I have never really been a major viewer of TV regardless of the country of origin. And if you have heard anything about the quality of Japanese terrestrial TV, you can probably guess where this is going.
Or can you? You see, I’m not going to hide the fact that while an awful lot of Japanese TV is, well, awful. It’s a load of hyperactive, headache-inducing pop-culture flotsam (which isn’t that different from our own TV, let’s be honest), but there is something oddly charming about it.
Firstly, the differences are just fascinating. For one thing, that long-considered-dead genre of variety TV is not only alive and well in Japan but is the format of choice. In an hour long TV program you can expect to see elements of comedy, music, quizzes, travel and news all thrown into a blender with the resulting mush pouring out of your screens and into your retinas. A lot of TV here jumps around between these elements at such breakneck speed and with so little preamble, and is drenched in such a stimulus overdrive of colourful studio sets and music that you can actually feel physically exhausted just watching it. The fact that these kind of shows tend to have about 10 or so presenters and special guests only add to the sense of sugary oversaturation.
The line between advertising and the TV show is that much more blurred as well: unlike the TV I grew up with in the UK with very clear lines between the main show itself and the commercial breaks, in Japan the ads and sponsors just can’t help but poke their noses in to an obnoxious level. No kidding: halfway through a show the audio will dim and the logos of the show’s sponsors will squat right in the middle of the screen for a good 15 seconds or so. Other times a commercial break will end, the show will come back on just to show this section of the show with the overlay of sponsors, and then back to another commercial break. It cheapens what is already a gaudy viewing experience.
And yet…these things are exactly what makes Japanese TV so charming and compulsive. Sure, the dramas are tacky and variety shows are kitschy, but they don’t pretend to be anything they’re not. The moment you accept the TV you’re watching as brainless, silly fun, it all begins to make more sense. And that is exactly how many Japanese people view it too: if you ask the average man on the street in Japan what their viewing habits are, many will tell you that they have their TV on purely as white noise, as something to have on while they eat, chat or generally occupy themselves around the home.
And Japanese TV just seems to be more…real, somehow. Whereas in the UK the world of television rarely seems to dip its toes in the world that us average Joes occupy, preferring to blare out panel shows and talk shows of celebrities talking to celebrities, sports in vast stadia and showing the most beautiful and inaccessible parts of your country (which Japan certainly has), there’s a surprising amount of Japanese television that showcases the mundane and the familiar. Off the top of my head I can think of at least three popular shows here where the concept is to go to any train station or town, walk around, chat to locals, see the local sights and eat at local restaurants. And these places don’t have to be particularly pretty, either: one of my favourite shows, Moyamoya Samaazu, deliberately chooses places that are rundown inner city areas that aren’t touristy or fashionable.
And neither is Japanese TV particularly challenging. There is no Japanese equivalent of Question Time or Horizon, where difficult and controversial subject matter is set before the viewer. While I feel that this is a loss on the whole, I can understand why: TV’s main purpose in Japan serves to relax and unwind, something simple and comforting to have wash over you after a hard day at work.
I’m not making excuses for Japanese TV’s shortcomings: there are many, but it’s not as if TV in our own countries is an angelic medium of media goodness. And what you have heard is true: after you have watched enough of it, you really do begin to understand it and it doesn’t seem so strange any more. Well, maybe. Perhaps it has just bludgeoned my brain enough into submission.