On Television

Often, when I watch television in Japan I feel I must be missing something. Surely, I think, there must be more to that chap’s act than shouting an annoying slogan with an apparently humorous gesture as accompaniment. After all, I’m sure he did that one last night. And a couple of times last Sunday. And just this morning on this very channel. The audience seems to enjoy it immensely, though, and I think maybe something has got lost in translation. I check my comprehension with my wife, she explains the joke, and I sit there stony-faced and say, ‘And then what happens?’

In Japan, like everywhere, there is good television and bad television, but having watched programmes here for a number of years, I find that overall I am pretty disappointed. I think the area that irritates me most is that of the game show, and not only because it often gives even more exposure to the one-trick-pony, flavour-of-the-month, gesture-loving gimmick kings of comedy that so irritate almost anybody who wasn’t born here. No, those people do make me shout rabidly at the screen, but it’s more than just that.

What annoys me most about the game shows I have seen in Japan is quite simply the stunning ignorance that is sometimes shown by the celebrities taking part and the accompanying lack of any kind of embarrassment at being so woefully uninformed about matters. My wife watches a quiz show called Nep-League most Monday evenings. This is a show in which teams of five celebrities compete against each other in answering a variety of questions. Sometimes, the first section of the show is a thing they call Brain Tower. Granted, it is not intended to be a high-brow show, but the name does suggest that some kind of cerebral exercise might be required. Mastermind, however, it is not. Rather, the contestants are shown pictures of things and simply have to say what they are. But the objects are not obscure household items at whose use one could only hazard a guess. No, the things I have seen shown on this section include, but are by no means limited in simplicity to, a corkscrew, former President Bush, and a giraffe. Sometimes they have to name these things in English, which would make things a bit harder, but no, these were in Japanese. Can you imagine that on a game show aimed at adults in Britain? Being shown a picture of a giraffe and being asked ‘What’s this?’ and then seeing contestants whooping with joy when they correctly identify it as being a giraffe? Now I myself have huge areas in which I remain woefully uninformed, and I fully agree that Britain is as full of ignorant people as anywhere else – you only have to go on YouTube to find plenty of laughable examples of intellectual paucity – but come on:  A giraffe!

At a time when pro-democracy demonstrations in Myanmar were in the news, a team of five celebrities were asked which country used to be known as Burma. Not one of them knew the correct answer. I don’t recall their exact answers but I think one thought it was the Philippines and one said Malaysia. I fear another said Oceania but I am going to have to assume I really did mishear that. In another section of the show one celebrity failed to name the capital of Iraq. For heaven’s sake, in this day and age how can an adult not know the capital of Iraq! Quite frankly I was astounded, almost as much as when a team of five newsreaders were asked the capital of Lebanon and only one of them had any idea. Newsreaders!

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6 Responses to On Television

  1. Paul YM says:

    I know I’ll have a tough time selling you on this, but I think Brain Tower is a lot about being on the spot. For each question they advance down the line of five team members and that one person alone needs to answer the question to move up a storey, or their entire team is sent all the way back down to the bottom of the tower. And there is a time limit ticking away as well, if I remember correctly (it’s been a while since I last watched it), not to mention that when they get the answer wrong the lighting gets dramatic and frantic and steam jets out from beneath the platform. Kind of intense for a game show. In that situation, it might be a little easier to forget what a giraffe is called, or what the capital of Lebanon is. Or even your own name.

    What I love about Japanese game shows is that they aren’t really game shows at all. It’s just entertaining (to some, obviously not you) to see people who know how to be funny and know how to squirm be put into a quiz environment. There are University Challenge-type quiz shows out there, and the questions those guys answer would turn your brain inside-out. But you are really comparing apples to oranges. Plus, a lot of the comedy in this country relies on the tsukome/boke relationship. It would be tough for someone who is supposed to have a boke character to come on a gameshow and be brilliant. Their comedy is in being an idiot. And these shows are an opportunity to show off your talent, not your knowledge. There are some comedians who will drop their character a bit for these shows, but not all of them.

    I get really tired of Westerners who complain about Japanese TV and Japanese comedy. As I see it, it’s really just a difference in taste, and I difference in what you grew up to recognize as funny. To be so certain that our taste is the correct one is pretty obnoxious and close-minded. This is more of a general comment on the topic, not a grievance at your blog post. It is something that comes up often with my Western friends. I can totally see where you’re coming from, and I still have trouble finding a lot of things remotely funny, but I’ve started laughing at things I would have sneered at 10 years ago. Even the slogan/gimmick comics. The truly unfunny one will disappear in a month, but for the others it is often a foot in the door and they will slowly (or suddenly) drop the gimmick and show a wider range.

    • Actually, I mostly agree with you on this. There are intelligent quiz shows out there and I know Nep League is not supposed to be one and I agree that there is also good stuff on Japanese TV. There is a lot of shit stuff, too, but, yes, ‘shit’ to me may not be ‘shit’ to a Japanese person and that doesn’t make me right. Indeed, I said a similar thing in this post https://goodandbadjapan.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/making-friends-with-the-nhk-man/ about how my preferring the BBC to NHK was down to personal taste and cultural background and therefore using the excuse that ‘NHK is rubbish’ was not a good excuse for non-payment. Getting a bit off topic there, but, basically, yes much of what is ‘good TV’ comes down to cultural background. That said, I really don’t like the kind of celebration of stupidity that has been fashionable here for a few years – the thought that somehow being stupid makes a girl cute or makes a guy a bit of a laugh, and Nep League is, I think, one of the shows that kind of likes to join in with the promotion of that fad.

  2. Paul YM says:

    One man’s celebration of stupidity is another man’s pratfall. But, again, I don’t think Nep League is about a celebration of stupidity. I think it’s bit more about forgetting your own name when a gun is at your head. But I’ll add that I have no problem with the “stupid girl” or “goofy dope” routine. Finding offense in that feels more of an overdose of political correctness. I know plenty of intelligent and informed Japanese folk who enjoy that sort of humor. And the trend back home (I’m American–maybe you can tell by the way I spell “humor”) seems more toward being thuggish and self-entitled. Stupid and ill-informed is a given. I’ll take the “dumb girl” act over that any day.

    I don’t think or remember if you have kids, but once/if you do, suddenly the NHK fee is worth every yen! The children’s programming is brilliant. Once you’ve spent a few years watching NHK children’s shows and then you take a look at what they’re watching overseas, you wonder what kind of foul-mouthed morons your kids would be if you weren’t raising them here. And NHK is a wonderful alternative to the godawful masked ranger or プリキュア shows on the big networks. All the other kids at my sons’ school are giving each other karate-chops, while my boys are interested in design and typography.

    Sorry I ressurected such an old post. Your Keisuke story made you reappear in my RSS feed after months, and I spotted this post which I hadn’t seen before. Didn’t realize until later that it was months old.

  3. I don’t have kids but have been told that there are a lot of good educational shows for kids. I am quite happy to pay the NHK fee and feel much better that I returned to doing so. I take your point about Nep-League and see where you are coming from, and, as I said in the article, stupidity is on TV everywhere, not just Japan. And, with the everyday celebrities I understand about the ‘forgetting your name with a gun to your head’ thing and why that can be entertaining. After all, it is just a light entertainment show and, as you said, getting offended by stupidity in it would be overkill. But, even with all that, 5 newsreaders and only one knowing the capital of Lebanon? Your average Joe on the street, fine, your average run-of-the-mill celebrity, fine, but newsreaders? I guess I was just surprised more than anything. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be – the Middle East is rarely top of the news bill here.

    When it comes down to it, I know my cultural prejudices are a big part of it and I am glad you took the time to respond and get me to think about it a bit more. And please don’t worry about reviving old posts – quite happy for people to do so! On of the problems with blogs is that the earlier posts tend to fade away and newer readers don’t ever get to see them. So I’m happy for people to dig away and revive older stuff!

  4. thepete says:

    Could be worse… you could be in America. I’ve all but given up on American TV. There are no more game shows here. Dramas are almost entirely procedural cop or medical shows and sitcoms are boring, predictable, unfunny and usually rock stupid. There are the exceptions but the vast majority of US TV is unwatchable to the thinking person. Oh and I can’t comment on reality shows because I never watch them. I’ve seen Japanese shows and I’ve seen British shows and acknowledge that both countries produce their share of crap, but I think America produces far more than their faire share. I can’t back that up with numbers, but if this isn’t the case, I have no hope for the future of telelvision.

    • I think top-end shows are still good in both UK and US (although admittedly I haven’t watched many in the last year or so) but they are unfortunately outnumbered by far by the dross. The quality is there, just in small quantities.

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