Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Case of Keiko Sato

Photo Courtesy of Thairath

THAILAND – A while ago, a little 9-year-old half-Japanese boy appeared on national news, in search of his estranged Japanese father after his mother had died. The media immediately took to daily coverage to help Keiko Sato look for his father. It became an issue that everyone talked about. The Thai government contacted the Japanese Embassy to assist in the search. The boy was constantly in the media: TV news, radio and newspapers. One company even stepped in to make him a theme song and music video. But the case Keiko Sato seems to be more of a lesson in the power of the media and its ability to construct a form of truth in society through dramatization.

What we have now is a little boy surrounded by countless journalists and flash lights; the issue is more about celebrity than finding his lost father. The most common question he is asked is if he would be interested in taking a role in a TV drama series or as an advertisement presenter or show host.

Behind all the hype of Keiki Sato, there is the reality that many more half Japanese kids are abandoned. There’s even the case of one Thai mother who wanted her half-Japanese child to be in the spotlight of the media like Keiko after searching and fighting for so long. But they never did get the same privilege and support as Keiko.

The case of Keiko Sato reflects some serious issues in the Thai media:

1. The time and space given to the story shows that Thailand’s probably overwhelmed and bored with political issues and news of conflict. The boy searching for his Japanese father was the heartwarming story everyone needed. This shift is a clear exercise in the media’s power to control what kind of news people see or want to see. In the end, Keiko boy has become a stress-relief drama turned reality TV show, with the media more concerned about ratings.

2. The actual value of the coverage of Keiko’s case comes into question. The main goal of the boy was to search for his father and it was nice for the media to announce this on national television, requesting support, but why didn’t it stop there? The helping hand of the media has turned into a manipulative hand, coercing Keiko into the role of dramatist, emphasizing the boy’s hardships as well as the sympathetic, cute version of the boy dancing in music videos, which has resulted in an emotional and powerful grip on the public. In an office somewhere TV executives are jumping up and down and receiving pay rises.

After a period of media madness, the Japanese embassy tracked down Katsumi Sato, the father of Keiko Sato. Katsumi Sato agreed to board a plane to Thailand to see his son. The media followed Keiko Sato all the way to the moment he met his father. Katsumi Sato came down from the plane to meet an array of flashing cameras and swinging microphones. It seemed that every step of the boy and his father had been airbrushed, from the time the boy brushed his teeth, to the type of van he got on to go to the airport, and to what kind of shoes he was wearing.

The media circus went on reporting all day a meticulous record of the father and sons movements. Of how they went to the zoo, how tired they were, how they went for an exhaustive day at the water park, where a company looking for cheap advertising issued the boy with a 10-year free pass. They posed for cameras – an entire PR campaign. Everyone was trying to put their finger in it. Some organizations even tried to get the boy to become a mini-tour-guide, so that the boy could bridge the gap between Thai and Japanese culture. They went on a cruise in Chaopraya River. The media described and embellished the warm moments between the father and son while they chose food from an epicurean buffet. They also went to pay respects to the deceased mother of Keiko in Pichit province. The media never once failed to capture their every movement.

As reported by the media, Katsumi Sato, the father of Keiko, appeared to be very happy and glad how much care Thailand had given Keiko. Katsumi left last night, with Keiko crying, bowing on his father’s lap. The media, again, observed the drama with a less than candid eye. The father promised to come back to Thailand again next year during Songkran and has said to take Keiko to Japan when he’s ready.

However, the media has ignored many loose ends. Where has Katsumi been these 10 years? What kind of job does he have in Japan? Does he have a wife and children in Japan? Everything was overdramatized and oversimplified in the coverage. No informational background on Keiko’s father has been provided. The whole case is a set of drama episodes exploiting a young boy in search of love and family.

Now that Katsumi Sato has left, we will have to wait for the Thai media to find their next victim. What will be of Keiko Sato now?

Writer: Adrian Tse & Chet Chetchotisak