Getting into Japanese TV



By Philip Clark

As I sit here thinking about what to write for this article, I flick my eyes up to “The Best House” special on TV to see them counting down the top three styles of scissors from the world. It’s not strange until I write it down… Arrgh, have I really become that numbed to the absurdity of Japanese TV and culture?

In conversations with JETs, I’m always quite surprised by how many don’t watch even 5 minutes of TV a day, let alone turn their TV on at all. I guess I shouldn’t be because, after all 1) it isn’t in English; 2) we don’t know the programmes and people and 3) it’s pretty damn strange!
Recently, I have been watching it a lot, so I thought I would share with you some of my experiences. I hope these will encourage you to turn on the box to see what’s on.

Variety/Quiz Shows
These shows are definitely the most entertaining and are what most people think of when asked about Japanese TV. These shows tend to have comedians performing routines, interviewing guests or are ‘reaction shows’. These ‘reaction shows’ are terribly simple in their format. They basically involve the cast members and guest celebrities being briefly introduced and then shown a video clip or a live performance.

These videos typically depict something foreign, a delicacy from some part of Japan or a tale (complete with reenactment) of how someone triumphed over incredible odds. Here are a couple of the most bizarre shows I’ve seen. I’ve only put two here but there are tons of others:

1. An interesting show that I only saw once was the Hiroshima Police version of ‘Cops’. I know what you’re thinking. ‘What you gonna do?’ or more importantly, ‘What they (actually) gonna do?’ It did get pretty interesting, though. They banged down doors, chased people through the streets of Hiroshima city and showed a bench in the Peace Park, covered in blood! I was pretty shocked by that last one, it being our peaceful Hiroshima and all.

2. However, my all-time weirdest show was about comedians catching bees. Two comedians met with some old men in a forest and the comedians were shown how to catch bees. First, the old men hung a piece of squid from a tree in a forest (fairly standard practice these days), then lay in wait for a bee to land on it (bees love squid hanging from trees, didn’t you know?). A couple of bees landed and the old men whipped out a tiny bit of thread and lassoed the bees with a small knot. The end of the thread had a small piece of fluff attached. The bee, now startled, flew away as the comedians ran after it through the forest to great comedic effect. The point of this: the fluff shows them where the bee is flying and following the flying fluff leads them to the hive. It is here that they smoke out the bees, take them home and make a honey-type conserve that uses whole bees. Weird.

The dramas here are pretty damn cheesy. They have the same kind of cliched storylines as shows back home, but the acting is subpar and camerawork is amateur. They seem often to use Aidoru (Idols), like beautiful/famous celebrities as the main characters, who seem mostly to have graduated from the Keanu Reeves’ School of Wooden Acting.

As at home, some dramas can be pretty hard to stomach due to the cheese content, but some are actually pretty good. If watching a drama on TV is just too hard and you don’t understand a single thing, why not try it with subtitles on the ‘net. Try checking out MySoju (see below for address) for a wide range of old and new Japanese dramas complete with English subtitles.

I have seen some pretty poor commercials in my time on this Earth but I was astounded by the new ads I’ve seen on Fuji TV recently. The ads don’t appear to be from any particular company but simply have people, including a lot of cute kids, singing, “I love commercials” (in English). I think the advertisers have just given up. Just writing it here has firmly planted the tune in my head and the sad thing is I don’t even really like commercials.

Why should I watch TV here?
It’s funny and often pretty interesting. I also think it is fantastic practice for those wanting to learn Japanese. It’s good for your listening skills, but also good reading practice as most TV shows have subtitles. Although they do use Kanji a fair bit, they also use a lot of Hiragana and Katakana too.

I say give Japanese TV a bit more of a try if you haven’t already. For example, try to tune into the same show each day or week even if only for a short time to get a feeling for the programme and the people. For you ALTs, students – not to mention workmates – also respond well to conversations and questions about TV and its personalities. I’m not saying that Japanese TV is great or even good, but it’s worth giving it a go while you’re here. Gambatte!!

Some useful websites:

A good resource for subtitled Japanese dramas.

TV Guide:
In Japanese. Main page shows what’s on right now on all channels.

Japan Zone:
A bit dated but has pictures of personalities next to names in English for easy identification.

I love commercials:

Wikipedia is also a great source.