It is common knowledge in the expat community in Japan that Japanese TV is awful. But what if this notion was a fallacy? A self-perpetuated myth? What if I told you it can be more enjoyable than Western TV?
I understand why foreigners are inclined to hate on Japanese TV, even as an avid Japanese TV lover for the past couple of decades, it can get on my nerves at times. However, I would argue that Japanese TV is like a fine wine, it gets better with age — but if you leave it too long, it can start to smell a bit rancid.
Often after a break from Japanese TV, I find myself getting frustrated at the silly catchphrases and over-exaggerations. But after a couple of hours of viewing, this feeling seems to dissipate and I start to enjoy these haphazardly calculated attempts at entertainment and humour.
The bottom line is you have to give it an objective chance – don’t just listen to others who have given up on Japanese TV and have given it the gaijin disapproval stamp of “utter rubbish” – perhaps many of these people never actually gave it a fair go.
“But why bother?” I hear you ask. Well for one, it is fantastic for Japanese language practice, both listening and reading, with subtitles often being displayed on screen. And secondly, you can learn a lot about Japanese culture, news, current events, and humour – a lot of which may have gone over your head at the izakaya last night and you didn’t even know it.
So what’s the key?
Both familiarity with the format and perhaps more importantly familiarity with the people on TV. I’ve avoided the term celebrity or “talent” here, since these words, like Japanese TV itself, can have a bad stigma associated with them. But there is a misconception that the people on TV are just hacks that shot to stardom from doing stupid things or acting all crazy-like. Well, this is true for some – but these are the people that don’t hang around very long and “kieru” (disappear) from the screens.
Many TV celebrities have had to work hard for their status (of course, there are some that have come from privileged families already famous or in the industry but that goes for any country), especially comedians, who, personally, I find the most entertaining.
Far from just doing stupid things like rolling in gallons of lubricant or navigating insane obstacle courses, the large majority of comedians had to work hard – damn hard – to get on mainstream TV, often doing years and years of stand up comedy at small, very low-paying events. You will regularly hear of amateur and semi-professional comedians working several menial part-time jobs for decades just to keep up their dream of making it on TV alive.
Often these people know they have to do outrageous things just to get noticed, which is why many of the new comedians seem so ridiculous. However, if they aren’t inherently funny or don’t have some kind of charm or charisma, they soon disappear from the screens.
There are many misconceptions about Japanese TV that have also fuelled the hate. Possibly the most prevalent is that the celebrities on the quiz shows or game shows are actually trying to win. Sometimes they are actually trying their hardest to win, but it depends on the contestant and it depends on the game. Very often a comedian will sacrifice a correct answer or victory for a laugh. Again, once you are familiar with the characters and shows this will become clear and the show will be infinitely more enjoyable to watch.
The more you watch the more you will notice patterns of jokes that begin to emerge. I have found that the relationships between celebrities is a lot more intricate than on Western TV – this feeling of almost family between everyone who appears on TV (also known as the “geinokai”, roughly translated as “the celebrity world”) allows for more interesting viewing as they are more curt with one another and able to engage in intimate banter. The staple ingredient of Japanese comedy is the "boke" (silly) and "tsukkomi" (serious) comedic framework. This comedy arrangement is understood between all celebrities and often makes for interesting interactions. This is why you will see people hitting (or pretending to hit) each other on the head all the time – the classic gesture of the “serious” comedian chastising the “silly” comedian.
As for food programs, well I guess I can’t really defend the over-exaggeration of “delicious” comments. In the end you just have to judge how delicious or not delicious the food is by the sincerity in their eyes. And, for what it’s worth,I have actually seen someone say some food is “mazui” (awful), but probably only twice in 20 years. Of course Japanese TV isn’t perfect, but I’ve seen many cuisine shows on Western TV that are guilty of the same reaction repetition. Once again, the key is familiarity. Once you have an idea of who these “delicious” people are, you will have a greater appreciation of where they are coming from.
So what have you got to lose? Give Japanese TV a chance! Who knows, you may even end up loving it like me – and then next time when someone tells you they love natto, you can tell them you love Japanese TV.
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