The television camera zooms in on the unhappy face of Kiyoshi Uchino who, trembling and half crying pleads with his missing wife to return home.
"Shizuko," he sobs. "I want to live with you. Please think it over and please come home."
Then the camera switches to a nine-year-old daughter, Kiyomi, who rubbing away tears, murmurs, "Muma . . . Muma."
Finally it is the turn of Yoko, who is five.
"Mother," she begs. "Please come back as soon as possible."
THe scene is standard fare on one of Japan's most popular television shows, a sort of real life soap opera that exposes to an avid morning audience the sad lives of families deserted by one parent.
For 10 years, the show has been airing the tears and pleadings of children, mothers and fathers who beg the missing parent to return - in the process giving the viewers a penetrating peck into their private lives. Tales of gambling, drunkenness, adultery, physical abuse and other horrors are told amid much sobbing.
Uchino, for example described cutting off part of his wife's clothes with a knife after discovering she was having an affair - she disappeared with her lover that night. Later in the show, a wife and two sons described a father who after amassing large business debts, ran off with a young office worker. Still later relative told of the desertion of a young man with a woman 13 years older than he.
THE SHOWS TITLE roughly translates from the Japanese as "Exaporated People" meaning those who drift away from home and find other lives, often with lovers. One Friday every month four cases are presented. The other Fridays are devoted to the reconciliations of those who have been brought back together as a result of the publicity and the television staffs investigation.
About 10 million Japanese watch the morning sagas. With the exception of a news show and a 15-minute drama, it is Japan's most popular morning show.
It is also controversial with some Japanese criticitizing it blatant exposure of private sorrows.
"I despise this program," says Sadanobu Aoki, a prominent television critic. "It is awful. When it comes on I tremble and turn to another channel. I cannot understand why this ultimate privacy is on the air."
But "Evaporated People" has become a media mecca for tortured families seeking a lost parent and willing to describe their most intimate problems before live camera. Asahi television in Tokyo has a file of 15,000 applicants hoping to be interviewed. The network receives an average of 10 letters and 10 telephone calls a day from people wanting a chance to broadcast their tales of woe.
THE NETWORK STAFF investigates each applicant and the executive producer. Masanao Shirato says elaborate precautions are taken to eliminate families that might be hurt or destroyed totally by a public airing of their troubles. Friends, neighbors and relatives are questioned and applicants are advised of the dangers of publicity. A family living in a small village might be isolated and destroyed by their neighbors after televising their stories, Shirato points out.
The show's popularity, Shirato believes, stems from the viewers own identification with the personal and family problems displayed on the television screen. They see "fragments" of their own lives projected by others and develop enormous sympathy for the victims.They also begin to feel fortunate that their own lives are not similarly shattered, he thinks.
The show's producers say "Evaporated People" has antecedents in Japan's mass media. After World War II, with million of Japanese dead or missing, the national radio system used the airwaves in efforts to track down people separated from their families. Those were matter-of-fact broadcasts that did not emphasize intimate details of private lives.
THE MASSIVE economic and social changes of postwar Japan have created a new wave of missing persons. By one estimate between 506,000 and 800,000 men and women are missing a striking number in a country where close family ties and strong community links are supposed to exist.
Ten years ago, when the show began 70 percent of the missing parents were men, most of whom had run off with other women. In a dramatic change signifying another important facet of modern Japan, those statistics have been reversed and 70 percent of the missing now are women. Many are women holding their first jobs outside the home and finding new attractions at the office or factory. Others are women no longer willing to tolerate gambling or physical abuse by drunken husbands.
The Asahi television producers claim an extraordinarily high rate of success in reuniting the familes that appear on the show. Some missing spouses return voluntarily and others are found through tips from those who have seen the show. Photographs of the missing are flashed on the screen several times, often in the hands of a tearful child.
Eighty percent of the missing are located and more than half of those agree to return to the family eventually.
The reconcilations provide some of the show's most tear-filled moments. THe network tries to arrange the reunion scenes in te studio where they can be videotaped for future broadcast.