There are certain things almost everyone who moves to Japan seems to like. The food? Tasty and healthy. Public transportation? Clean and punctual. But Japanese TV? Let’s just say there’s a reason Internet access is one of the first things new arrivals in the country look to outfit their apartments with.
It turns out this lukewarm reaction to the country’s programming isn’t just a foreigner thing, either, as some 75 percent of Japanese citizens polled by the Asashi Shimbun newspaper also said that TV has become boring. Today we look at why.
In an effort to shed light on the phenomenon, Japanese expat and Internet columnist Madame Riri offered a number of theories. On a recent visit back to Japan, she sat down to watch domestic programming with a critical eye in order to uncover what characteristics set it apart from television produced overseas.
The first problem area she identified is a common complaint by foreigners in Japan: Too many programs about food. Sure, foodie culture has exploded throughout the West over the last decade, with tons of shows following the exploits of professional chefs and emerging restaurateurs. But while Japan does have a handful of cooking shows, the majority of its culinary-related television programming isn’t about people preparing or selling food, it’s about people eating it.
Specifically, Japanese TV is filled with programs wherein a completed dish is lovingly displayed, then bit into by the on-camera talent. The diner takes a bite, pauses for dramatic effect, and then lets loose with an elongated cry of “Oi—-shii (delicious)!”
▼ Oishii: Roughly 40 percent of the script for these kinds of segments.
For many viewers overseas, part of the draw for shows with on-the-spot taste tests is the chance that the tester will launch into a tirade, spewing venom and crumbs as they take the chef to task for tainting their lips with their subpar creations, then expounding on what should have been done instead. Japanese TV tends to avoid any semblance of such negativity, though. Moreover, generally accepted strict guidelines on how a dish is supposed to taste in Japan often mean that even if you’ve got no problem with the positive tone, you’re not likely to get any insight deeper than “it’s delicious.” And don’t even get us started on the 30 second close-ups featuring the staff member with the shakiest hands holding said food on a fork, between chopsticks, or balanced precariously between trembling fingers. Jiggling food shots show up in every single show about eating in Japan, making even the most appetizing of foods look somehow less appealing with every jerk and twitch.
Madame Riri’s second criticism is centered on the consumerist nature of Japanese TV shows. Once again tying in to the proliferation of food-based programming, she points to the number of shows which feature a pair of celebrities travelling to one of Japan’s many resort towns such as Kamakura or Kanazawa. Once there, they dine at the city’s best-known restaurants, get beauty treatments, and go shopping for whatever items the area is known for producing, whether ceramics, textiles, or some other sort of handicraft.
While these types of programs are no doubt appreciated by the local economies they help stimulate, Madame Riri worries about the long-term effects of being exposed to shows that seem to be preaching that spending is equivalent to happiness. Ethical issues aside, she also doesn’t believe they make for particularly compelling viewing.
▼ Sure, they look like they’re having fun, but what about those of us watching at home?
The heavy use of celebrities, as mentioned above, is another item on Madame Riri’s list of problems with Japanese TV. In the case of members of idol singing groups, the name of the individual’s band is often listed after his or her own in the credits, even if no other members of the group appear in the show. Viewers don’t even get a break once the show goes to commercial, as by far the most common marketing strategy in Japan is to parade well-known actors and performers out to stand next to your product for 30 seconds.
Compounding the problem, Riri feels, is the way in which networks seemingly compete to feature the freshest flavor of the month from the talent pool. The result is seeing the same celebs over and over again. While the damage is mitigated when using people who rose to fame as actors or actresses, many of the celebrities who appear on Japanese TV come from modeling or singing backgrounds. Being chosen for their fame in these fields means that not all of them have the on-screen presence and eloquence necessary for an entertaining panelist on the country’s numerous variety ad talk shows. The situation usually doesn’t get any better when these non-actors try to branch out into dramatic or comedic roles on serialized dramas or sitcoms, but nonetheless, the majority of producers seem to place a premium on featuring a face the audience will recognize, regardless of acting ability.
▼ Something you’ll never see outside a Japanese casting office
A fourth point of Madame Riri’s that strikes a chord is the similarity in topics covered by Japan’s news programs and talk shows. Whenever the latest scandal breaks in the political, business, or entertainment world, you can bet that each and every network will cover it until it starts to feel like ancient history.
▼ Today’s topic: Magellan eaten by cannibals. Was he oishii?
Aside from a risk-adverse attitude and lack of creativity, part of this can be attributed to the comparatively small number of TV channels in Japan. There are roughly a half-dozen national networks, but cable is all but non-existent, and satellite TV doesn’t offer nearly the variety it does in, say, the U.S. A smaller number of options means a less segmented market with less niche programming, keeping the pressure on all networks to attract the widest audience possible by choosing content with the broadest appeal, which in turns means doing the same things as your competitor.
One final point we’d like to add is that unlike in American television production, very few prime-time fictional series in Japan receive more than a one-season contract at a time. A typical season lasts 13 weeks, after which the show’s performance will be judged, and if it makes financial sense, producers will commission a second season, which may not be ready to air until years later. This stilted production schedule makes it almost impossible to craft the kind of sustained, complex narratives that Western viewers have enjoyed in shows such as Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, or The Shield.
Madame Riri feels that all of these problems can be attributed to one cause: money. With viewership on the decline and their coffers low, networks are taking the safe bets, thereby passing up opportunities to make something fresh and interesting. She finishes her dissertation with the wish that producers will start focusing on creating quality programming, and stop chasing after ratings.
While we share her earnest wish for a greater quantity of enjoyable, free entertainment to be beamed into our homes, we can’t help but notice the incongruent logic behind “networks don’t have enough money” and “networks shouldn’t worry about ratings,” since the latter usually tends to be required in order to obtain the former. Nevertheless, no one would be happier than us if Japanese television suddenly stepped up its game. And in the meantime, can we offer an alternative?
▼ RocketNews24, where none of our creative staff are famous idol singers (yet)!