding to the drama of a press conference going wrong. The event also included a presentation on Daniel J. Boorstin’s concept of the pseudo-event.
The art of apology in Japan is codified. How you say your apology is as important, perhaps more important, than what you say. You must give a deep bow while saying mōshiwake gozaimasen (literally, “There is no excuse to be said”). The depth and length of the bow is dictated by the “crime”. Failure to give a deep enough bow will produce further flack, a fate suffered by Sony’s Yutaka Nakagawa when he apologised for a laptop battery problem in 2006 while sitting, which was interpreted as a sign of insincerity.
An apology can even be twisted into a grovel, most infamously the dogeza prostration, where you sit on the ground to kowtow to your offended party. The service industry is expected to apologise whenever a customer deems it necessary, a power balance exploited last year by two men in Osaka who intimidated convenience store staff, forcing them to prostrate themselves, and then exhorted free cigarettes. Foolishly, the thieves filmed the humiliation and uploaded the footage to YouTube, leading to their arrests.
Popular anime producer Toshio Okada recently turned his regular online “seminar” into an hour-long explanation of his private life and why he has relationships with nine women at the same time. This came after images of him kissing a much younger women (an aspiring writer) were leaked. Okada felt it necessarily not only to apologise for having first denied the veracity of the images but also to expound to his followers the details of his affairs. He even started off the seminar with a live online survey of viewers asking if they “forgave” him or not.
In 2013 AKB48 “idol” Minami Minegishi shaved her head (apparently voluntarily) and made a tearful video apology for the “crime” of having sex with a boyfriend. This angered many women and other commentators who saw it as hypocritical, given the sexual way in which the young ladies of AKB48 are “sold” to fans, and particularly discomforting for Europeans in how it was reminiscent of the way local women were punished for having affairs with Nazi soldiers after nations were liberated by the Allies at the end of the Second World War. (Images later leaked of the shaven Minegishi posing happily with her fellow idols suggested the whole apology may have been a stunt cynically staged to answer the cries of angry fans.)