Weird and Wonderful Japanese TV

International television- an interesting topic for me personally, especially in terms of Japan. The globalisation of Japanese Anime has been a phenomenon at least the last decade- but has truly exploded in the last three years. Why does animated Japanese drama garner such a strong western fascination and popularity? It’s all very well to say Tokyo Love Story from Japan’s Fuji TV is a parallel to America’s Friends- it common analysation of western/American presence in International television is has been discussed in length by many an academic… but how has a humble little country like Japan (ha) permeated American television culture? Although Japanese sensibilities, humor and wider themes are heavy-going in even the most simple of Japanese  anime- it still has a cultural resonance in western society. The list of anime-influenced television programs in American is extensive- Avatar- The Last Air Bender, Transformers, Astro Boy (2000s version) and Teen Titans to name a few.

Avatar, an American kids show is hugely influenced by Japanese Anime. It has an enormously large cult following even among adults.

Discussing anime seemed the most comfortable place for me to begin this discussion as I have experienced a large amount of Japanese television through the genre of anime for many years. When I was younger in particular I was a huge fan- beginning when I was younger with mainstream Japanese anime such as Pokemon or Sailor Moon and then from the departure of childhood more sophisticated Japanese television such as Death Note or Full Metal Alchemist. Experiencing Japanese anime has created both a sense of distance and closeness with Japanese culture for me. For a long time even the smallest of gestures in anime would confuse me. Characters for example would make a strange “tut tut” gesture with their hands that made so immediate sense to me. Only years later did I discover that is the Japanese gesture for beckoning someone- the western version of a hand beckon is considered a sexual invitation or “come on” in Japan.

The emphasis on eating in anime also struck me as odd and alienating at times. Characters and people in Japanese television and anime are always eating, they discuss eating at length, they make seemingly unnessecary remarks on the food as they eat it and before they eat it. At first I thought this was an odd quirk of the anime style- it was only upon visiting Japan this year that I discovered that food is an enormous part of Japanese culture. There are particular statements you must make before, during and after eating in order to express you are a polite eater. For example it is rude not to exclaim, “LET’S EAT” before eating in Japan, it is considered polite to make slurping noises when eating- it proves you are enjoying the meal. This latter behavior is considered rude in western culture… hence my confusion and sense of distance watching anime eating scenes would provoke in me.

At the same time while these cultural differences create a sense of distance for me- the ideals, values and themes in Japanese television (not just anime) are what thoroughly engage me and thousands of other fans. In Japan if there was one thing I engaged with on television it was the lack of inhibition. Japanese television has an atmosphere of dare, fun and imagination that western television can only dream of and attempt. Westerners have a familiarity and fondness of “crazy Japanese television” and it is not hard to see why. Although Japan is strong on sensibilities and manners their television is a world of total escapism and pure wackiness. Even their commercials…

-Seriously though…worth watching.

The values of Japanese television also hold big appeal and cultural resonance. Their love of high-stake romance make Romeo and Juliet look like child’s play, the intensity of their action shows and more violent programs make our “violent television” that recieves so much controversy look comical. Overt reference and images of death, rape and extremely violence are much more common on the Japanese television- as well as themes that are considered more sensitive in western culture such as incest, homosexuality, transgender people and more openly explored and treated with greater normality. The cultural experience of the more sheltered western viewer means the reception Japanese television receives is that of shock and fascination. There is no denying that the the allure and appeal of Japenese television is all to do with the comparatively outrageousness and shock value. When the novelty dies it becomes a deeper engagement in which the audience appreciates a culture far different from their own offering television viewing which has content that is just not present in their own television culture.

Screen shots from the Japanese show Ninja Scroll- although confrontational it is a huge success with both critics and views internationally.

The pleasure of viewing Japanese television comes thus largely from seeing the themes we crave (violence, drama, romance) blown up to huge proportions that would seem ridiculous in mainstream western television. Although I explored how watching Japanese sensibilities and customs on television created a sense of distance for me- it also gives me pleasure to watch something different from my own life. The foreignness of Japanese television is a huge and arguably central reason for its popularity. This being said- the history of my own viewing and others like me makes me more tolerant to Japanese television, of course. Although I personally cannot stomach the more violent and graphic content- when I do see it I am not surprised or outraged like I used to be- I have seen a large amount of Japanese television and have a fairly good understanding of Japanese culture in general.

Also tied up in my own viewing history is my disinterest in mainstream Australian television channels. I have never really watched much television- game shows, soap operas and Australian reality television embaressingly unfamiliar to me beyond what I read in the paper. This is due to a stronger interest in movies and having near-constant access to pay-tv where I can make more individually catered choices about what I want to watch. Due to my lack of experience with Australian television I did not have as many set expectations of what should and shouldn’t be on television when I started watching Japanese television as a young teenager. I expect a slightly older Australian who follows the Channel 7 and has little to no experience with different cultural television experiences would receive Japanese television with more shock, confusion, fascination, outrage and even interest than I do.

Contemplating the cultural differences of western and eastern television is a fascinating trail of thought… does cultural distance create a stronger sense of engagement with foreign television or just create a sense of alienation. As already stated- for me it is the former. Yet one cannot help but think that to get a dose of culture shock that is experienced when travelling, one need only look beyond their own television.

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