Is Japanese TV Weird And Terrible?

I occasionally hear one of these words used to describe my beloved Japanese TV programming. Usually after trashing on TV, whether it be variety shows or J-dramas, there is a followup that Japanese movies are awful and Japanese have no acting ability. I’m slightly more lenient towards outsiders (people not studying Japanese) who are just taking a peek at Japanese entertainment. But for people studying the language, the inner-me is screaming “Why the hell are you studying Japanese?!” While I restrain myself, others do not, and usually they hear the following retort which makes me slightly cringe:

I am studying Japanese because of (insert some finer cultural aspect) of Japan

I’m sure you would rather watch nonstop TV shows of the following:
Japanese Geisha Flower Arrangement Japanese Tea Ceremony

I like to enjoy real modern Japan. If you are going to show me the above on TV, there better be some robots involved.

But assuming that you are just misguided, I want to help you break from this negative illusion that you suffer from. Your over generalized statements sound just as bad if you replace “Japanese” and insert any language or country in the world. But it is hard to see this. Most likely, if you feel this way about TV, you fall into one or more of the following four groups:

1. Your Japanese isn’t good enough

Having a lower level of Japanese can kill your enjoyment of anything Japanese. You miss out on a lot. And I’m not just talking to beginners. A level 35 adventurer trying to watch level 55 material is not going to enjoy the material as well as someone of higher level. You miss plot, humor, nuances, and you are forced to focus more.

Solution: Simple concept you already know. Choose native material that matches or is below your level. Japanese media guide? Regardless of your level, there is material out there that you can enjoy. Now. I know you would like to be able to understand that Edo period history piece right now:

Jin

Are they having an exciting conversation about Samurai stuff? Probably. Except the character in blue time traveled from present day Japan, is a doctor, and teaches old Japan how to make things like Penicillin and fight diseases that don’t exist anymore. JIN (this J-drama) is great. JIN is an instant classic.

Please don’t watch JIN now.

Settle with a simple (non-samurai) boy meets (non-geisha) girl story.

2. You lack cultural knowledge

Even if your level is adequate, if you are missing out on cultural aspects, your entertainment is reduced. TV is filled with cultural references and jokes, historical references, pop culture, and current events. How do you expect to enjoy variety shows, entertainers, and comedians when you can’t understand what they are talking about.

That’s like trying to appreciate Seinfeld without knowing what New York City is, or what a Jewish person is.

Seinfeld

Solution: Keep watching, but stay positive. Accept that you won’t get it now. Don’t push it away. Consider this just another part of your studies. Don’t give up media because you couldn’t understand the culture immediately.

3. You aren’t watching enough material

Assuming your level is good, and your cultural understanding is up to par, how much media have you watched before you decided to make your claim that “all J-TV is (negative comment).” 5 TV shows? 10? 100?

Please repeat the following to yourself until it sticks:

– There is TV you won’t like in any language.
– There is garbage in any language and country.
– The amount of garbage always significantly overwhelms the good material.

First you need to find what you like. And don’t just try to convert your likes from English to Japanese. Oftentimes you like different genres in different languages. I don’t like American romantic comedies but can’t get enough of Japanese ones. I like American action movies but get bored of Japanese ones.

How many TV shows come out a year? The number is easily in the hundreds. And there are thousands of modern TV shows of the past dozen years that you can easily get access to. There is too much out there for you to make any excuses.

Solution: Please employ the 5-minute rule, and give yourself the chance to sample ridiculous amounts of media. After your brief viewing, you can legitimately, officially and with endless glee say “I hate X show.” I do this all the time. Every new season of J-dramas I go on a “what the hell were you thinking?!” spree. I can name you dozens and dozens of specific TV shows that I think are weird and terrible and suck. Without exaggeration, over the years, I’ve probably sampled hundreds if not thousands of TV and variety shows. Try some. Try some more. Try some more after that.

And when you finally come across those beautiful gems:

Ikebukuro West Gate Park

I can’t imagine you being disappointed.

4. You aren’t giving certain shows enough of a chance

This mainly concerns variety shows, as movies/J-dramas are usually fairly simple to know whether you like them in the early minutes. But variety shows have bad days. Even my top favorite variety shows have bad days.

世界の果てまでイッテQ!

I love it when you go:

Matsuri Otoko

I hate it when you go:

Sekai no hate made

1 out of every 4 episodes of a variety show you actually like may be lackluster, and 1 out of 10 episodes may be just terrible. It’s just the nature of a variety show. Topics, locations, ideas, and guests change. Even if you like the structure, they can’t always score a home run.

This is the same with actors, entertainers, and comedians. Some of their stuff is good, some is bad.

Just because you hated a movie with the super awesome actor 阿部寛 (Abe Hiroshi) in it:

大帝の剣
Doesn’t mean you won’t love his others and should never try another movie by him:

テルマエロマエ

Give him a chance. He’ll personally appreciate it. Don’t judge him on the occasional mistake movie.

Or just continue to hate?

I don’t know. I’m sure you can continually enjoy pointing out some over generalization like all Japanese TV is cooking, celebrity talk, game shows, and anecdotal stories. Live in this illusion if you want. I’m not stopping you. But I’m not inviting you to any parties.

How do you feel about Japanese TV? Express your love in the comments. Or even after reading through this do you still reject Japanese TV?



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Adam

Adam

Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.

Comments

Is Japanese TV Weird And Terrible? — 27 Comments

  1. This is a good topic.

    I know a classmate learning Japanese who is only interested in Japanese history and temples. No interest at all in Japanese contemporary culture. He does plan to study abroad in Tokyo during the spring, maybe that’ll broaden his interests. I wouldn’t be able to stay motivated by such a finite interest.

    Likewise, there are anime fans out there who are solely into anime and don’t really want to be involved with Japanese culture, and even prefer to watch anime in English, yet learn Japanese because it’s cool. I can’t imagine that lasting long. Either they will give in and start becoming more involved in Japanese culture, or their language skills won’t improve much.

    I think we all go through phases. I went through a phase of completely rejecting American TV, thinking of it as lower than Japanese TV. But, I think that really comes down to having such a selection on the internet for Japanese TV in which I can choose shows that are geared towards my interest, making it easier to prefer it, while American TV I have to flip through the channels and stumble into something good (which is hard on Japanese TV too). I started realizing American TV isn’t that bad and found some series I really love. American TV is just different from Japanese TV. The type of comedy and drama I watch on American TV (The Office, Parks and Rec, Being Human, Revolution) just can’t be found in Japan, and the type of shows I watch in Japan (like 結婚できない男, 絶対彼氏, Liar Game, Dragon Zakura) just have a very different atmosphere as well not found in America. I’ve come to appreciate that I have access to a variety of TV cultures, even though I try to enforce a mostly Japanese environment, I’m still American and enjoy my own culture.

    • I can’t imagine their interests not spreading over to different areas of culture. Narrow goals work well in the beginning for a little, but soon they fizzle out. Especially when those goals don’t actually require Japanese.

      And I’m glad to hear you started to appreciate American TV again. I agree, that there are some shows that you can’t just can’t get over in Japan. And The Office will be missed!

  2. I used to be pretty ambivalent about Japanese TV programs, and I still do prefer other facets of Japanese pop culture, but AKBingo started me watching more of the variety shows, etc. I’m not even a fan of AKB48, but I like the show.
    My personal suggestion for someone who’s struggling with watching Japanese drama or movies would be to watch some tokusatsu first, like Kamen Rider or Super Sentai. It’s a really good introduction to many Japanese actors, and toku is usually a lot easier to understand since it’s meant for children. Since so many adults watch toku, though, the plots are usually very good. (A good one to start with might be Kamen Rider Den-O, since the lead actor, Satoh Takeru, has been in a lot of things. It’s also awesome.)

    • Good suggestion. Once you start to get to know the actors of the Japanese world (and the ones you like), you often have a little bit of an idea of what direction to head in.

    • That’s interesting about the idol variety show. Back when Morning Musume was more popular, I used to love their variety segment, “Ayaka’s Surprise English Lesson” and it became a huge foundation for my Japanese; it immersed me in Japanese while at the same time provided a few Japanese to English sentence comparisons. The Japanese was natural and at a normal pace, being made for Japanese people, rather than English speakers. This was despite the fact that I only liked a couple of Morning Musume’s songs.

      I started showing the girl I nanny the live-action of Sailor Moon as her intro to Japanese dramas, and started really liking it myself. I never gave it a chance before because the action was so cheesy, but I realized I really like the drama side of it, and it has a lot of Japanese culture seeped into it as well. The girl ended up learning the myth about there being a bunny on the moon, among other things. She never got into the anime, and told me she prefers the drama.

      • I like the live-action show, too! I don’t even care for Sailor Moon that much. Actually, the live-action Sailor Moon was written by the screenwriter for several of my favorite Kamen Rider shows, including Den-O.
        I agree that the fight scenes are really silly, but that was honestly part of the appeal for me :)

  3. Whatever the reasons might be to reject Japanese television (and I do agree that probably those in the article cover most if not all of the cases), judging a medium instead of a single piece of work is outright dumb in general. Just like when you’re watching an anime that would give any literate native person a hard time understanding, and someone just comes in to say “What are you doing? Watching cartoons? I thought you were not in grade school anymore?”. Except that when “insiders”(as the author put it) do it, it’s much much worse. I certainly don’t believe in the saying “beggars can’t be choosers”, and say that you should watch anything indiscriminately just because it’s in Japanese. But still, as a learner, you have the moral obligation of giving yourself the most chances of finding a show you like, be it Japanese TV or not. And that prejudice, most likely, is not even something those people came up with on their own. “All Japanese TV sucks” is probably just one of the many, many rumors surrounding the language, influencing people’s opinion for the sake of being pessimistic.

    • Well said, and really the only way you will ever find what you like is by bombarding yourself with Japanese material. Too many people judge things too quickly, and I’m hoping that most people studying Japanese are smart enough to not fall into the pessimistic rumors.

  4. Gosh I dislike IWGP. Ugh!

    :P

    Actually I really don’t like that show despite having tried watching it several times. But what’s great about is that it helped me realize that I just don’t like those misfit youth dramas and dramas where boys are constantly going 黙れ~!and yelling other bad things. So there are tons and tons of other shows that I do like and don’t like and you can follow popular culture or you can find the indie stuff. The music I like in Japan? Totally underground! I’ve seen so many music recommendation lists online for learners of Japanese and they have not once included the music I like. And that’s what’s cool!

    So kudos. Great article.

  5. A few random comments:

    1) I would totally watch a series about robots hosting tea ceremonies!

    2) For those (like me) for whom JIN might be inaccessible there’s always this other time traveling Doctor.

    3) So you’re saying Japanese TV isn’t magically immune to Sturgeon’s Law? Regrettable, but of course the the converse of this is that 10% of it is likely to be, at least, pretty good! (Or, to back up point 3 with math, you’d need to sample at least 6 series before having a better than 50% chance of finding one that isn’t crud…)

    • First time I’ve heard of Sturgeon’s law. It is an interesting concept. 6 for a 50% chance of non-crud? Not bad. But I’m assuming this refers to random watching? I think if you are recommended 10 series the numbers should go up.

      • Oh, absolutely, I was assuming a spherical cow — given a huge box of DVDs, 90% of which are labeled “crud” and 10% “non-crud”, if you pull out 7 at random there’s a 52% probability that at least one will be “non-crud” (so I should have said 7, not 6 above). Anything that biases this can only help; reading a synopsis in advance, the involvement of an actor/writer/director/studio whose previous work you’ve enjoyed, and I would think personal recommendations would help a lot.

        (Plus, of course, 90% is not a firm number and the whole notion of what is or isn’t crud is highly subjective :) )

  6. Anyone who says Japanese TV is bad has never seen ピカルの定理 (Pikaru no Teiri.) It is legitimately funny and entertaining, and some of the skits are awesome. I watch it every week (DVR) and have watched almost all the episodes I’ve missed online (Youku/FC2). If your Japanese is good enough, you will find it entertaining. If you don’t get the humor, you probably just aren’t getting Japanese, and there isn’t going to be any TV program that is interesting.

    Those who are interested can find the eps here:
    http://youtubeowaraitv.blog32.fc2.com/blog-category-225.html
    Try this one: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNDQ0OTI5MTI0.html

    Another show I like is しゃべくり007 (Shabekuri Seven), although the show is heavily based on the guest celebrity and I have seen extremely interesting and extremely boring episodes depending on who is on. Usually consistently good quality tho. You can find this show on the site linked above.

  7. If you look at it American television is pretty awful as well. It’s largely terrible reality shows, brain-dead sitcoms, and formulaic procedurals. Sure there’s a tiny percentage of excellent shows, but they’re decidedly in the minority and if you look at the ratings they’re generally not topping them even as they lavish in critical praise and occasionally awards. Like the ad where Arrested Development jokingly tried to trade Emmys for viewers. If you look at the networks there’s probably only two hours or so of watchable programming out there in a week. Maybe four if you put up with shows that are merely mediocre, but not offensively bad.

    If you’re going to trash Japanese TV at least give credit to the awe-inspiring terror of modern American TV as well.

  8. I stopped reading at “significantly overwhelms”.

    Just another idiot, nothing to see here :(

    • I’m not sure if what you mean is that you previously bashed Japanese TV and feel guilty about it, but the point of this article is not to put down people who bash Japanese TV, but to show them that they need to give it more of a chance.

  9. What are your thoughts on learning Casual vs Polite Japanese? Ive heard some say to do the opposite of most and too learn casual first. Being that its the base its better and easier than vice versa?

    • It’s really irrelevant which comes first. You’ll learn both within a very short period of time (most good beginner textbooks cover both within the same book).

  10. Can’t be more agree to this. In every country, there are surely some good materials and more bad materials. In case of J-Dramas, I can certainly say that they have tenth of the best drama ever made in Asia. Surely what’s known as Galapagos syndrome also affects their taste in drama, but every year there are one or two dramas that could be labelled as world class.

    Of course everyone got their own taste, and it’s likely most Asian drama lovers are suckers of melancholic stuffs, that’s why they lean more toward K-Dramas. As for myself, I can’t stand any K-Dramas even the most recommended ones like Athena. They just suck! Yes, there are more dollars (or wons more accurately) spent in K-Dramas, but the story are shockingly narrow and sometimes jaw-dropping-ly cheesy.

    If somebody got to this blog and want to give J-Dramas a try, here are some good recommendations:
    – Karei Naru Ichizoku (2007; Genre: Family/Politic)
    One of the best Asian drama. Set in Japan industrial era, this drama tells a story about ambition and the desire for acknowledgement of a son toward his father. The landscape of the drama isn’t just within a family, but stretch over the competition in steel & banking industry. The details are unbelievable. Beautifully acted with high production value, this drama set an unreachable standard in this genre – not only in Japan, but the whole Asia. Even the same production team failed miserably in creating another similar drama.

    – Mother (2010; Genre: Family)
    Arguably the best Asian drama in this category. The idea might be simple: Mother. But the point of view is unusual: How a woman that doesn’t even want to get married accidentally found her motherly instinct in a soon-she-will-kidnap child. Beautifully shot, scored, & acted just like a world class big screen standard. There will be unlikely any other Asian drama like this in near future.

    – Change (2008; Genre: Politic/Comedy)
    – Proposal Daisakusen (2006; Genre: Teenage/Comedy)

    Not so recommended, but these dramas have been adapted to K-Dramas:
    – Sora Kara Furu Ichioku no Hoshi (2002; Genre: Drama/Thriller)
    – Kaseifu no Mita (2012; Genre: Family)
    – Kekkon Dekinai Otoko (2007; Genre: Family)

    They are just some examples of Japanese good dramas. Surely there are tons of weird stuffs coming from there, but it just a matter of the country’s unique taste.

    • Thanks for adding the recommendations.

      But 結婚できない男! I’m so sad to see it as “not so recommended.” This is comedy at utter perfection.

  11. omg i saw the title and my heart broke “nooooo this awesome site i just found hates variety/jdramas nooooooooooooo” but i was pleasantly surprised. is that デヴィスカルノ with degawa in that second itteq screenshot?

    i’ve been obsessed with japanese tv for so long that even though it’s all really the same in the end, quitting now feels like i would be bailing on an investment somehow. i mean, what i am going to do with all my pointless 芸能ネタ if not continue to watch endless amounts of tv. can i ask what some of your favorite dramas are? and variety shows?

  12. I understand what they are saying but I rarely enjoy the programs. Way too much theater style over acting in almost all dramas ive seen, and talk shows with completely over the top overreactions to food which may be someone delicious, but certainly not orgasm inducing as they would have you believe. Unless they are shooting heroin every time they take a bite and I just didnt notice.
    I live in Japan, I see this every day. At first it was alright but I just cant stand it anymore. After I moved from Tokyo to Yokohama I gave away my TV and havent gotten another since.

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