Out of Japan: The lowdown on tall tales from the hills

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - The first rule of faking is: do not get caught. For the over-ambitious Japanese television producer who, it was revealed this week, faked large parts of a documentary on the isolated kingdom of Mustang in the Himalayas, the idea that he would get caught must never have crossed his mind. After all, foreigners rarely get permission to enter the region, and his was the first television crew ever to film in Mustang.

The problem for the 51-year- old producer - who has not been named - was that the other members of his crew quite liked their time last summer with the people of Mustang, an autonomous kingdom in northern Nepal on the Tibetan border, steeped in Tibetan Buddhist culture.

They did not agree with their boss in his attempts to exaggerate the area's poverty, play up the people's superstitions and generally convey a false impression of the place in the documentary. The final straw came when he ordered one of the cameramen to pretend he was suffering from mountain sickness and had the other crew members supply him with oxygen.

When members of the crew finally told a Japanese newspaper last week that there were 60 faked or misleading scenes in the two-part documentary, which was shown last September, it caused a big row in the broadcasting world. Recently, the Minstry of Posts and Telecommunications had threatened to suspend the broadcasting licences of television stations showing faked documentaries after a spate of complaints about scenes staged for camera.

The most renowned was a programme tracking down the 'shocking' sex life of Japanese women with foreign men, shown last July by Asahi Television. It later emerged that the people featured in the 'documentary' were all being paid to act out a script. Earlier, a Tokyo Broadcasting System news crew were caught after they paid money to some German youths to pose for their camera making Nazi-style salutes.

But these complaints were about commercial stations, keen to push up ratings. What made the Mustang pseudo-documentary so shocking was that it was produced by the public broadcasting channel, NHK, Japan's equivalent of the BBC.

The NHK crew realised almost from the start that their boss had his own idea of the kind of programme he wanted to make about Mustang. Early on he set up a shot of the crew arriving in the state, 11,000ft up in the Himalayas, on foot. In fact, the entire crew had been flown in by helicopter.

He also had his Japanese team filmed walking along cliff edges, when a road ran parallel to the cliff, and wading through a river just below a perfectly usable bridge.

The producer then started paying money to local people to get them to act out scenes. In one village he persuaded a Buddhist monk to recite a prayer for rain. Viewers of the programme were told it had not rained for months and then were shown the carcass of a horse that supposedly died of thirst. In fact, it had rained several times since the crew arrived in Mustang.

In another scene the crew were shown to have been caught in a landslide - in fact, some locals had been paid to send small cascades of gravel down the slope. The crew complained to their boss several times that he was going too far, but in the end Japanese deference to authority enabled the producer to force his will on the others.

Once the fake documentary was revealed, responsibility for the programme shot straight to the top. The chairman of NHK, Mikio Kawaguchi, held a press conference to apologise and said he was cutting his own salary 'for some months' as a symbolic act of atonement.

NHK also admitted it had paid 'tens of thousands of dollars' to the Nepalese government to gain permission to be the first crew to film in Mustang. The payment helped it to be picked before documentary teams from other countries which had also applied for permission to film there.

The unfortunate producer, who is likely to spend the rest of his career filming washing powder commercials, said he was engaging 'in deep self-reflection for producing a programme that betrayed the trust of the people'. And the people of Mustang are unlikely to let another television crew into their kingdom in the near future.