By guest blogger Jonathon Jones
I am not a television person by any means. In fact, after packing up and leaving Canada to work abroad in Japan, I went over a year without much access to North American television, or any other for that matter. But that was mostly because I’d forgotten to plug in the TV.
Recently, though, I realized that the hole in the wall of my tiny Japanese apartment was an outlet for cable. I decided it was time to explore the Japanese TV landscape.
I quickly discovered that Japanese TV is a reverse image of that in North America. Where North American television has become a rabid show-trial of partisan politics and decadent hyper-competition, Japanese television is modest and quaint. Sometimes it seems to have reverse-engineered itself from old-school local news programs and crazy day-time game shows from the 1970s.
The news shows in particular reflect Japanese culture, which is inherently introverted, polite, and generally apolitical. The news reader begins with a little bow and says Ohayo, Konichiwa, or Kombanwa, depending on whether it’s the morning, afternoon, or evening news. There are absolutely no swirly, eye-candy graphics as on CNN, or obnoxious, swishy faux-dramatic sound effects per FOX News, not to mention no obnoxious reporters and journalists either. Sometimes the Japanese news doesn’t even have the magic floating picture box beside the head of a news anchor. They just talk for a bit and then go to the field.
There, the reporters simply tell you what happened and do a little interview, though I have noticed they often stand inappropriately close to the scene. It reminds me of a “Family Guy”-style gag in which a reporter dies in a car explosion, then another reporter steps in to cover the breaking story of a reporter who was just killed by standing too close to the action.
Japanese TV is relatively low budget and crude compared to the bloated and convoluted North American media. But for pure bizarreness, nothing compares with a Japanese game show, not even North American reality TV. As time-wasters go, “Dancing with the D-List Stars” and the umpteenth season of “Survivor, Harlem Edition” don’t hold a candle to “Human Tetris.”
Here, grown men dressed in silver space suits contort their bodies into various positions in order to stand up or jump through a hole in a styrofoam wall that races towards them. If they lose, they receive a whack to the extremities and get tossed into a kiddie pool.
In another I’ve seen, a group of gaikokujen (foreign) women of varying hygiene wander around city shops and show a little leg to convince the owners to give them something for free. In one case a European girl joined a group of men in a nude hot spring, covered in only a towel, just to avoid paying the fee.
Japanese office soap-operas are just as shallow. With the lowest production costs possible, several actors cry in front of one another for an hour in hopes the audience will suspend disbelief, which becomes increasingly unlikely each time the boom microphone falls into the frame and smacks an actor on the head.
As wickedly strange and unintelligible as Japanese television can be sometimes, it never feels cynical in the manner of North American television. The East may have a reputation for herding children into secret sweatshops, but you’ll never see a child exploited on Japanese TV the way a show like “Kid Nation” does. In fact, Japanese television is like a playground, where people demonstrate that they don’t take themselves seriously by engaging in ridiculous games that have no effect or consequence in daily life. In North America, whether in TV entertainment or TV news (if there’s any difference anymore), extreme competition and victory are emphasized rather than the game itself — with perhaps too many consequences for daily life.
While TV has pretty much lost its role as the dominant source of information and entertainment in the homes of North America, replaced by video games and the internet, it survives as the main entertainment medium in Japan. The film and music industries here are relatively small and the true star culture still resides in Japanese television entertainment. Every Japanese kids knows the television comedian, Yoshio Kojima, a man who appears on stage wearing only a bathing suit, plays with his nipples, and pretty much just repeats his catch phrases over and over: “Sonna no kankei ne” and “Opapi!”
Classic children’s entertainment.
After my short experience with Japanese television, I put the TV away and now use the cable outlet for internet. I’m back on-line after nearly a year away from that as well. I missed a lot during my television/media sabbatical: Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, the Virginia Tech massacre, the Blackwater scandal, and reams of other Iraq War nonsense. Does any of it really matter? Not to the Japanese, and maybe not to me anymore. But if I ever need a shot of nonsense, it’s good to know “Human Tetris” is there.