In Japan, he’s larger than larger-than-life

Times Staff Writer

The insatiable appetite for news of Arnold Schwarzenegger surprised him.

“It’s not just that he is famous,” said Akira Maki, the Los Angeles bureau chief of TBS, the Tokyo Broadcasting System. “To the Japanese people this is bigger than even if a movie star like Harrison Ford ran for governor.”

Shuwa-chan, as Schwarzenegger is affectionately known in Japan, was in a ramen commercial dancing with kettles, cameraman Hiroki Takeguchi threw in.

“We knew he was an action hero, but then we knew he was jolly too,” said Maki. “The Japanese people feel they really know his character.”

Maki and his news crew had been following Schwarzenegger since the premiere of “Terminator 3" in June, knowing that if he ran for governor, it was going to be big. Maki had been filing stories every day since the recall started, sometimes multiple stories. The ratings wars are fierce in Japan, and anything that is not popular is instantly yanked. But still his editors kept asking for more, more, more!


“Even the presidential campaign won’t get this much coverage in Japan,” said Maki’s news assistant, Matt Sheldon.

The demand for Schwarzenegger stories swelled to a mighty tsunami that peaked with the election. In the days leading up to the swearing-in, Maki struggled to come up with new angles that would interest the Japanese, who wouldn’t care if Schwarzenegger rolled back the car tax or balanced the budget.

Last week he homed in on the search for an Arnold impersonator. The Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau has said it’s looking for a fake Arnold, who can travel the world selling Sacramento as a vacation destination. On Friday, Maki and his crew headed to Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood to interview the street-trolling Supermans, SpongeBobs, Rambos and Batmans about what it would take to impersonate the Terminator. (A lot of muscles and a really bad Austrian accent, they were told.) They shot some footage of the three Arnolds in the Hollywood Wax Museum (Gov. Arnold, Terminator Arnold and Arnold the Barbarian) and the massive billboard advertising “Terminator 3" on the Hollywood Freeway by the Cahuenga Pass.

On Sunday they visited the old Victorian governor’s mansion in Sacramento and pondered anew whether Schwarzenegger would be “Homeless in Sacramento,” as a San Francisco Chronicle headline declared.

“To the Japanese people, it is surprising that Schwarzenegger will commute to Sacramento in a private jet,” Maki said. “Not even the heads of our biggest corporations have private jets that they personally own. That surpasses our imagination.” (Later, Takeguchi argued this, saying he thought the head of Sony had a private jet.)

On Monday, the TBS crew clambered up the rickety steps of the five-level media risers in front of the Capitol by 7:15 a.m. They were excited: The day before they had secured a tiny square of prime real estate in one corner of the highest riser, with a straight-shot view of the podium. It was a broadcaster’s dream. But Monday morning, the CNN crew commandeered the top spot, and TBS’ holding card was pushed off to the side, taped to a lower, smaller, undesirable corner, down among the rest of the foreign media, including no less than eight other news crews from Japan. The beautiful and iconic curve of the Capitol cupola was now obscured by a huge pine branch.

“In Japan we are a big deal,” Maki said. “Here, we are unknown. We are the little guys.”

When the inaugural ceremony ended, the TBS crew scrambled down into the audience for reaction. They snagged a woman in a knee-length flowered coat with a little white dog tucked under her arm. Her comments left the Japanese news crew unimpressed, but she was thrilled by the international exchange. “Where are you from?” she shouted after them. “You mean I’m going to be speaking Japanese over there?” She squealed with delight.

Last of the action hero

The last transmission had been sent to Tokyo, the last questions from editors answered. With a weary “Kampai!” the crew raised their Hefeweizen beers and clinked their glasses at the Pyramid Ale House.

Maki reflected on this marathon day, at the end of a marathon season of all Shuwa-chan, all the time. Throughout the recall campaign and the election, he said, each time his crew finished a story, they felt like, “Wow! We did it!”

Today was different. Maki seemed dissatisfied. It felt like a hangover after a night of wild partying.

The speech just didn’t do it for him, he confessed. “His words didn’t move me. I wanted to feel moved.” Like the time he heard President Clinton speak at the First AME Church in Los Angeles, and heard gospel music for the first time. “That moved me,” he said.

But that didn’t happen on Monday. The pro-Schwarzenegger people said the same things. The anti-Schwarzenegger people said the same things. Schwarzenegger himself said the same things.

“I was sick of hearing the same phrases, the same ideas,” Maki said. “What’s new is interesting. There was nothing new.”

His tour in Los Angeles as a foreign correspondent will last three years. He has been here a year and a half. For every correspondent, he said, there is one defining story, one historical moment. For his predecessor it was the incident off the coast of Hawaii in 2001, where an American submarine upended a Japanese fishing boat, killing nine aboard. For the correspondent before that, it was the time terrorists took over the home of the Japanese ambassador in Peru in 1996 and held him and his guests hostage, some for four months.

“I wonder if the recall was my defining moment,” Maki said. “That would be a little bit sad.”