How has TV in Japan attempted to provide the foundations for an inclusive society? How have the controversial issues been dealt with? At first glance, Japanese television seems something of a paradox. If not direct conflict to, it seems to reflect little of the dignified nature of Japanese culture and society, yet it is vital to contemporary Japanese life. The average household in Japan watches between seven and a half to eight hours of television per day, and has more than one set1.
Japanese viewers have been captured by a medium that has been designed to hold their attention through culture, ideology and a quasi-intimate interaction between the TV presenters and their audience. Such relationships are formed by a depiction of uniformity, solidarity, spontaneity or; combinations of the three. Though not an assurance of success, the most popular programs will follow such a recipe. 2 A prime example is the Japanese news program. With a focus on domestic issues, with weather reports and/or human-interest segments from the various regions of Japan with a brief description of world events following.
Such actions seemingly portray the Japanese nation as one, whilst emphasizing the distance of that which is foreign. Regional segments as in the case of the Nihon News Network’s ‘Zoom-in Morning’; will have field reporters stationed in the majority of the more substantial cities of Japan. Each is given less than thirty seconds to wish the audience and presumptuously, the rest of Japan, a good morning, and perhaps describe the weather or surroundings where they are pictured. This is meritorious only from an entertainment perspective as the viewer, other than perhaps a notion of national unity gains little of any informative value3.
Such broadcasts, when juxtaposed next to those, all be it rare ones from major foreign cities, further illustrate the idea of “sotu” or outside. 4 The reporter will most likely be flanked by Japanese ex-patriots holding placards printed with messages for their relatives back home in Japan. This implies that al Japanese people are organically linked to the archipelago and thus, the viewer. The appeal here is the notion of “uchi” or Japanese unity as a nationality. Such unity can also be created by the Japanese wide shows.
A loose western equivalent would be the pre-noon breakfast shows, where two or more presenters introduce a range of guests who show case their talents for the audiences entertainment. Except the Japanese equivalent, for the most part seems more malicious; often pitting guest against guest in return for the chance to win mundane prizes. The most prominent example is ‘London Boots’ which has two friends; often local celebrities, singers or models, talk about each other behind the other back and then films the reactions as each learns what the other has said.
The option is given to each individual if they wish to remain together or separate. If their decision matches the opinion of the studio audience, they can win the prize of the day5. Perhaps one of the least obvious domestic augmentary influences of Japan’s inclusive society, is the Japanese food talk show. Broadcast in every time slot, in every season, by every channel; food shows are seemingly more affable than other commercial fodder such as dramas or music shows6. Arguably more popular and advocate a more substantial mix of Japanese social history, ordinary life and cultural values.
7 Many of the shows focus on traditional Japanese cuisine and cultural morality, giving their audience an new sense of customs and history from a particular Japanese region. Often these may be juxtaposed against food and practices of a overseas country, ostensibly for the purpose of introducing some notion of a lifestyle and a people previously unfamiliar. Yet, on the whole, any discussion of Japanese food, or nihonjinron, verges on a form of “cultural nationalism” with a focus on the inherent superiority and uniqueness of the Japanese culture. 8.
Such discussion is often accompanied with the atmosphere of competition, where two or more teams battle and impart notions of aesthetics, planning, class values and a consumption ethic, with their actions on screen. A prevalent example is SMAP bistro. SMAP is the most popular and longest running Japanese equivalent of a western ‘boy band’ – but tending comparisons more to the 1960’s sitcom, ‘The Monkees’, rather than present day idols. At least one of the members of SMAP can be found on one of the channels in Japan every day, performing hilarious mischief, being interviewed or doing a cameo performance.
They also have their own show, ‘Bistro SMAP’; where by Nakai-kun, the leader invites a beautiful female to be a guest on their show, and asks what her favorite food is. The other four members of the group pair off and begin preparing her meal in the background, while Nakai-kun engages the guest in small talk about her career, home life and future plans, until each side has finished. Close attention is paid, as she tastes each of the meals, with her reaction to the food and the subsequent emotional response of the cooks being filmed.
This contrasts sharply with when each team eats the others food with little decorum, giving the impression that they are not as important as the guest. They are more like the everyday ‘boy next door’ rather than the immensely popular pop idols with recording and product endorsement contracts. 9 After a strategic commercial break, the judge’s decision is given, whereby the winners are elated and the losers are inconsolable. The victors each receive a kiss in the cheek or hand from the guest, and a iconic pair of red lips which they add to the side of their chefs hat, like war medals.
After a season, the number of lips each member has are tallied and a prize given to the one with the most ‘kisses’. The show uses food to promote planning, aesthetics and most notably a consumption ethic, by implying that food sires sexuality and in turn, material success. 10 Other cooking shows, still framed by notions of challenge, offer different messages, although with the same theme. ‘Douchi no ryori shiou’ (Which one? Cooking show) is a competition between rivals to win the favor of a external judge or judges; but speaks of procedure and tries to validate Japanese culinary instincts and traditional ideas.
This is done by pitting a foreign dish against a domestic favorite; the outcome of which reflects the Japanese notion of ‘sticking with familiarity’, despite the best efforts of Globalisation. 11 Japanese food si pronounced as distinct, special, irreplaceable and unbeatable, which sets the scene for Japanese advertisers. On all but two public stations, commercials are used to heighten tension or highlight the major theme of the show, even more than stations in other nations. They are timed to usually be just before a crucial decision, climax of a story or final points tally.
As a large percentage of the commercials are for foodstuffs, their relationship with the cooking shows enables the cultural industry and national economy to continue to grow. 12 Thus, the vast majority of Japanese television shows are designed to appeal to the greatest number of viewers. It has done its best to unify the Japanese people. Most everyone likes to know the domestic news, laugh, eat, watch their heroes on TV, and be reassured that they are part of a Japanese nation that is familiar and superior to that which is foreign and outside.
Thus, the screening of ‘Dosokai’ or ‘Reunion’; would seem like a strange idea. ‘Dosokai’ was a soap opera, which showed in fairly graphic detail the sordid details of the gay subculture of the nation, which would in theory, alienate many viewers not comfortable or familiar with homosexuality and was seemingly not in keeping with existing Japanese practices or advertising economics. 13 Yet, as there is no active legal discrimination against homosexuality in Japan, one could argue that the social view prior to the 1993 season of “Dosokai”, seemed to be very much “out of sight, out of mind.
” Public discussion of gay life in Japan was non-existent; homosexual rights movements were invisible and ineffectual and men were expected to and still do marry women whether hetro or homosexual. 14 Yet, Japan has a long literary tradition of tacit acceptance of homosexuality; stretching well back past the Tokugawa period to the time of the Empress Jingu (201-269AD), and a highly visible and active gay subculture furnished with bars, cinemas specifically catering for gay clientele. It was this gay subculture that “Reunion” sought to bring to the forefront of Japanese mainstream television.
The gay subculture and its vibrancy and vitality was presented in an evening soap drama, that had story lines of men engaging in simulated same sex practices and full length shots of naked men showering, as well as touching upon the complexities and traditions of the gay lifestyle. It showed the importance of the Japanese gay bar and bar ‘Master’, the later who would not only fulfill the accepted western notion of a ‘sympathetic ear’ for the patron, but would also be obligated to instigate conversation between any of his clients. 15.
It was this presentation as legitimizing a tradition that may have helped quell any inimical response from the viewing public. Whilst there was no huge public outcry, there was no unified positive response either. “Dosokai” and others like it have only brought ancient Japanese controversies to the attention of the mainstream. Acceptance of any homosexual culture will depend on the social conditions of when it was viewed, and in this case economic instability and social uncertainties led many Japanese to re-examine loyalties to families, employers and customs.
As in the American Civil Rights scenario of the early 1960’s, changing loyalties, beliefs and increased willingness to understand differences allowed the marginalized to emerge with a greater confidence. It is this introspection that may be the greatest catalyst for change. 16 Thus, Japanese television seeks to create an association between the Japanese people as a whole, attempting to exclude only those that the population would find most obviously foreign – those who live in a different country, eat different food sound and look different.
By portraying the Japanese nation as a whole with a superior culture and customs to which her people are organically linked, they unify the nation and therefore their audience. 1 Andrew Painter ‘Japanese Daytime Television, Popular Culture, and Ideology in Treat (ed) Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture, Uni Hawaii Press, 1996, p. 198. 2 ibid. ,p. 197. 3 ibid. ,p. 200. 4 ibid. ,p. 203. 5.
Todd Holden, ‘Resignification and Cultural Re/Production in Japaese Television Commercials’, M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture, 04/02/01, available at: http://moby. curtin. edu.au/~ausstud/mc/0104/japtele1. html 6 Todd Holden, ‘And now for the main (Dis)course… : Or, Food as Entri?? e in Contemporary Japanese Television’, 02/02/99, available at:http://www. media-culture. org. au/9910/entri?? e. html, p. 1. 7 Holden, And now for, p. 1. 8 Holden, And now for, p. 1. 9 Holden, And now for, p. 1. 10 Holden, And now for, p. 2. 11 Holden, And now for, p. 3. 12 Holden, Resignification and Cultural, p. 5. 13 Stephen Miller ‘The Reunion of History and Popular Culture: Japan “Comes Out” on TV’, Journal of Popular Culture, vol 31. 2 Fall 1997, p. 162.