From Transgression to Forgiveness: Scandal in Japan. A review of Scandal in Japan: Transgression, Performance, and Ritual.

Delaney Johnson, University of Victoria [About | Email]

Volume 24, Issue 1 (Book Review 1 in 2024). First published in ejcjs on 16 April 2024.


A review of Scandal in Japan: Transgression, Performance, and Ritual by Igor Prusa (Routledge, 2024)

Keywords: Japan, celebrity, scandal, media, social ritual and performance.

Scandals are short of a new phenomenon in society; scandalous actions and reports of scandals transcend global cultural and social spheres. Igor Prusa’s book, Scandal in Japan: Transgression, Performance, and Ritual, centralises the topic of Japanese scandals, their narratological depiction among various media outlets, and the subsequent broadcast responses of those whose scandals surfaced. Prusa argues that the nature of Japanese scandals and the multifaceted responses they illicit are ritualised, hegemonic performances set within a binary category of ‘sacred’ or ‘profane’ that aid in defining social norms and morals. The author uses these binary categories of “sacred” or “profane” to allude to the foundation on which Japanese media outlets postulate narrative details and their intensity. The book follows three main categories of scandals, these being celebrity, political, and corporate: the drug scandal of celebrity Sakai Noriko, the donation scandal of politician Ozawa Ichirou, and the accounting scandal of corporate company Olympus Accounting, respectively; and is divided into six chapters. Chapter One serves as Prusa’s introduction to the book, detailing his previous background in Japanese media studies, the ephemerality of scandals, and why he chose to bring the topic of scandal into the forefront of academic evaluation.
Further to evaluate the three previously stated case studies, Prusa approaches the term ‘scandal’ as “narrated and framed text,” “[a] product of media routines,” and “social drama and ritual[s]” of confession, exclusion, and reintegration (p. 5). Although the author claims that he does not think there is one clear-cut way to define scandal, Prusa states that scandal “can be roughly defined as a transgression of moral norms that have been kept hidden while eliciting negative reactions” (p. 7). This definition, combined with his methodological framework, sets the stage, so to speak, for locating the social implications that scandals produce, and is what primarily constitutes Chapter Two. This chapter of the book also elaborates on the theoretical lenses Prusa uses regarding scandal, referencing Durkheim’s (1955) views on societal morals, Bakhtin’s (1986) approach to sign ideology, and Turner’s (1990) discussion of ritual and social drama (p. 4). As his primary source of material, Prusa utilises interviews, scripts from televised news reports and press conferences, foreign news broadcasts, newspaper articles from Japanese newspapers, and tabloids to analyse the representation of Japanese scandals in media.
Chapter Three familiarises the reader with each case study Prusa selected by providing a brief background to each agent (the person or corporation involved in the scandal), the uncovered transgression, and the overall outcome of each event. In the case of Sakai Noriko, her celebrity image was founded on the precedent of a pure girl, and as she aged, she transitioned into that of an honest mother; however, this symbolic narrative diminished once insider claims caught Sakai in possession of drugs in 2009. Japanese media outlets proceeded to manipulate past media reports of Sakai, questioning her previous actions and re-orienting them with crime at the forefront in an attempt at unearthing just ‘who’ Sakai Noriko was. Through manipulation, media outlets were able to present scandal as a “narrated and framed text” where scandal acted as a tool to frame, interpret, and mould the public’s understanding of past and present events, suggesting a deeper investigation of a celebrity whom the public thought they thoroughly knew. This new product that the media created garnered attention from fans and the public, which began a social drama. Sakai experienced social pressure to perform when the media placed her at the centre of press conferences, as she sobbed and begged for forgiveness. Once successful in her display of guilt and shame, only then was Sakai able to “return to society;” Sakai enrolled in a university in Japan and devoted herself to anti-drug campaigns to cleanse her stained image (p. 38).
Media organisations and their use of narrative texts and the subsequent celebrity response comprise what Prusa would denote as the ritualistic characteristics of scandal. These same practices of scandal as ritual are conveyed in the remaining two case studies of Ozawa Ichirou and Olympus Accounting, but with different approaches and results in each agent’s response to their scandalous allegations. For example, Ozawa responded to his alleged scandal offensively at first, denying that he broke any law, then switched to a mixed apologetic and defensive approach, stating that he was unaware of a possible illegal transaction since his secretaries were responsible for maintaining his political donation records. However, each case of Japanese scandal presented in the book has one overarching similarity, where overall media framing dictates how scandal narratives are depicted—for instance, which agents are ‘sacred’ or ‘profane’ under the eye of social morality.
Chapter Four delves deeper into the structure of social drama and its ritualistic tendencies that follow the pattern of confession, exclusion, and reintegration. Prusa divides the category of ‘confession’ into three subcategories: apologetic, defensive, and offensive (p. 72). The author states that agents performing these confessions must do so tactfully, for if the performance is unsuccessful, they will falter in coming across as sincere to the public. Following confession, the agent must experience ‘exclusion’ to purify those associated with the tainted agent, such as a talent agency, business, or political organisation. Lastly, agents must ‘reintegrate’ into society with a resolve to purify themselves. Collectively, the ritualistic pattern of confession, exclusion, and reintegration the agent experiences holds symbolic and performative value towards the idea of an individual being sacred versus profane, saint versus sinner, or protagonist versus antagonist in Japanese scandals.
Chapter Five discusses Japanese power circles and how hegemony moves through these circles. Prusa states that at the centre of the circle lies the ‘sacred’ center, where inside-media lurk, observing all other power circles, such as the political circles, bureaucratic circles, business circles, public prosecutors, advertising agencies, and talent agencies, to name a few (p. 86-89). Furthermore, and in addition to these circles of power, there are five “interrelated groups of actors,” these being promotors (specialised insiders on the transgression), assemblers (media networks and news reporters), performers (those caught transgressing), and receivers (the public), who are involved in the creation and advancement in the process of a scandal (p. 94). Prusa concludes his work in Chapter Six, which readdresses the five interrelated groups of actors and reasserts Prusa’s argument that Japanese scandals are social performances rooted in ritual practices. The author finishes his work by stating that Japanese scandals are regressive and that there are no significant consequences for the transgressors involved in the scandal, as the primary reason for producing scandals is for economic profit and entertainment.
Prusa does well in defining and contextualising the categorical criteria of Japanese scandals, the major players involved in the process of creating a scandal, and elaborating on the historical contexts that ‘scandal’ manifested; however, I do question why more reference to the Japanese concepts of “truth” and “ostensibility,” or honne and tatemae (apart from a brief mention in chapter four) are not considered in Prusa’s research, as these social practices relate directly to the subject of Japanese social performance and societal expectations. Honne, a person’s honest feelings concealed within oneself, and tatemae, the contrasting behaviour expressed for the sake of upholding social harmony and expectations, echo similarly to Prusa’s reports on Japanese scandal as performance and ritual. Regarding Japanese scandals, I argue that honne and tatemae should have grander implications in Prusa’s book, as this social phenomenon contributes to the rhetoric of Japanese social interactions; honne and tatemae are at a visually and ritualistically heightened level during the process of agent forgiveness and performance in Japanese scandals. Additionally, chapter five’s discussion of the “five interrelated groups of actors” and the general nature of media driven reports on Japanese scandals seems comparable to Stuart Hall’s (1973) encoding and decoding theory of communication and the dominant hegemonic positions media outlets hold over those who consume media broadcasting. Although Prusa references Hall’s (1997) discussion of the media’s presentation of narratives and structured linguistic intricacies, I presume that more parallels may be extrapolated from Hall’s (1973) encoding-decoding theory when applied to Prusa’s research, thus providing greater insight on televised and digitised Japanese media renderings of scandal to the greater public who consume such media and the populace’s direct relationship with scandals. Lastly, Prusa’s primary sources for this book are via interviews, various newspaper publications, and televised broadcasts; including excerpts from the interviews or photographs of the publications he references would have been helpful for the readers of this book in visualising explicitly how Japanese media outlets reported each scandal in the author’s study. Comprehensively, Prusa’s work is an appropriate introduction to the theme of Japanese scandal and contributes adequately to the discussion of scandal politics.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.
Durkheim, Emile. Pragmatism and Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955.
Hall, Stuart (ed). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage, 1997.
———Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse. Birmingham: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1973.
Prusa, Igor. Scandal in Japan: Transgression, Performance and Ritual. Routledge, 2024.
Turner, Victor. “Are There Universals of Performance in Myth, Ritual, and Drama?” In By Means of Performance. Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual, edited by Richard Schechner and Willa Appel, 8–18, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

About the Author

Delaney Johnson is an MA candidate in the Department of Pacific and Asian Studies at the University of Victoria, Canada. Her research centres on representations of the Ainu in contemporary Japanese cinema, and interrogates these representations within the framework of government policy, history, and indigeneity.

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