Japanese TV culture

After almost two months in Japan, I gave up on Japanese television. Previously I had thought that watching TV here would be an interesting challenge. Not only have I found it to be somewhat boring, but also nearly impossible to understand.

What one can expect to see on Japanese TV is a man named Mashu. Mashu’s Best Hit TV — as the talk show is called — appeared briefly in the 2003 film Lost in Translation with a fast-talking and loudly dressed host named Mashu (the Japanese pronunciation of Matthew).

Not only does Mashu’s talk show run on Wednesday nights, but he also appears on two other shows during the week. One is a trivia game show in which Mashu and a co-host are dressed in elaborate monkey costumes. Picture a Japanese Planet of the Apes. The other show has Mashu hosting a contest between 2-year-olds, accompanied by their parents, to see who is the brightest. Although the fast-talking Mashu is impossible to understand by my standards, his antics on the show, such as a segment where he sees how many times he can cause the children to bawl their eyes out, require no subtitles.

There are eight basic types of Japanese TV shows; those include game shows, news reports, every type of sport in the world, travel shows, spots on Japan, Japanese music shows and shows where people try exotic foods and give their opinion on them. The latter are called manzai shows. Manzai comedy, basically on-stage sketch comedy, is based in Osaka and involves monologues or group performances and relies mainly on wordplay and slapstick routines. Even without translation it is quite enjoyable.

The final type of show, interestingly enough, is a conglomeration of the first seven types — if one can imagine it. A host — or two or three — quizzes famous manzai comedians on news, sports and music topics.

There is always a segment where the comedians try new foods and compete over finding ways to make fun of the entrees. Sometimes there are travel segments showing a comedian’s visit to an exotic bathhouse, temple or restaurant. End this all with a musical guest or a game of charades and one has the most common type of show there is in Japan.

Even though I saw it myself, I am still confused.

Only one glimmer of hope remained for me in my saga of TV troubles: The English-language function on most Japanese televisions. This function doesn’t translate Japanese programs, but works for English-language shows and movies dubbed into Japanese.

Sweet, I thought. Maybe I can see a good American show every once in a while or at least hear some English being spoken. Maybe they will air something nostalgic.

My worst fears came alive the first time I was able to use the English-language function: They aired Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Next, I came across a Kevin Costner movie from the ’80s about bicycle racing co-starring Rae Don Chong. What’s next? Full House? Murder She Wrote? Rambo III?

It’s as though the Japanese broadcasting system buys the rights to the cheapest American titles they can come across. I guess my glimmer of hope was only a flash in the wok.

Of course, this is just the situation with basic channels.

I don’t have cable and probably won’t have it for a long time. I have a feeling that Japanese programs can only increase in strangeness. Is it worth dishing out a monthly sum to catch the occasional episode of The Simpsons? Is it worth my time to watch TV at all when I could be out exploring this beautiful country?

I think I know the answers here. I’ll tell you one thing: I’d trade a season of Deep Space Nine and two Costner films for one half-hour of Late Night with Conan O`Brien or Chapelle’s Show in half a heartbeat.

Until then, I’ll probably be avoiding my remote control completely — especially with so much adventure beckoning me outside my apartment.

Daniel Shimek is a former Oracle graphic arts manager now living in Japan.