A few years ago, in Osaka, Angie and I were sitting home, watching television. It was New Years Day,
I've always been partial to Japanese New Year festivities, because the Japanese are so extreme about some things.
New Year is one of those things.
They have huge drunken work parties to end the year. They go to the temple, in kimono, to pray. Monks ring in the year with the pounding of the temple bell. Decorations and traditions abound. And then there's the numerous people who die every year by choking on mochi, a delicious but gummy rice cake.
All of these are great traditions with long histories, but they pale to the events on television. On television, there are year end blooper shows, a massive singing competition between the 'greatest' male and female singers, and then there's the show where they play 'rock-papers-scissors' for a few hours. This is interesting for two reasons.
First, because it's celebrities playing the game.
Second, because they are playing STRIP 'rock-papers-scissors'.
That's right, every time you lose, you take off a garment. Yes, this is for real. Yes, it's on public television. Yes, it's on during normal daytime viewing hours. And yes, people end up naked (though they are covered by the famous Japanese digital cloud).
Namie Amuro, singer
Ah yes, I love Japanese New Year. But more than that, I love Japanese television, and so would you, if you knew more about it. So....
Here's your beginners guide to Japanese Television.
There are basically three types of shows. Variety Shows, Dramas, and Documentaries. There are no sitcoms, no American-style talk shows, and few infomercials (yet).
While there are four types of shows, there is only one type of performer, the dreaded actor/singer/comedian, known in Japan as 'tarento'. 'Tarento' host the variety shows, and guest on everyone else's show. It's not uncommon to flip channels and see the same performer on three shows airing at the same time. These variety shows are not so different from Western variety shows, except for the pain threshold.
In Japanese variety shows, pain is essential. There are shows where people get beat up by martial artists, shows where people get dunked in hot water, and shows where people lift weights using hooks attached to their nostrils. And, even, worse, shows where you have to listen to Japanese idols sing.
The strangest thing I've seen, though, was the time they put two men in a giant glass hamster wheel with two live chickens and three boa constrictors, while the wheel was spun faster and faster. The chickens went crazy, the boas weren't happy, the men screamed a lot. It was extremely funny. As long as you where outside the wheel.
Hamada-san, from the comedy group DOWNTOWN
'Trendy dramas' are the most popular shows. I prefer to call them 'doe-eyed dramas'. Everyone looks sad, and there are a lot of beautiful people crying. The plots are so simple, that even an autistic golden retriever could follow them, which means that they are my favorite thing to watch.
Typical plot: Beautiful rich girl who can't find love meets beautiful poor boy who can't give love, and go to many restaurants, bars, and rainy places, to fight, cry, laugh, make love, and sing karaoke. Melrose Place meets Miami Vice on downers.
Yuki Uchida, trendy drama actress
Of course, there are also the samurai dramas, and detective dramas, as well.
Lastly, are the documentaries. These also usually have celebrities in them. The most common is the travelogue. Tours of other countries, tours of Japanese restaurants (the most famous scene in any Japanese food travel show is the one when the beautiful demure Japanese actress picks up a piece of disgusting looking sushi that is bigger than her hand, jams it past her painted lips, chews awhile, then smiles to the camera and says "oishii" - delicious), and fishing shows are very popular.
The fishing shows differ from US fishing shows in one critical way. Right after the Japanese fisherman hauls his beauty of a fish out of the water, and his buddy says, "What a catch, Kazu!", they pull out their knives, slice it up and eat it alive. You gotta like that!
Naked celebrities, raw fish, crying girls, and painful game shows - Japanese TV is pretty much like Japanese life. Which is what makes it great!