Being an entertainer — a successful one at least — comes with being famous as a pre-requiste. When people know who you are by name, your value as a singer, dancer, actor, or comedian shoots way up. This is probably why there are so many fledgling (and also-ran) entertainers willing to subject themselves to the often humiliating glare of the spotlight on so-called “reality” television shows. At times, it works: Kelly Clarkson, Susan Boyle, and many others have permeated our collective culture via reality television.
In 1998, the opportunity of reality TV knocked on the door of a Japanese comedian named Nasubi, pictured above. Nasubi (a stage name — his real name is Tomoaki Hamatsu) audtioned for a show called Susunu! Denpa Shonen, specifically for a segment called (in translation) “Sweepstakes Boy.” Nasubi got the part and agreed to the terms: that January, he was to be locked in a small room until he won 1 million yen (roughly $10,000) worth of sweepstakes. In the room was a phone, a chair, lots of pens and postcards so he could enter the sweepstakes, and… not much else. No food (although he was probably afforded some supplements), no bed, no toilet paper, and no clothes. As part of the challenge, Nasubi had to strip naked, surrendering his clothes upon entering the room, which was then locked behind him. But not all was lost: Nasubi was allowed to use anything he won via the sweepstakes.
The idea, the show producers told Nasubi, was that his life in solitary confinement would be recorded and, if it went well, turned into a television show. This was only partially true. Nasubi’s travails were broadcast in weekly highlight shows while he was still in confinement, and within a few months, even that was insufficient. Nasubi’s popularity was stunning, so producers broadcast a live feed of his life over the Internet, for all the world to see. He was stark naked except for the image of an eggplant, superimposed over his private parts.
The confinement proved difficult for Nasubi. He did not win anything during the first two weeks, when he scored some jelly — his first real food. A few weeks later, he managed to win a five pound bag of rice, which he cooked using a tin can, filled with water and placed over his heating unit. He won a television, but because producers did not want him to know that he was on TV, the room did not have a cable or antennae hookup. At one point, he ran out of rice and began to eat dog food, but don’t worry: according to the now-defunct website Quirky Japan, a visit to the doctor in May of 1998 put Nasubi in good health.
Over time, the winnings piled up. Neatorama reported some highlights:
two vacuum cleaners, [...] four bags of rice, his watermelon, his automobile tires, his belt, and his ladies underwear (the only articles of clothing he won during months of captivity), his four tickets to a Spice Girls movie (which he could not leave his apartment to see), his bike (which he could not ride outside), and countless other items, including chocolates, stuffed animals, headphones, videos, golf balls, a tent, a case of potato chips, a barbecue, and a shipment of duck meat.
And, of course, the bananas pictured above (also via Neatorama). In December, 1998, Nasubi won another bag of rice — which put him over the 1 million yen threshold. The producers rewarded him with a trip to South Korea, where they immediately stuck him in a new apartment and had him go through the whole thing again, naked, until he won enough in prizes to earn a plane ticket home. He did so three months later.
Upon his return home, the show’s producers had one more enclosed room for Nasubi to enter, and he dutifully shed his clothes again and waited for further instruction. Unfortunately, this time, the walls fell to their sides, revealing a naked Nasubi (with no eggplant to shield him) to a crowd of fans who, unbeknownst to him, had been following his every move for months. (As seen here, he managed to find a pillow to replace the eggplant.) Furthermore, the diary he had been keeping while confined was turned into a very successful book; a video of the ramen noodles he ate after gaining his freedom turned into a commercial; and of course, he was known throughout the country. Nasubi had become a sensation.
Bonus fact: If you think insane reality TV shows are incredibly popular in Japan, one particular video game makes the shows seem uninteresting. That game? Space Invaders. Release in 1978, the game was so popular that, according to one book, the country had a 100 yen coin shortage, requiring the Japanese mint to triple production of the coins.
From the Archives: Type Cast: Japanese culture treats blood types like other cultures look at Zodiac symbols. (For what it’s worth, Nasubi’s is Type O.)
Related: An incredible amount of bananas.