Who's on TV? Monta Mino, of course!

He is a ubiquitous presenter with a portfolio of shows that draw Japanese viewers in their millions. Now he's getting political – and the government is worried.
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The Independent Online

Picture the world's busiest television presenter and imagine yourself squinting through the glare of high-wattage celebrity, struggling to breathe in air perfumed with pampered showbiz ego. But fresh from hosting Japan's most popular afternoon talk-show, Monta Mino arrives (in a reception lounge at the broadcasting giant Nippon TV) with nothing more elaborate than a crinkly-eyed grin and the faint whiff of high-performance aftershave. No entourage, chaperone or even PR manager in sight, the dapper 64-year-old oozes bonhomie and easy charm from his perma-tanned pores.

It's been another busy year for the self-confessed workaholic, who has a place in Guinness World Records for appearing live in front of TV cameras more than anyone else on the planet. This year he topped his previous record by 18 minutes, clocking up 22 hours and five seconds in one week, then wondered aloud why he couldn't work Sundays as well. Many may lay claim to the title, but this may really be the Hardest Working Man in television.

"I find it difficult to say no," he says, throwing his head back in his trademark bellowing laugh. "And I love to work. Some people might find standing in front of cameras stressful but to me it's tremendous fun."

Five days a week Mino – real name Norio Minorikawa – drags himself out of bed at 3am to host a pre-breakfast show before being chauffeured from the TBS studios to rival NTV for a long-running afternoon slot hugely popular with housewives. Both shows have helped make him as powerful, and sometimes as controversial, in Japan as Oprah Winfrey is in the US. Not that Mino has heard of the American queen of the small screen. "I don't watch much television to be honest, because it's work to me."

After a trip to the gym and a nap, he is back in millions of teatime living-rooms with several prime-time shows, including the Japanese version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Totally Unbelievable Animals and As Good as it Gets. On weekends, there are radio slots, interviews and the variety show Mino's Saturday Zubatto, an untranslatable Japanese word that means something like "in your face". Seemingly immune to fears of wearing out his welcome, he shills for beer, real-estate and denture cleaner on network TV, and has been known to pop up on other shows as well. He sleeps just three hours a night.

To a large section of the Japanese population, particularly the middle-aged and elderly, Mino's health tips, product plugs and clipped asides on the issues du jour are akin to tablets of stone. Over the years, he has generated runs on sea-salt, red wine, radishes, bananas, sake and countless other items. When he praised the antioxidant benefits of cocoa, stores across Japan ran out, leaving a three-month waiting list. Unsurprisingly, he says his office is "inundated" with requests to hawk goods.

But it is in the arena of politics where the tireless MC's influence is perhaps most profound, and least understood. A liberal populist, Mino peppers his morning show with terse, often critical comments on the government and the ruling Liberal Democrats (LDP), who are struggling through the deepest crisis of their half-century existence. The comments reflect and fuel fears among his audience that the government has no answer to Japan's growing problems, especially the widening income gap, and poverty among Mino's key demographic. "My great concern is that the elderly won't be able to survive if things keep going the way they're going. I get angry when I think about how old people are treated."

Mino's nose for the zeitgeist was in evidence again last month, during the controversy over comments defending Japan's war record by Japan's Air Self-Defence Force chief of staff. General Toshio Tamogami described claims that Japan was the aggressor in the Second World War as "false" and called for a "correct understanding". "What Japan did was wonderful," he wrote. Mino called the views "a joke" on his morning show. The general was forced to quit.

"I thought the comments were ridiculous," Mino said later. "The official government stance is that we waged a war of aggression. We're not the only nation that invaded other countries: France, England and Germany also colonised China, for instance. But my position is that we should accept what we did and reflect on it, not deny it. So I said so."

He was rewarded, not for the first time, by a visit from Japan's much feared ultra-right, who circled the TBS studios in their militarised black vans screaming for him to come out and face the music. Mino's asides often generate what he calls similar "painful feedback", including complaints from viewers, calls to advertisers and even pressure from the government. "I get a lot of mail supporting me, but the other side makes more noise," he laments. "My wife tells me to soften what I say but when I hear mistaken views like that I just have to speak my mind."

Mino's furious work ethic may stem from what appears to have been an unhappy time as a journalist on the conservative Sankei newspaper, where he says most of his copy was trashed. A long spell as a radio announcer followed but for most of his thirties he hawked water meters for his father's company and returned to broadcasting in his forties. His breakthrough came when he started turning down the sound on US baseball broadcasts and filling the gap with commentary.

"I never forget the sadness of not having work and always bear that in mind when I'm asked to take on another job." Like many of Japan's baby boomers (Mino was born in 1944), the lean post-war years profoundly shaped his view on life. "We were so poor my father had to work at everything. Now we're able to choose, and that's good. But people have forgotten how to stick to something because they have to. There are a lot of people now who work part-time or with dispatch agencies and they just work when they want. When I get a new job, I work my guts out."

Mino credits his health and famous glowing tan to gardening, and a half-beer-and-tomato-juice concoction every morning. "It sharpens me up. I love to drink, especially Scotch whisky and I can drink any time," he says, laughing again. "Sometimes I present shows where alcohol is featured and I'm told not to touch the booze. But I can't resist trying the drinks out."

After two decades at the top of the greasy entertainment ladder, he briefly slipped three years ago when he was forced to take two weeks off for a back operation, throwing a large chunk of Japan's popular TV schedule into a tailspin. For the first time, he considered retiring. "It was a terrible time," he says. "All the advertisers had signed up for Monta Mino so they pulled out.

"I'm almost 65 and of course I think about the future. I talk with my wife about handing over the reins to younger presenters because we worry sometimes about me keeling over in front of the cameras. I think about the trouble that would cause to everyone. But then I get a second wind and want to keep going."