At last: a television program that is almost all content and practically no style. "The Japan They Don't Talk About," an NBC News "White Paper" tonight at 10 on Channel 4, is more concerned with being informative than with being chic.
A bright, sturdy, provocative hour, "Japan" speeds along at a brisk clip surveying aspects of the Japanese economy and society largely overlooked by American media until now. When we think of Japan, says writer-reporter Lloyd Dobyns, "our image is of a smoothly efficient, thoroughly modern, well-managed economy that is the world's leading exporter."
The proverbial closer look reveals this to be proverbially not the case. While at the top end, in the giant companies, modern efficiency may be the Japanese rule, big companies depend upon a network of lower-level firms whose plants are "small, antiquated and often dangerous," Dobyns reports and the camera reveals.
"Japan was, and is, a cheap-labor country," Dobyns says, and women, now more than a third of the work force, are cheaper -- more poorly paid -- than men. They tend to get the less important jobs, and many work without pay in small mom and pop factories in the home. This portrayal of women workers conflicts with Japan's reputation as an enlightened economic state.
In another segment, Dobyns looks at the skyrocketing cost of living in Japan, particularly vacuum-packed Tokyo, where a single apple can cost 90 cents, and some varieties of steak go for $62 a pound. Land is at a premium, and the Japanese are "among the highest-taxed people in the world"; yet there is almost no property tax on land, Dobyns says, so there's little encouragement to sell it. On valuable property near Tokyo, cabbages are still being grown.
Even some of the positive things about the Japanese economy have dramatic downsides. The Japanese now have the highest life expectancy in the world, Dobyns says. That means Japan will also lead the world in having to cope with a large percentage of its population being over 65. "In the future, there will be fewer young people at work and more old people unable to support themselves," Dobyns says. "That will happen in every industrial society, but it will happen in Japan first."
Not every point is fully illustrated, and among the most intriguing material on the show is a sequence that is bluntly marginal -- life in a big Japanese department store. The general manager himself greets the first customers of the day and employes take classes in the proper trajectories of bowing. One bows at different angles to different classes of people.
Dobyns is cool and droll, and the hour is almost as crowded with information as Tokyo is with people. You learn something new, or see something old in a fresh way, every few minutes. Reuven Frank, the former NBC News president who is executive producer, specializes in tackling subjects that are highly resistant to visualization and making them work in a visual medium.
Viewers completely uninterested in the sorts of subjects covered by "The Japan They Don't Talk About" won't be lured into the tent by glitzy production gingerbread. Documentaries like this depend upon a certain level of viewer interest in the world beyond TV. But then, so does all nonescapist television. One of the gratifying constants in all of Frank's work is a belief that the audience is not a dope. In some network circles, that belief is heresy.