March 27, 2024

That's Edutainment!

"Is Japanese Television a Tool for Establishing Social Order?" asks Erik Luebs. Yes, but he mostly avoids the sort of academic navel-gazing you'd expect from a thesis question like that (until the last paragraph), and instead wonders aloud what can be read into the television habits of the average Japanese.

Japanese and Americans watch about the same amount of television. Except the slow penetration of cable in Japan means that for half of the population, their viewing choices are confined to a handful of networks. Japan's "Golden Age" of television hasn't ended, which makes those habit easier to generalize.

Luebs compares at the top-rated television shows in the United States and Japan for the week of May 4, 2015 (the article was published on June 11, 2015).

Despite the data being almost a decade old, NCIS is still on the air, and according to The Hollywood Reporter, as of December 2023, "only 44 percent of households in Japan have at least one subscription video service," compared to 86 percent in the United States. So I think the comparison is still relevant.

NCIS (crime drama)
The Big Bang Theory (sitcom)
NCIS: New Orleans (crime drama)
Dancing with the Stars (contest/dancing)
The Voice (contest/singing)

Mare (family drama about cooking),
Shoten (sketch comedy)
Pittan Kokan (variety/talk show)
Jinsei ga Kawaru (variety/talk show)
Himitsu no Kenmin (variety/talk show)

To clarify: Shoten resembles a haiku version of the original Whose Line Is It Anyway? The host sets up a scenario and feeds lines to the (seated) panelists, who improvise responses with an emphasis on verbal wordplay. It's a clever and entertaining show, and has been on the air since 1966.

Neither is the variety/talk show strictly analogous to its American counterpart. There are celebrity-of-the-day chat shows (NHK's Studio Park, for example), but these are not that. They are "talk" shows in that people talk, and "variety" shows in that a variety of topics are discussed. But the topics take precedence.

These celebrity panels chat and share anecdotes about various topics—tear-jerking stories about family reconciliation, first loves, travel, and maybe the most popular topic: food. Their chats are interspersed with short documentaries and dramatizations, in which the viewer can watch each celebrity's emotional reaction to the content through a "picture in picture" embedded at the side of the screen.

Despite the reputation Japanese reality shows have earned overseas for being weird, wacky, and dumb, these programs can get pretty brainy on the edutainment scale. I think Luebs is onto something when he observes that the reality television format popular in North America is far more fictional.

These [Hollywood productions] are not concerned with attempting to directly address the identities and concerns of the viewer. Rather, they are a playful engagement of thoughts and ideas in which we, the viewer, interact within a fictional world. They are a form of escapism.

The Hollywood version of reality television has been increasingly infiltrating the airwaves in Japan (thanks in no small part to Netflix), but the well-nigh ubiquitous home grown version still follows the formula described above, with experts educating the tarento, who function as stand-ins for the viewer.

A tarento ("talent") is a professional TV personality. To be sure, a tarento may be an actor or singer or Nobel laureate but is a tarento when acting as such. His job is to always have something witty or insightful to say, regardless of the subject. For the viewer, explains Luebs, they become real-life Walter Mittys:

Popular Japanese television looks inwards, into its own society. The variety TV show concept is based on the viewer personally relating to specific individuals who represent various tropes of Japanese-ness. Whether intentional or not, watching these celebrities chat with one another serves as an instructional guide for what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in society. They give the viewer a clue into how to participate in any number of conversations, and how to react in any number of situations. These programs are just as much a form of entertainment as they are a framework for establishing social order.

My only caveat here is that I read "social order" in the most benign sense: lessons on how to play the game of life (specifically ordinary Japanese life).

Still, Luebs can't help slewing back to the comfortable confines of scholarly cant. No, he concludes, it's not "indoctrination," but "without the cultural synergy created by diversity, homogeneous cultural ideas are refined and concentrated, and the TV is the medium that projects these values onto the individual."

As if these cultural ideas didn't exist before television, and only sprang into being around 1950 in the smoke-filled room of a producer's office.

I think it more likely that this hallowed "diversity" in mass media instead reinforces our individual silos: with cable and streaming, we only have to watch what we want to see. But old-school Japanese broadcasters must attract the largest audience possible. They do that by giving the audience what it wants.

Or at least by not broadcasting what the audience doesn't want to see.

If anything is being projected onto the individual, well, the individual is holding up a mirror reflecting it right back at the set. This is readily apparent to somebody who prefers the Japanese approach to "reality" to the American brand.

An awful lot of travel shows on Japanese television focus on traveling in Japan. And then there are the travel shows about going to foreign countries in order to find a Japanese person living there, an ongoing attempt to address the mystery of why any Japanese would choose to live anywhere but in Japan.

But note that the host and audience are always impressed, even awed, by these daring explorers of the World Outside Japan. They serve as proxies for the audience, not cautionary tales. It's not that complicated. All you have to do is stipulate a more introverted and nerdier population and it all makes sense.

They're doing it so we don't have to. For that, I thank them very much.

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