Friday, August 11, 2006

Japanese TV

I promised an entry on Japanese TV and here it is.

Japanese TV has many pundits and critics who focus on the more outlandish formats and cite them as evidence of some crazy alien culture. But the reality is that TV out here is not as madcap as we’re led to believe.

The hallmarks of Japanese television can be found in its narrow offering and slightly misjudged production values. Not, as it is sometimes portrayed in the West, in its “Endurance“-style gameshows or “BigSuperCoolCrazyChallenge Show” quiz formats.

True, these do exist but have you had a squint through The Radio Times, recently? Do just that and you’ll see British formats like:

It’s Now Or Never: Contestants deliver a big announcement to their friends and family through a fully choreographed razzmatazz song and dance routine. Presented by Phillip Schofield.

I caught 10 minutes of this before I went away and really it was shocking. The UK hardly represents the pinnacle of TV culture and Alan Partridge’s Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank and Arm Wrestling with Chas and Dave weren’t far wide of the mark.

In fact, then, in terms of naff, off-the-wall formats Japan is no worse than anyone else. But Japanese TV is still a curious beast with the overriding conclusion is that it presents a rather limited offering.

Broadly, Japanese TV falls into three categories: Food shows, news and discussion shows. Often you’ll find a format that straddles all three genres, usually shows where people discuss what food has been in the news recently. I’m not kidding.

There’s a dearth of soap operas. I only managed to find one, but I count 5 in UK. Similarly, there are no sitcoms - any comedy comes in the form of studio based slapstick challenges. Finally, I couldn’t find any drama or any documentaries either.

And for a country supposedly obsessed by Western Culture I could find few imported programmes. Where are The Simpsons and Star Trek? Surely these must be somewhere around here?

Maybe it’s because I don’t have satellite, but I do have at least 12 channels on my box, and there is little evidence of these formats on here.

Food Programming

Good god Japanese like food. They talk about food, they think about food, they breathe food - sometimes they even find time to eat it. It’s like it’s just been invented: Food - from the makers of drink.

Flicking through my twelve channels you can guarantee you will come across a culinary-based show within three touches of the channel-up button.

Usually its 6 or 7 people sat around a curved table sampling various delights from small porcelain bowls. Initially they wear a slightly quizzical expression which, after tasting, is followed by an emphatic and positive “mmmm!”

They also spend a lot of time on the food’s nutritional qualities and how will affect your body - often demonstrated via a computer-generated cat-scan with pulsating arrows indicating the food’s direction of transit through the body.

There does also appear to be a slightly sado-masochistic element to the proceedings. I have seen a few programmes now which involve a panel looking on in gleeful anticipation whilst some unsuspecting guest levers something wet and wiggly into his mouth before they all point, go “aaaaaaaaah!”, and then tell him/her what they have eaten eg bear’s eyes, squid fried in bears eyes or a lionburger wrapped in a bears arse and fried by a man with no eyes


News is a sombre occasion, but the most striking thing here is that the
Japanese appear to have no concept of which colours work together on screen.

Here’s a tip: for a classy news set use no more than two colours.

Presenting the news from behind a red and orange desk in front of a blue and green backdrop, whilst yellow and purple captions scroll left to right does no one any favours. Especially not epileptics.

And why are there potted plants, and wicker chairs and lamps in the back of the shot. Are you presenting this from Focus Do-It-All or something?

Also, there appears to be little foreign news. People talk about the Americans being isolationist but through America’s aggressive foreign policy international issues are often forced on to their news agenda.

Here, I feel that contact without the outside world is reactive rather than proactive. They find out about things when they affect them, rather seeking an international experience. However, I’ve only been here a short while, so I’m prepared to be proved wrong on this issue.

Discussion Shows

For a country which is notoriously tight-lipped about its feelings, the Japanese appear to be very keen on each others’ opinions on everything.

These shows cover a variety of topics, but like the aforementioned cookery show, largely involve people sat around in a semi-circle having a bit of a chinwag about this and that.

Similarly, like the news, they are often situated in gaudy bric-a-brac sets littered with ornaments, plants, chairs, books, cushions etc.

If you’ve got guests coming round, just have a bit of a tidy up for Christ’s sake.

They are also keen on their picture-in-picture reaction shots. Remember Beadle’s About in the 80s? As they showed the full prank back to the victim from the comfort of the studio, their face would appear in a little box at the top of the screen to see them going “Oh, what I am like, eh?” as they watched events unfold.This mechanism is used in Japan for absolutely everything.

Playing a short piece to the guests about public transport? Let’s have a picture-in-picture reaction shot. Running a piece of reportage about dwindling salmon stocks in the South China Sea? Let’s have a picture-in-picture reaction shot.

What for? When I watch a piece about a new bendy-bus route in Shinjuku, my face is totally immobile. It’s not that interesting.

Except here the guests feel they have to make a bit of an effort if the camera is on them and consequently go for either the raised eyebrows and “ohhh” of surprise, or perhaps the frown and shake of the head as if to say “that’s just not on!”

As mentioned before captions are everywhere. They pop up, fire down, scroll across at very short notice. It’s like Ceefax Tourettes.

Sometimes they are accompanied by sound effects. On the more light-hearted shows they go for a straight big fat “BOOOOOING”, but on the more reserved shows they opt for a more polite “DING” of a bell - almost like “next please”.

Bizarrely, although I can’t read Japanese yet, the captions appear to be simply echoing what is being said on the screen. And they’re not bothered where they put them either. Across people’s faces is quite usual.


Adverts are as limited in their range as the programmes within which they sit, Food and drink seems to be the number one sector here and products are usually pre-packaged curry, noodle-dishes and other microwaveable malarkey.

Strangely, they are often served up by attractive young mothers in massive kitchens on the side of big, expansive, expensive oak-panelled lounges with huge gardens.

Where are these people living? Where are the people in the Tokyo shoeboxes – the ones turn over in their sleep and accidentally fall into their bath or who knock the frying pan off the ring when they open their front door?

Bloody Ad Land.

Overall, Japanese TV is quite poor, but I suspect no worse than UK or America. Perhaps a satellite decoder might unlock some more interesting gems.

But perhaps not.


Tak said...


Food programs seem to be appealing in UK nowadays. With success of Radio 4's Food Program, and increase number of organic-minded people, viewers are keen on getting in touch with what is latest finding and how to cook fancy food through these media. (though I must stress out many Brits don't respect food as joy of life, they regard them as almost fashion items) I guess gardening programs would be UK's answer to this, you wouldn't find a lot in Japan.

Discussion shows that you mentioned would be chat shows. From your writing, I presume you are watching TVs during the day, aren't you? These programs are same as Richard & Judy, Kilroy, Trisha, and hundreds more entourages that follow. Though one of my favourite "discussion show" is "Asa made nama TV (Live discussion on TV till morning)", this series of occasional discussion show is seen on channel 10 from Saturday midnight till 5AM when big scandal in politics/economies are presented, all member of debate has very strong agenda, and as exciting as listening to the House of Common in Westminster.

The news program on TV except NHK is rather mixture of news and South Bank show; the piece of commentary or a tiny discussion is given after each news headlines, and the style of commentary varies depends on which news show. This is like choosing which news paper you read; some like commentary in The Sun style, some prefer Guardian's.

Most TV drama is one story a week except some in the morning and afternoon. The story lines are not that clear as English Soaps (which categories are fall into various degrees of gossips). You will need to understand Japanese well, especially if you want to appreciate comedy drama (this is different from nonsense comedy shows). If you like to try, ask your Japanese friends for DVD of "Tiger & Dragon", which I think one of the best comedy drama in recent years, though I hope you find the right person to explain to you.

The shortage of good documentaries is one of the problem. Though some of good ones win international competitions and can be found on your telly during midnight hours or Sunday daytime. I like British documentaries but sometimes I feel their observations are one-sided and stereotypical, especially on war-issues.

It seems that future of TV is more than moral issue after impact of Big Brother.

Paul in Vietnam said...

Colour co-ordination isn't a big thing in any Asian country. People here love things bright and garish and probably find the subtleties of western design rather bland.

Phil said...

Thanks for the post Tak

Yeah for a while there Brits did get hooked on the old housing and gardening progs, didnt they?

However, that was a passing trend. Here, as you say, I get the impression that food is of far more importance than any passing trend.

It puts me in mind of the Italians or the French. Brits have traditionally not really cared about food, but that is changing.

By the way, not saying Japanese TV is any better or any worse than UK - just different.

Phil said...

..oh but must disagree on the docs thing.

We've had some fantastic docs in England. Many of which not so much rocked the boat as sink it and then hang about to smack survivors on the head with the oars.

Power Of Nightmares was so anti-goverment and anti-war and so original in its approach it was turned into a film for cinematic release in the States. Im amazed the BBC dare show it.

Paul, Im sure youve got something to say on this issue

Tak said...

This would be a good talk with ice-cold pints and packages of crisps.

No, that wasn't meant as defence for Japanese TV (they are crap as oven chips; harmful and tasteless).

My point on British docs are not about if the program is pro-government or not (well, both of our governments got at least freedom of speech). What I wanted to say is, to me some (not all of them) approach seem to intrigue viewers into cheap sympathy without showing both side of the stories and clear reasons. Also I find the scale of political correctness in criticism on foreign politics/culture sometimes makes me think Brits are craving to probe their innocence and right-ness of their standards (when there are similar facts/problems hidden in their own society). Having said that, I especially like docs about books, science, technologies.

I was watching BBC's Big Animal Week docs while work-out at the gym. The reporters call some of the animals as "our hero" and others as "murderers", that's a bit too much for me. But that was latest episode of Eastenders.

Haven't seen Power Of Nightmares, I will check it out. Paul knows my evil way of thinking, by the way. lol

Simon said...

Did you see "Hard Gay" yet?

Hard Gay on YouTube

Surely this is the pinnacle of Japanese TV? ;)

tak said...

Well, perhaps. This guy is not even gay in real life, which is very disappointing though...