TOKYO (Reuters) - A weekly TV show mocking Japanese politicians may seem a far cry from “The Great Dictator”, but comedian Hikari Ota says it was watching Charlie Chaplin’s masterpieces as a child that inspired his career.
Ota plays the role of prime minister in the popular show in which he proposes policies -- always controversial and sometimes outrageous -- to a mock parliament composed of a strange mix of real lawmakers, academics and entertainers.
In a recent episode of the programme, aired in prime time every Friday, the sharp-tongued comedian suggested Japan buy up North Korea’s nuclear programme to get rid of the threat from the reclusive communist state once and for all.
“Like Chaplin, I want to poke fun at everything,” the 41-year-old Ota told Reuters in a recent interview.
Ota is the funny man in comedy duo “Bakusho Mondai”, or Absurd Matters, and is a rare breed in Japan, where political satire is uncommon among mainstream entertainers.
In between their almost daily TV appearances, the lanky Ota and his stubby partner Yuji Tanaka, 42, take to the stage for “manzai” stand-up comedy routines in which Ota fires a stream of jokes like a machinegun and Tanaka, the straight man, butts in.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s use of complex English terminology was the target of one such skit, with Ota joking that all he could think of when Abe repeatedly refers to “innovation” as a way to spur economic growth was the word “masturbation”.
Abe’s predecessor, the maverick Junichiro Koizumi who stepped down last September, made cameo appearances with celebrities and even imitated Elvis Presley, giving Japanese voters a taste for political theater and making them more susceptible to political satire, the duo said.
But Ota says he wants to do more than just make people laugh.
“I think everyone wants to change the world in their own way, to present their views in the hope that they may make a difference,” said Ota, chain-smoking his way through an hour-long interview.
“I do feel a bit constrained in the realm of stand-up comedy and TV ... I’d like to express myself more freely.”
Ota mixed humour with his serious side last year when he co-authored a bestseller proposing that Article Nine of Japan’s pacifist constitution which specifically renounces war be registered as a “World Heritage”.
The book, written together with a prominent academic in defense of Japan’s 1947 U.S.-drafted constitution, had sold 315,000 copies by the end of 2006, defying a recent trend in which books appealing to national pride have been bestsellers.
Ota’s publication even briefly shared a place on the bestseller list with a book written by Abe in which he calls for a revival of traditional values and revising the constitution.
In addition to the “Prime Minister Ota” show, the duo also hosts talk shows dealing with current affairs, leading some to suspect that Ota was eyeing a political career.
But while other entertainers have drawn on their popularity to win office, Ota says he has no such ambition.
Just last month, a former comedian was elected governor of a southwestern prefecture in what pundits said was a reflection of voter disenchantment with established political parties.
“I can speak out about politics on TV more than a politician can,” Ota said. “I wouldn’t be able to do that if I become a politician. I want to do something like what Chaplin did.”