If you are on this site then you are most likely a fan of both the Internet and Japan. This would also indicate that you have taken in some crazy clips of wacky Japanese comedians doing hilarious things on television.
Maybe the most famous one in recent years.
What you probably don’t realize is that these are basically curated clips of the best and most interesting things people have done out of their whole careers. Or they might be the weirdest things, but you should be getting the picture now―Japanese television isn’t like this all the time.
I came to Japan as someone who was excited by the idea of watching anime as it was released weekly on television. Then I arrived in Japan and started watching TV and quickly realized that while I had not necessarily been duped, I had unrealistic expectations based on what I had imagined I would be getting.
As a result, I basically watch Japanese TV the same way I did before. Downloaded from the Internet (legally!) or through clips posted to YouTube (legality questionable).
The first days I watched television it seemed like the only things on were shows where famous people wandered down the street, went into a restaurant and ate something, said it was good, and then repeated the process. This is how I learned the word umai, which translates to “good”, but is emphatically chorused on television for “delicious”.
These guys are either making fun of those shows or practicing to be on one. I can’t tell.
That’s when it started to sink in that I had been exposed to the best of the best Japan was offering and not the daily grind. Japan usually doesn’t put a lot of money into actual television shows, so you get a lot of versions of the same chat show, which has groups of people talking and telling stories. Sure, everyone on stage gets paid, but you can film a couple of months worth of television in one day without writers or sets (beyond the stage they are sitting on), and have no concerns about external factors.
You will find a lot of panels with a host that brings up the topic and the group who responds is 50% comedians, with some actors and models thrown in for variety. Sometimes they are made into games; sometimes they bring out one guest for everyone to focus on.
Above is Sanma-san, maybe the biggest TV host of the past 20 years or so. Jump to any part and you have people talking. The theme of this show was “divorce” for part one, and then they start to talk about twins. So you can see the themes don’t even need to be related for the show to work, as long as the conversations are interesting.
Then there are quiz shows. Not game shows like The Price Is Right, but a show where celebrities are quizzed on things and there is often no prize to speak of. I honestly think that celebrities in Japan work one week a month as they just move from studio to studio to create years of content.
They sometimes do one with the “dumb” celebrities, but at least those are entertaining.
There are also the straight-up comedy shows. Comedy duos are still a massive thing in Japan. They do storytelling, skits, and pantomime. “Stand-up comedy” as you would recognize it isn’t really a thing, and you will soon learn that a lot of Japanese comedians’ success comes more from repeatable catchphrases than actual quality jokes.
These guys are two of the most famous comedians in Japan (A manzai duo called Downtown). In that clip you can see how their empire was built.
With this system, comedians are always trying to push the boundaries, and this is how we get pranks like this in which a comedian was told he was interviewing some reformed yakuza, and they then pretended to assassinate said ex-yakuza in front of the comedian. It’s difficult to tell how real he thought this was, but there was some backlash for this joke going too far.
Primarily, this is all pretty low-quality stuff with really bright lights to dress it up. There are dramas, but if formulaic stories [and terrible, terrible acting―ed.] aren’t your thing, you aren’t going to like these. I have forced myself to sit through two whole series and I couldn’t tell you what happened in which because the same thing happened in both. The real kicker for me is that the girl always has to run away in the rain and the guy has to always chase her. Then he catches her and there is some passionate outpouring.
The first time this happened I bet it was awesome, but since then it has become a standard trope. I even had a girlfriend do that to me in real life. I didn’t chase after her; I went inside and had dinner because a) the chances of finding a random person in a crowded city are low; and b) you are free to make your own choices. Also, there was c) I had just gotten home from work and I was hungry.
I have never been accused of being a romantic.
There are a few more smaller genres, like the samurai dramas. These are historical stories acted out which often have a lot of people kneeling and speaking this low, rumbling Japanese that is almost impossible to understand.
That anime I mentioned at the beginning... You know how there was Transformers and then there was Gobots? Or Pokemon and then Digimon? Well, for every good anime out there, a hundred Gobots are taking up exponentially more airspace. To see the really good stuff you have to stay up late, and if you work then you’ll probably give that up pretty quickly.
Japanese television is a bit of a wasteland. When you find out that they spend more money on the production of a 30-second commercial than an hour-long television show, you start to understand the reality of what the people making television are dealing with. It also explains why everything is “people sitting around talking” and fewer shows with story-driven plots.
There is a benefit, though: With so many shows where people are sitting around talking about, just, general stuff, it’s awesome for studying. Daily conversation, natural phrases are on every show and the topics are often things you could relate to, like “divorce” and “twins”, or “divorcing twins”. The problem is that I generally watch television to see things I don’t relate to.
The advent of reality television in the West is a similar phenomenon. Looking for ways to fill time while spending a minimum of money? Let's film awful people doing awful things in their daily lives and display it for everyone to see. For a little while, it’s compelling. Luckily, a majority of Japanese TV isn’t that bad, but the general state of Japanese television has been the same for a long time and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to change. Certainly people raised on it are happy with what they have.
I don’t want you to walk away from this thinking there is nothing. Like my impression in the beginning. There are nuggets of gold in there, and every now and then, a diamond.
For comedy, I find every time they do some sort of competition―usually making comedians play sports they’re not good at―it’s awesome. The best part is that even if you don’t speak Japanese, it’s still good entertainment. The commentary just makes it better.
If you can find the time slot and figure out what the good new shows are, they do have anime on TV for real, which is super cool. Some of the police procedurals remind me of the ones back home, but I’ve never gotten too deep into them.
Maybe a final warning: if you are easily “triggered”, Japanese television might be a bit of a shock. There is still tons of misogyny, body shaming (particularly overweight people), and racism, and pretty much anything else that might set you off will be included in standard programming. So, you know, enjoy!
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