Japanese TV: Expect The Unexpected
Saturday, June 18th, 2011
One of the things ex-pats complain about when first moving out to Japan is the quality of TV. Being British, my only prior exposure to Japanese TV, apart from Pokémon, was Takeshi’s Castle.
So upon arriving in Japan I expected TV to be chock-full of cheerful Japanese willing to be injured for my enjoyment. What I actually saw was a collection of “Gourmet travel” shows, ropey dramas, game shows and variety shows.
Variety shows seem to be the most popular type in Japan. Normally they star all kinds of celebrities, comedians, singers, actors etc.
What can you expect from a variety show?
Well lots of famous people watching ‘interesting’ clips. One example of a variety show is 世界一受けたい授業 (Sekaiichi uketai jyugyou, The world’s most useful school), where famous faces are taught things “they don’t teach you at school” by various teachers.
Most variety shows are light-hearted and feature Japanese comedians with their own brand of Japanese humour (Manzai), I could go into more detail about Japanese comedy and how it compares to “Western humour” but that will have to wait for another post.
It may sound like I don’t like Japanese TV and well, I didn’t.
Coming to Japan thinking there would be TV similar to what I was used to in the UK was probably quite naïve. So when I finally watched some Japanese TV I was quite disappointed and vowed never to bother with it.
Eventually I did watch it again and I’m glad I did, it just took a bit of adjustment. If you look at Japanese TV with an open mind it can be quite fun, and an educational tool.
For very beginners I don’t think there is much educational benefit in watching TV, the language used is typical day-to-day speech at a pace which makes it hard to catch for new learners. Intermediate and advanced speakers would get the most out of watching TV but that’s not to say it wouldn’t be entertaining for beginners.
Personally I can only speak about variety shows (that’s mainly all I watch of Japanese TV apart from news); understanding the conventions of variety shows make them more enjoyable to watch. A large part of variety shows are the “reactions”, as mentioned previously there is normally a panel of “famous” people in the studio who react to videos/skits etc.
One of the stranger features of variety shows are the “reaction boxes” which show one of the celeb’s faces whilst watching a video. When I tried to find out an answer as to why TV producers do this there was no clear answer.
Online, people mentioned that perhaps it was because the audience wants to see how celebs react to amazing or unusual videos. When I asked a Japanese friend they said they didn’t really think about it, it has been a feature on shows for so long it’s just part of Japanese TV.
Whilst on the subject of strange Japanese TV features I suppose I should mention subtitles. Mainly on variety shows they add subtitles, shows are not fully subbed just certain parts, when jokes are told or interesting points are made etc.
Again opinion is split over why shows feature these subtitles, some argue that they are used to emphasise jokes or important information.
One of the more questionable explanations theorise that when Japan was under American control all TV had subtitles and Japanese people got used to reading them. When broadcasts were switched back to Japanese they continued adding subtitles as people had got used to them.
No matter your initial opinions of Japanese TV don’t be so quick to write it off. If you give it a chance you could actually learn something, or god forbid enjoy it. Hopefully my post has interested you enough to watch some TV, post your favourite shows below so others can check them out.
Mike normally writes for NihonBurp, a blog covering his life as a student of Japanese Studies and general interest articles about Japan.