A Look at Some Popular Japanese TV Shows

by Donna David

If you’ve searched for Japanese TV shows on Youtube, you’d be inclined to think that the only things that you can watch in Japan are over-the-top game shows, questionable NSFW programs, or just plain silly pranks that are tear-inducingly hilarious. Comedic programs are popular in Japan, but there are other genres that dominate Japanese TV. Let’s take a look at some of these.

Popular Japanese TV Quiz Shows

The Japanese LOVE TV quiz shows. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill, answer-the-question-and-win-a-prize kind of thing, there are sub-genres to this genre. One is the typical viewer-participation type of show wherein viewers could apply to join and win prizes. This hasn’t been popular in recent years compared to a few decades ago, mainly because producers have come to realize that celebrities as contestants attract more viewers.

Another is the educational kind of quiz show that deals with history and culture – the type of show that you can watch with your kids. An example of this is the long-running “Sekai Fushigi Hakken” or “Mystifying Discoveries of the World” which is in its 27th year. A female reporter goes around the world in search of new things and instead of presenting a straightforward report, asks questions about her discoveries that the studio panel answers by choosing from a number of possible answers. This was one of the first programs I’ve ever watched in Japan, and it made me want to learn Japanese more just so I could understand the question.

Sekai Fushigi Hakken or Mystifying Discoveries of the World
“Sekai Fushigi Hakken” or “Mystifying Discoveries of the World” 

The stage and set of Sekai Fushigi Hakken
The stage and set of Sekai Fushigi Hakken

There are trivia TV shows, shows that test your IQ, and shows that are mainly talk shows but with quizzes thrown in like “Sanma no Super Karakuri TV” or “Sanma’s Super Gimmick TV”. In this popular show, the answer is first shown to the studio audience and to the comedian-host Sanma. A panel of guests then tries to figure out the answer by watching the reactions of the host and the audience. The host also gives out hints and all throughout banters with the panel. More than a thrilling quiz show, the focus is on laughing at the panel’s funny stories.

The popular Japanese TV show Sanma no Super Karakuri TV
The popular Japanese TV show “Sanma no Super Karakuri TV”

Popular Japanese TV “Dramas” / Popular Japanese TV Series

Neither soap nor sitcom, dramas are weekly shows that are aired during primetime. These shows mainly cater to young, salaried employees, so the themes are usually about love and “pure love” (a drama sub-category in itself that deals with platonic love or unconditional love, or the I-will-die-for-you kind of love). Shows with the workplace as a setting are popular too, hence the proliferation in recent years of “doctor” dramas, “flight attendant” dramas and so forth. Stars of these shows are usually the hottest young actors and actresses of the day. These shows also gauge a star’s popularity – the most popular actors and actresses star in dramas every year. An interesting tidbit is that these are not multi-season programs, storylines end within one season. However, if the show’s ratings shoot through the roof, a second season is aired the next year, or even a few years later.

Popular Japanese TV Food Shows

Aside from the typical instructional cooking shows, food shows abound in Japanese TV. This reflects the Japanese obsession with food – for the sixth straight year this year, Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world. Japanese people love eating food, but they also love watching shows about it.

Kuishinbou Banzai! is a mini-program lasting just 5 minutes, but has been on the air since 1974. Sponsored by Kikkoman Soy Sauce, it has a male reporter (usually a famous actor) traveling all over Japan sampling acclaimed local dishes.

Even within other programs, there are segments about the latest restaurants, the newest desserts, newly launched snacks, and drinks, and cooking techniques and games. SMAP SMAP, a program starring the most famous boy band in Japan called SMAP, has a fun segment wherein the SMAP boys “run” a restaurant. It features a celebrity guest giving the boys an ingredient for the boys to cook with. The boys are divided into two teams, and the guest chooses which team wins. The team receives a prize, usually something owned by the celebrity guest. Brad Pitt, Quentin Tarantino, Cameron Diaz, Will Smith, Richard Gere, Nicholas Cage, Whoopi Goldberg, and Matt Damon have all been “guests” before. For the prize, Matt gave a bag used by his character “Jason Bourne”.

The popular TV show SMAP SMAP with Matt Damon
The popular TV show SMAP SMAP. Guests include celebrities such as Matt Damon as seen here presenting a bag used by his movie character Jason Bourne.

As you can see, there aren’t as many “serious” shows like investigative programs and documentaries. My theory is that when Japanese people get home, they don’t want to think, they just want to unwind because Japanese society is a formal society, with strict norms on how you talk and behave outside the house. There are many spoken and unspoken rules that you have to follow in school and at work. Being hyper-aware of the people around you and how you act the whole day means that when you’re finally home, you just need to collapse in a heap in front of your TV and watch something fun or silly.

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