In 1998, a new segment aired on a Japanese television show. Called “Sweepstakes Life,” it featured a comedian who had just been chosen out of a casting call for a new reality tv show. Immediately he is blindfolded by producers and taken to an apartment. The room is bare except for a few items: a pillow, a coffee table and some magazines. There, he is asked to strip and is informed that from now on, to obtain food and clothing, he must win them through the Sweepstakes in the magazines. He will be freed from the apartment when he has earned 1 million yen ($10,000 US). He was asked to change out the tapes on the camera to film himself during his stay.
After almost a year of enduring difficult, if not cruel circumstances, Nasubi, as he was dubbed, (which in English means eggplant, due to the shape of his face) won the required 1 million yen to earn his freedom. He had survived starvation during the first two weeks on the show having not “won” any food. Then subsisted off rice for a time, and once for 6 weeks, only dog food. Not surprisingly with little human contact and only sweepstake submissions to occupy him, he eventually began engaging in odd behaviors such as singing to himself and dancing.
After reaching his goal he was not told of the achievement. Instead, he was blindfolded by producers in the middle of the night, given clothes and put in a car. When he was unblindfolded he was no longer in Japan; producers then told him, for earning his 1 million yen, he had won a trip to Korea. After touring for the day he was taken to an apartment, identical to the last, and told he now had to earn his flight back home.
It is at this point that the producers have potentially crossed a line. Nasubi claims that he never signed a contract after the initial audition. However, one can argue that once he is transferred to the Korean apartment, the terms of any verbal contract has been completed. He has been told he has earned the required amount to obtain his freedom. Now, not dissimilar to indentured servitude, or human trafficking where victims are forced to pay back their “employers” through work, he must now win enough through the sweepstakes to go home.
Additionally, at the start of this process, Nasubi is told, that if the content they film is interesting, they may air it. In reality, the producers are airing content as segments on the Japanese TV show as he turns in his tapes. He is eventually returned to Japan, discovers the truth, nude in front of a live studio audience.
Was Nasubi kidnapped? At what point does his captivity become nonconsensual? Should the producers face sanctions for their actions? The Japanese viewers loved this show. And Nasubi holds no ill will for the producers.
Here a full account of Nasubi’s time as a reality tv star on the “This American Life” podcast: Human Spectacle http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/529/human-spectacle