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Is Japanese Television a Tool for Establishing Social Order?

What role does the TV play in a country like Japan?

By 6 min read

The TV is a ubiquitous staple of living rooms across the globe. While our patterns of media consumption may be changing with the acquisition of smart devices and hi-resolution laptops, it’s hard to argue that as a physical item itself, the TV is universally embraced, particularly among families.

Living in Japan, the role of the TV is something I find particularly fascinating. Being in one’s home country, the inundation of television media can numb one to the actual peculiarity of the content provided. That is to say, as an American watching so many episodes of Law and Order, or Keeping Up with the Kardashians, I tend to glaze over the implications that these consumption patterns suggest about my own cultural identity.

With such cultural implications in mind, what role does the TV play in a country like Japan? In order to properly understand the current media climate in Japan, we first need to consider some data. I’m an American, so I’ll compare Japan’s television data with that from my own country.

Percentage of US households that own a TV: 96.7% [1]
Percentage of Japanese households that own a TV: 99.5% [2]

As a matter of fact, the percentage of households in the US with a TV has been declining slightly in recent years, but nonetheless, it appears that the TV is a necessity for the vast majority of households in both countries.

Over-the-air broadcast channels in the US: 5 major commercial networks (CBS, FOX, ABC, NBC, CW) + PBS and Spanish-language commercial networks
Over-the-air broadcast channels in Japan: 5 commercial networks (Fuji TV, Nippon TV, TBS, TV Tokyo, TV Asahi) + NHK

The number of over-the-air broadcast channels is more-or-less the same. Note that additional language networks and specific regional networks are also common in the US.

Percentage of households with cable in the US: 83% [3]
Percentage of households with cable in Japan: 46.1% [4]

This is the real surprise. Japan’s low rates of cable subscription means that the 99.5% of the population with a TV is stuck watching the 5-6 channels provided through over-the-air broadcasting.

Hours per weekday watching TV in US: 2.8 hours [5]
Hours per weekday watching TV in Japan: 2.8 hours [6]

Coincidentally, both countries watch the same amount of TV per day on average: 2.8 hours, or 168 minutes. A study survey by NHK in from 2000-2011 indicates that people in their twenties are watching around 2 hours daily, gradually increasing to approximately six hours by their seventies. Viewing habits in the US show a similar trend, though are also confounded by the presence of popular online-viewing platforms and new media consumption habits.

While the elderly presumably have more leisure time to watch TV, a separate survey of people in Japan between the ages of ten to sixty shows relatively consistent viewing of content, regardless of age. That is to say, Japanese people in their 20s appear to be watching many of the same programs as people in their 50s. The US presents a more complicated picture, given the high rate of cable subscribers. Though some of the most popular shows are viewed across age groups, a wide range of specialized programming tends to capture specific demographics.

This brings us to the most important question: what are people watching?

Most viewed TV shows in America (for week of May 4 2015):

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

Most viewed TV shows in Japan (for week of May 4 2015):

• 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)

Now that the data’s out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the nature of this popular programming.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the two nation’s popular TV programs is the focus on “reality” versus “fiction.” While the term “reality TV” is used to classify many shows in the US, it’s really an umbrella term to refer to shows that are not scripted in the traditional production sense—shows with a non-traditional set, no strict script, etc. These so-called reality shows are still, conceptually, removed from the actual reality of our everyday lives.

That notorious show from the early 2000s, Fear Factor, is technically a “reality” show, and yet, eating bugs and jumping off of buildings are stunts that none of us in America consider as part of our normal reality. So I would argue that the majority of programming in the US (including popular contemporary game shows like “Dancing with the Stars”) is highly fictional. These programs 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.

This is not the case with Japanese TV programming. Three of the top five TV shows fall into the “variety” category. For the uninitiated, variety shows look like this:

A rotating cast of TV personalities and celebrities partake in panel discussions about real topics of the day. If the typical water-cooler discussion in the US is about who got decapitated on Game of Thrones, than the Japanese ice-breaker is about one’s favorite TV personalities. 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 commonly 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” square embedded at the side of the screen.

If we accept my characterization of popular US television programming as a form of escapism, how would one go about characterizing Japan’s television content?

Not escapist, 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.

A pessimist might consider that the ubiquity of such content serves as a tool for widespread indoctrination. Whether this is an accurate conclusion, I will not attempt to debate. However, I do contend that the homogeneity of Japan’s population, which is 98.5% ethnically Japanese, is the driving force for this kind of programming. Without the cultural synergy created by diversity, homogenous cultural ideas are refined and concentrated, and the TV is the medium that projects these values onto the individual. The television is the catalyst for this cyclical process of cultural distillation.

References:

[1] NYT: Ownership of TV Sets Falls in U.S.

[2] TV Households, Percent all Households

[3] Only 7% of TV Households Rely on Over-the-Air Signals

[4] ケーブルテレビ業界レポート

[5] American Time Use Survey Summary

[6] 情報通信メディアの利用時間と情報行動に関する調査

[7] NYT: Ownership of TV Sets Falls in U.S.

[8] TV Households, Percent all Households

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  • Andrew says:

    I would argue that instead of the Japanese tv experiences being a “a framework for establishing social order” as you put, it’s more of a reflection of Japanese society and the progression it has undergone since the WWII reconstruction. When you stated that “the homogeneity of Japan’s population, which is 98.5% ethnically Japanese, is the driving force for this kind of programming” you’re suggesting that there should somehow be more diversity? You’re stating an obvious fact that Japanese culture is very ubiquitous and that is certainly reflected in the television program; not as a flaw in the social character of Japan, but as a by-product of people that dominate the population.

  • Malaz777 says:

    Hi Eric,

    Sometimes browser, first time commentor. I’m not sure how to say this without coming off as angry so I’ll just say it. What do you think television is? I’m suprised that you would give American (or any other counntry’s) television a pass and be so right on about Japanese t.v.
    Of course, television itself started out as a way to entertain and to sell. Nothing more, nothing less. However, it was the American government that first saw the potential of television to maintain a set of cultural bias and control the populus through subtle (or not so subtle) images and dialog. Consider the Americaan shows you just mentioned (and don’t forget to watch the advertising that appears during those shows) NCIS reenforces “American values” the same way that John Wayne or Rambo did.
    Another way to keep Americans both distracted and purchasing the “right products” is to keep them “worshiping the stars” (and of course, the mores have gradually changed from the veneration of mega-stars like Dean and Monroe to “you can be a star too!”) but the point is the same “don’t think too much…buy buy buy and be happy…Capitalism…the American way!”
    It’s the same in every country! The idea is called propoganda…I’m sure you’ve heard of it.

    Anyway, again, while I am angry…it has nothing to do with you. When someone speaks on this topic, I always chime in. In this case, you’ve spoken a 1/2 truth…so I felt I had to say something.
    Television IS cultural/political propoganda…no matter what country you live in.
    Stop watching t.v….throw it out the window. You’ll feel better!
    M
    Beijing

    • Barnaby Jones says:

      I completely agree about throwing out the TV no matter what country you’re in, but in Japan this ‘cultural propaganda’ thing seems to be much more conservative than in most western countries. Unless I have missed the Jon Stewart of Japan somehow? Japanese news doesn’t even show it when there’a a mass protest against nuclear energy.

  • soccerteesandplaydoh says:

    This was my planned dissertation topic — television as a tool for nation building and social programming. You’ve got the focus on Japanese-ness down, but the corollary (which you might not have mentioned due to space) is the construction of the Other (non-Japanese) as alternately threatening or exotic; with no emphasis on commonality. I hope you write more on this. It’s a totally fascinating topic. I found Durkheim and Gramsci to be the most useful theorists in this area.

  • kayumochi says:

    TV programming in the USA is getting better and worse at the same time because it is becoming more fragmented. Years ago a show like “Mad Men” (a piece of art really) would have been impossible and a show like “19 and Counting” (worst crap imaginable) would not have ever aired. American TV today, unlike during television’s Golden Age, no longer creates many shows that seek to capture the great white middle but instead seeks out a niche. Because TV viewing is so fragmented now in the United States there really aren’t anymore “epic TV events” like “Roots” anymore. Even programming like the Academy Awards and the Superbowl don’t have the viewership or cache they once had – there are simply too many alternatives now on both network and cable television … and there is the internet … and exclusive programming by Netflix and Amazon. Japan is way behind the curve in this regard. Those shows mentioned for the week of May 4 represent the last of programming that seeks to capture a large audience in the middle demographically. Japanese programmers, I suspect, are still able to do this quite easily but the choices offered by the internet will make this harder and harder in the years to come.

  • Rafael Balbuena says:

    Well written and well thought out.

  • papiGiulio says:

    Great in-depth article.

    Japanese television can sometimes be boring and repetitive. “Ohhhhh” “Kawaiiiiii” or the famous “Oishiiiiiiiii” can really get on my nerves sometimes. Watching a program where famous people eat delicious food would never work back home.

    On the other hand, Japan has a lot of informative shows, discussing things in daily life. Handling small obstacles. Showing Japanese people more of life abroad, I like that. And of course the comedy. The comedy is great. Huge fan of shoten.

    Another problem I have is the scripting of shows. Nothing is real. F.e. those ghosthouse hidden-camera shows are cr*p and then there is a show where they play hide and seek in a small village and pretend they can hide when there is an entire camera crew following them.

    Would be nice if quality of Japanese television and especially drama’s would go up a notch to lets say HBO quality. That would be fantastic.

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