Foreigners living in Japan often give Japanese TV a hard time. For many, it’s either too weird, too predictable or too obnoxious. If it really is so bad though, surely shows like "Iron Chef" and "Ninja Warrior" (Sasuke) would never have been introduced in the U.S.? Nor would America have created the show "I Survived a Japanese Game Show." So if foreign stations are taking cues from the Japanese TV shows, the originals must have some merit, right?
One Reddit user finally asked the big question, “Japanese television. Is it really so terrible?” As you’d expect, the responses poured in, both in favor of and adamantly against it. One user proclaimed that Japan only has three kinds of programs, “Shows about celebrities. Shows about food. Shows about celebrities eating food.” But like TV in any country, there are actually a lot of different kinds of shows, so it’s probably worth a moment to take a walk through some of the programming options.
The easiest place to start is with anime. Let’s be honest, a lot of people who like Japan, started out by watching anime. It’s like a gateway drug into Japanese culture. In general, foreigners’ response to TV anime is positive, although some people like to knock the fact that some long-running shows (hundreds of episodes long) have a lot of unnecessary “filler” episodes that are unrelated to the overall plot and are too short at 25 minutes — even shorter when half of the time slot is filled reviewing the previous episode. Others complain not enough anime is shown in prime-time slots.
Next we move into dramas. A lot of foreigners give Japanese (and Korean) dramas a bad rap, likening them to terrible American soap operas. It’s true that some can definitely take you on unnecessary emotional roller coasters and may contain a little too much overacting. On the other hand, dramas tend to only span 8-12 episodes, then occasionally a second season if they do really well. The short airing is actually appealing to many foreign viewers, because the dramas get replaced by “fresh dramas,” so things don’t get too monotonous. There is also a wide range of dramas, from teen RomComs to serious ones targeting adults or even action-packed shows. Another big difference is that Japanese dramas often star big names — accomplished actors, musicians or idols.
The dramas can be really predictable and a bit bland, though, turning many viewers off. Some Reddit viewers see dramas as political tools or Big Brother-esque moral propaganda:
“Whatever the Japanese government wants their people to believe, it shoves it through NHK.”
“Very frequently [drama’s contain] very heavy-handed moralizing.”
“I’m rather disturbed at how pro-status quo everything is.”
Comedy shows are next up. Japanese comedy shows tend be more on the slapstick side of humor, so if you don’t like that, you probably won’t like them. The Japanese oddity and silliness comes in big time here, while a lot of jokes also have deep ties into the culture, so if you are still new to Japan, there’s a chance you won’t get the jokes even if you understand the language. Comedians in Japan tend to work in pairs or threes, with skits lasting only a few minutes. There are also a variety of prank shows, which are often pretty well done and very amusing.
Less talked about are the documentaries. While they are often over dramatic and have terrible reenactments, they can be informative and cover a variety of topics from travel to disease.
Moving on, we have the variety shows. These are the shows that foreigners like to complain about the most. Variety shows often have an “audience” of talento, B-list stars or quirky people only popular because of their presence on these shows. One Reddit user aptly equated Japanese talento to America’s Regis Philbin, as opposed to someone like Kim Kardashian, because “talento don’t take themselves too seriously and are usually able to joke around… Kim K wouldn’t do 90% of the stuff talento go through.”
Being in the category “variety,” the shows cover an array of topics from travel in different countries to karaoke contests to magicians. The catch, though, is that the TV audience is not only watching the show about the topic of the day, but they also see the reactions of the talento in a picture-in-picture-esque bubble somewhere on the screen. Most people don’t have problems with this, but it’s whenever something relatively surprising or interesting happens, the talento say “Eeeeh!” in almost perfect unison. Many Reddit users find this particularly annoying. Although one user said that they enjoy Japanese TV in general, “the only thing that really bothers me is the excessive ‘Eeeeh?’-ing.”
And then there is the food “problem.” A lot of TV shows in Japan focus on food, whether it be food from home, abroad or new concoctions. This might not sound so odd at first, but the number of these shows is startling; as one Reddit user put it, “Not all TV is talento eating food. Most of it, but not all.”
The biggest issue the foreign Japanese TV-watching community has with the food shows is the predictable reaction by the talento: “Oishii!” or “Umai!” (Delicious!). The review of the food often stops there though and apparently EVERYTHING is delicious. Not merely tasty, you understand, but delicious to the point that the presenter looks like they’re about to burst into tears after inserting it into their mouth. It’s almost as if these people have lived their lives locked in a cupboard living on a diet of strips of newspaper and thimbles of tap water, making every dish they encounter during the shows’ recording a culinary triumph.
As another Japan subreddit user commented, this wouldn’t be such a problem if the presenters occasionally described the food’s taste rather than just saying how “delicious” it was. In the words of another TV viewer, “you can only watch someone eat so many times before it becomes soul-crushingly dull.”
Some of the variety shows feature games shows, which can either be active games, like the ones that inspired that American TV show, or they can be quiz games. The quiz games are usually quite educational and fun to watch, covering everything from history to kanji. Again, the participants in these are the talento.
Some people may not categorize commercials as Japanese TV, but I think that’s a mistake. Japanese commercials can be hilarious, often because they are so weird that you can’t help but laugh. Japan has realized that the weirder the commercial, the more memorable, so they are crazy on purpose, often featuring dancing actors, creepy animation, talking animals and catchy tunes. One Reddit user may even like the commercials more than regular programing, saying, “I usually take my bathroom breaks during the show and make sure I’m back before the commercials.”
Japanese TV can be bad, but it can be good, much like TV everywhere else in the world. Personally, I enjoy it and have learned a lot from Japanese TV. Another Reddit summed it up nicely:
“I somewhat enjoy Japanese TV because… [it] gives me insight to how Japanese people see the world around them. Even if what’s on that random drama isn’t representative of the average person’s thoughts, it shows me what is being presented as normal, or what is ideal for the average Japanese person.”
In the end, it all comes down to your sense of humor, interest in Japanese culture and tolerance of “oishii,” “umai,” and “eeeeh?!”
If you are familiar with Japanese TV, what are your thoughts? For? Against? Indifferent?
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