I Survived American TV

I Survived American TV

Let’s say an enterprising Romanian television network wanted to make a “reality show” in the American mold. For authenticity’s sake, Executive Producer Bogoescu and his team travel to the United States, where they work with a few lower-level TV hands. Although they base the central concept on ideas gleaned from American TV, their production ultimately aims to exaggerate the “reality show” experience to the point of absurd parody, where half the appeal is poking fun at the “conventions” of American TV and the other half is “playing around” within someone else’s television morality. I mean, Romanian networks would never do such terrible things to their cast members. To reinforce the “otherness” of the material, every backdrop of the Romanian show would be made up of Stars-and-Stripes and a rousing Sousa march would provide the opening theme. The audience would have Uncle Sam stovepipe hats and fake guns to shoot in the air. With no real American celebrities willing to host such a two-bit fiasco, the production team would have to bring in a few Romanian-American ringers to act like “real American hosts.” The final product — American Reality Show: I Want to Learn to Torture Terror Suspects and Eat Big Steaks — would retain some elements of North American reality shows, but would be, honestly speaking, a completely Romanian creation.

This “hypothetical situation” is not some strange post-Borat fantasy: this completely explains what American TV network ABC did to make its new reality/game show I Survived a Japanese Game Show (or which the Japanese of the title cryptically explains as 「ム番組を生還したぞ」— mu?). ABC producers went all the way to Japan to make their own TV program, vaguely based on silly segments from Japanese variety shows. And after completely rewiring the original program formula to fit their own needs, the producers had the gall to blame the final product on the Japanese. “I survived a Japanese game show“? This is like placing the onus of Guantanamo Bay on the Cubans. American rented the space, borrowed the know-how, and made it all happen, but in the end, the Americans maintain: hey, we were just “following orders” to this crazy Japanese aesthetic.

The national propaganda effort fortunately backs up their premise. According to the New York Times, “The Japanese originals [on which the show is based] are known as batsu games, or punishment and humiliation games.” There is either fundamental confusion or willful truth-bending here: Japanese “game shows” tend to punish talento (celebrities or aspiring celebrities), and for the most part, extremely-unfunny comedians. While game shows in the past have sadistically meted out punishment to normal contestants, this has become relatively rare in recent days. Yes, even the Japanese race thinks it’s kind of sad and depressing to see everyday people humiliated on television. Now in the case of the fame-lusting, money-grubbing reality show contestants on I Survived a Japanese Game Show, such punishment would be justified, but the premise of the ABC show is that “Japanese game shows punish contestants in terrible ways.”

But does Japan even have “game shows” in the Price is Right or Jeopardy vein? Comparing “polite American behavior towards guests” on prize-focused game shows and then “terrible Japanese treatment of C-list stars” on variety shows isn’t exactly fair. Like, Did you know that Japanese people wear all black to weddings? Weddings, funerals — same thing, right?

There may be a silver lining of “cultural exchange” — the idea that Japanese TV is making inroads within the United States. Although Japan has many superior products and life concepts for export, TV is not one of them. The recent U.S. interest in Japanese TV can only be explained in context of North American’s unrivaled entertainment cornucopia. These crazy shows fit in the never-ending quest for more diversity. But is the concept of “doling out retribution for unsuccessful completion of ridiculous task” going to completely replace Lost or The Wire? American TV is definitely “Japanizing” to a certain degree but I am not sure that’s a particularly progressive direction. Of course, when prompted, American network execs can just blame their lowering of standards on the Japanese.

Bonus Complaint:

The commercials for I Survived a Japanese Game Show use The Vapors’ song “Turning Japanese.” Two problems:

1) That “oriental melody” at the beginning of the song is Chinese. Or at least, every Japanese person understands it as Chinese.
2) “Turning Japanese” is essentially a racist euphemism for masturbation. Stop using this song as a way to signal “Japan.” This is like using Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” as a theme song for Tootsie Roll Pops, but way more offensive.

W. David MARX
June 30, 2008

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

41 Responses

  1. M-Bone Says:

    `But does Japan even have “game shows” in the Price is Right or Jeopardy vein?`

    They do something like that at the end of Shinkonsan Irashai and there have been a few past examples.

    This essay is fantastic. You should try to get it placed with a magazine or news outlet. I`m very tired of gameshows being used as the primary American window into the Japanese mind – the producers of `I Survived` have recently busted it all out in an AP interview – `Japan is a static group society with no individuality so when they get on those gameshows….`

  2. Wilford Says:

    I’ve already written about that show, but I think I like your take better. http://wbwolf.livejournal.com/373529.html

  3. W. David MARX Says:

    They do something like that at the end of Shinkonsan Irashai and there have been a few past examples.

    Okay, but it’s not exactly a stable, constant genre on Japanese TV. Most “quiz” shows use celebrities.

  4. jg Says:

    While game shows in the past have sadistically meted out punishment to normal contestants, this has become relatively rare in recent days. Yes, even the Japanese race thinks it’s kind of sad and depressing to see everyday people humiliated on television.

    The reason is at least one everyday person has been killed in the process.

    2) “Turning Japanese” is essentially a racist euphemism for masturbation. Stop using this song as a way to signal “Japan.” This is like using Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” as a theme song for Tootsie Roll Pops, but way more offensive.

    Most people don’t know “scumbag” refers to a used condom, but it’s too late now…

  5. Gen Kanai Says:

    Great critique.

    It will be interesting to see how the Tunnels “real Tetris” will be re-done outside of Japan. Wasn’t Tetris originally Russian?

    http://tvdecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/24/human-tetris-becomes-hole-in-the-wall/

  6. M-Bone Says:

    `The reason is at least one everyday person has been killed in the process.`

    Wasn`t that in some kind of muscle competition accident, not a batsu game?

  7. jg Says:

    Wasn`t that in some kind of muscle competition accident, not a batsu game?

    I don’t know about that one, but while this case wasn’t exactly a batsu game, it was a game show with the same kind of “wacky” physical entertainment:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wong_Ka_Kui

    And he wasn’t an “everyday person,” but very famous in HK.

    There have been other accidents as well if you search. This was one reason for the decline, not because audiences have “grown up”.

  8. Aceface Says:

    It was actually one of those “variety”shows featuring the comedy duo “Ucchan,Nannchan”.

  9. jg Says:

    Whether it’s the whole show or a segment of a variety show, we’re talking about humiliation/potential danger, no?

    http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%83%90%E3%83%A9%E3%82%A8%E3%83%86%E3%82%A3%E7%95%AA%E7%B5%84#.E7.89.B9.E5.AE.9A.E3.81.AE.E4.BA.BA.E7.89.A9.E3.82.92.E8.B2.B6.E3.82.81.E3.81.9F.E3.82.8A.E5.8D.B1.E9.99.BA.E3.81.AA.E8.A1.8C.E7.82.BA.E3.81.A7.E7.AC.91.E3.81.84.E3.82.92.E3.81.A8.E3.82.8B

    There used to be a funny quiz show where they asked senior citizens the meaning of the latest 流行語.

  10. Rob Says:

    Good write up. I was actually looking forward to the show, hoping that it would be a ‘true’ Japanese show, subtitled, in which an American would participate.
    Unfortunately, like you pointed out very well, it’s an over-produced-‘lets-make-it-a-reality-show’ US style disaster.

    Rob.

  11. j echo Says:

    The new discourse of “weird Japan” has been brewing for quite a bit. Do you remember the old SNL sketch of the Japanese Game Show? No dialogue but exaggerated “Japanese” sounding gibberish punctuated by a lot of “HAI”s. And I believe losers had fingers chopped off or were killed.

  12. j echo Says:

    My bad – it was “real” Japanese but almost incomprehensible.

    http://www.doubleviking.com/videos/tag/japanese%20tv/page0.html/7478.html

  13. wildarmsheero Says:

    HOLY
    SUSHI

    Dear god.

  14. Bill Says:

    I’ve always heard the lead singer/songwriter deny that “Turning Japanese” was about masturbation, and that it was, in fact, simply a reference to the fact that he wanted to take a lot of pictures of his love.

  15. W. David MARX Says:

    Lyrics

    Sounds like a song about a guy masturbating in a jail cell / lonely room. The action is him “looking at a picture and having nothing else to do” – not taking a bunch of pictures. He also wants a doctor to take dirty pictures of her.

    But he’s not going to be like, oh yeah, the song’s about masturbation, because then they wouldn’t use it for Japanese-themed TV and he’d make no royalties.

  16. W. David MARX Says:

    `Japan is a static group society with no individuality so when they get on those gameshows….

    There is all this armchair psychology about the Japanese people based on their “participation on game shows” BASED ON THE FLAWED PREMISE that these segments come from “game show” where normal everday people are contestants.

  17. daniel Says:

    “There is either fundamental confusion or willful truth-bending here: Japanese “game shows” tend to punish talento (celebrities or aspiring celebrities), and for the most part, extremely-unfunny comedians.”

    So which category would you put Gaki no tsukai in? Their New Years’ Waratte wa ikenai batsu games are hilarious.

  18. Durf Says:

    — But does Japan even have “game shows” in the Price is Right or Jeopardy vein?

    Attack chance!
    http://asahi.co.jp/attack25/
    One of the few I know that has noncelebrities in the contestants’ seats.

  19. W. David MARX Says:

    That doesn’t strike me as a humiliating “batsu” game.

  20. WizarDru Says:

    Actually, “Turning Japanese” was NOT a euphamism for masturbation…at least not until AFTER the song. I’d wager it generally isn’t, even now. This was the first time I’d heard of it in that light.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turning_Japanese

  21. Bill Says:

    I had missed the “cell” reference before (thinking he was saying “myself”), but I still think it’s more about his obsession with, apparently a model.

    As for the reference to the Doctor, I always thought that by saying “so I can look at you from inside as well” that he’s talking about an X-Ray.

    So, yes, song about an obsessive fan who’s in jail. Reference to the Japanese being chronic masturbators? I don’t buy it.

  22. W. David MARX Says:

    No, no, “turning Japanese” is not about the “Japanese being chronic masturbators.” The “Japanese” part is about the “way the face looks upon orgasm.” Even more offensive than just the Japanese being chronic masturbators.

  23. Bill Says:

    Okay, but I still say this is something made up afterwards, like Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon matching up.

  24. Link Blitz « Imbroglio Says:

    […] 4a. Japanese Game Show http://neojaponisme.com/2008/06/30/i-survived-american-tv/ […]

  25. anon Says:

    This has been a complaint (however anal) about youtube videos of “Japanese gameshows” I’ve had for a long time so thanks for bringing it out.

    I still like watching them.

    Also, they’re recruiting for the “human tetris” show recently, another one of these series where the contestants are all celebrities.

  26. anon Says:

    I’m not quite sure when you stop reading comments or move on to the next thing but as a tangent, the newest David Sedaris book contains excerpts on him trying to quit smoking and him moving to Japan to do so.

    No idea why, but just thought it’d be interesting for you all to read in the context of this discussion.

  27. Willis Says:

    Just the other day, I was explaining to my wife how this show is just a slap in the face to the Japanese.Either way, I was telling her how its all staged and there just more or less making a mockery of Japan and its cultural differences. Be it “game show” or food or clothing. I found it very distasteful, maybe Im being prude here, but I have a fascination with Japan and from reading books, to watching movies to hopefully traveling there soon, to me it just wasnt any good plain and simple.

  28. Aceface Says:

    Tell you what.
    I’m not being offended at all with both the program and the song.And you all know that I’m a hot headed nationalist.

    I think everyone is overreacting with this.

  29. W. David MARX Says:

    But Aceface, this show is causing a 100% increase in game-related crimes to Japanese women! We must protest this show in order to restore the dignity of this nation!

  30. M-Bone Says:

    `I think everyone is overreacting with this.`

    Maybe, however, this show has basically damned me to being asked about Japanese gameshows at every party, in every class, etc. and having to give the same longass description of what Japanese TV is `really like` and having people come back with `Well, what about that gameshow that Mike Meyers was on?`

    You also don`t have to hear aunts and second cousins make the same `Turning Japanese` joke every time that I describe my career choice…. The only comment that I like less is `No matter how much you know about Japan, they`ll never accept you as one of them you know.` (as if that was the point….)

  31. Aceface Says:

    “But Aceface, this show is causing a 100% increase in game-related crimes to Japanese women! ”

    Let those women be attacked by bunch of gaijins!They asked for it!

    I have an idea on WaiWai,because it happened on my turf.(and I could’ve been working for Mainichi in ’94. Sometimes I wake up in cold sweat,dreaming about posted to do WaiWai…And now it makes me feel good that some of my post on this blog had been quoted by blogger Mozu that had started an avalanche.)

    M-Bone:
    You are not born to be a Japanese,you BECOME one!

    So far your assimilation process seems working well.

  32. M-Bone Says:

    In the above post, Aceface manages to channel both Carol Gluck and Kobayashi Yoshinori. I don`t think that has ever been done before.

    `You are not born to be a Japanese,you BECOME one!`

    True.

    `So far your assimilation process seems working well.`

    Maybe, but I certainly didn`t get used to the pace of life in Japan in order to impress people back home with my `Japaneseness`. In any case, I don`t like natto so that will be an eternal strike against me.

    Funny to think of it, but if I had been born in Japan I`d probably be doing research on American movies.

  33. Suzanne Says:

    Hello. I found your post from a Google search. I watched the latest episode to air in the US last night, after seeing the premiere but missing last week’s. I absolutely love this show. When I watch it I see a bunch of clueless Americans who, unfortunately, have no appreciation for the experience they’re being given. When the reward was a trip to the fish market, all I could wonder was why no one was saying, “Ooo! Sushi!” Learning how to plant rice the traditional Japanese way? Awesome, considering I drive by machine planted and artificially flooded rice feeds every day. And my impression of the Japanese portrayed on the show? I think, “You must be kidding that it’s an actual studio audience when most of them look so weird it must be on purpose.” I’m embarrassed by the lack of respect the contestants gave to the traditional green tea ceremony. ABC also has another show called “Wipeout” that is a pathetic knock-off of the obstacle courses in “Ninja Warrior”. It’s painful to watch average people, not athletes, attempt these courses. In short, I’m not falling for ABC’s Japanese exploitation wholesale – I just see it as more proof that Americans, myself included, are clueless to the world around them.

  34. mozu Says:

    >And you all know that I’m a hot headed nationalist.

    It’s this “bad place”(i.d. Japan) that urges me to roleplay a nationalist in English, although I sometimes wonder if I am a real nationalist. Aceface, you would be a liberal internationalist if you were an American, I believe.

    >Marxy
    I don’t care about this show at all. I would be annoyed If NTV or TBS produced it, but I would not criticise it like Mainichi in my blog. I think most of Japanese would not be so offended by this show.

  35. Aceface Says:

    Well,becoming “a liberal internationalist”in America seems almost to easy for me I guess.
    Check this program from Australia.
    http://jp.youtube.com/watch?v=fJuNgBkloFE&eurl=http://d.hatena.ne.jp/TomoMachi/
    It seems only few had survived this Aussie TV…..

  36. Zea Says:

    I do agree with this complaint as a whole, and find theshpw to be ludicrous, the Vapor’s Turning japanese, is not about masturbation, rather it is about loosing someone you are in love. This way turning Japanese, while still a racial epitat, refer to squinting eyes that occur when one cries.

  37. W. David MARX Says:

    This way turning Japanese, while still a racial epitat, refer to squinting eyes that occur when one cries.

    Okay, so less puerile, equally racist.

  38. primal convoy in Japan Says:

    I have to admit thought a few things:

    1/ Japanese TV does exactly the same, perhaps even more so. For example, there was a famous case where Africans were invited onto a show and told to wear national dress and eat dinner with big knives, so the Japanese panel and audience could laugh at the “backwards foreigners/blacks who eat Japanese food with silly big primitive weapons! ha ha so berri fun!”

    2/ Shows like “Game-Show” can essentially be used to show Japanese people that Japan isn’t exactly considered no.1 and that they should then consider how foreigners are portrayed as such in their shows. Quite often, I come across Japanese who have never considered that their own country is as full of the many problems that are openly discussed and ridiculed in other countries. In fact, some Japanese have reverted to post-WW2 “victim mentality”, when faced with a TV show like this, which is silly.

    3/ The REAL crime with this show is thta it is merely a glossy and less amusing rip-off of the UK show “Banzai” (aka: “The Super Banzai TV Show”), which also, in the US at least, received more than its fair share of criticism.

  39. primal convoy in Japan Says:

    PS:

    Its worth noting here that, in relation to my previous post, Japanese TV pretty much controlled by the government. Considered “soft facism” by some, the government or related parties (ultranationalists, conservatives etc) can effectively ban or limit the spread of films like “Yasakuni”, the books “The Rape of Nanking” and “Princess Masako” (both for a while, if not now, not available to read in Japan in Japanese), ban the “Chimpokomon” episode of Southpark (from both TV AND the DVD sets), ban the “30 Minutes over Tokyo” episode of the simpsons etc.

    To cap that, although many major networks have had to deal with copyright problems with youtube et al, none have been as aggressive in their opposition than the Japanese TV networks, who baned together to petition youtube. These companies were not only legally defending their own material (which is fair and just), but also, according to some sources, trying to prevent non-Japanese/outsiders from seeing everyday Japanese TV and thus the good bad and ugly.

    In fact, NHK routinely refuses to share its vast public library of stock footage with other news/media around the world, which is in stark contrast to the likes of the BBC, CNN, etc. All this is due to NHK’s desire to appease its governmental masters and/or the Emperor and show them only in the best possible light (no matter how convoluted).

    Thus, one could argue that it is very difficult, with no local media to question or lampoon anything “Japanese”, for Japanese to understand that their gilded cage isnt as perfect as they are led to believe.

  40. M-Bone Says:

    I think that Primal Convoy is a good case study for our discussion on the 2ch and Aussie stuff. S/he thinks that the media of the `West` has been slighted by the critique of “I survived…” and feels the need to attack Japan using poorly evidenced conspiracy theory.

  41. Aceface Says:

    “the government or related parties (ultranationalists, conservatives etc) can effectively ban or limit the spread of films like “Yasakuni”, the books “The Rape of Nanking” and “Princess Masako” (both for a while, if not now, not available to read in Japan in Japanese), ban the “Chimpokomon” episode of Southpark (from both TV AND the DVD sets), ban the “30 Minutes over Tokyo” episode of the simpsons etc. ”

    First off,”Yasukuni” WAS FILMED WITH THE FUNDS from the subsidiary of Agency of Cultural Affairs.Yes,it was filmed partially from the money from Japanese tax payers.

    Secondly, “The Rape of Nanking” and “Princess Masako” both can be read in Japanese.
    As for “The Rape of Nanking”,Iris Chang refused the citation of basic factual errors(there were lots in the book,actually) by the publisher,Kashiwa Shobo.she thinks KS trying to white wash her work because of “pressure from the right wing”which is highly imaginary,since KS has been publishing many works on Japanese war crimes for decades.
    And as for “Princess Masako”,Kodansha did chose to drop publishing it,but the book eventually got new contract with publisher,Daisan-Shokan.
    Anyway,I found the book very unreliable.
    I think debito is the last person to defend Japan in such case.But here it is.
    http://www.debito.org/?p=112

    And ofcourse Ben Hills feels being “threatened” by anonimous e-mails that are clearly against his “Oriental Charles and Diana story”
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/08/22/2011521.htm

    “In fact, NHK routinely refuses to share its vast public library of stock footage with other news/media around the world which is in stark contrast to the likes of the BBC, CNN, etc.”

    Somehow,I don’t think this is true.
    NHK has contract with sharing footage with ABC(of the U.S),France 2,KBS(of Korea) CCTV,Aljazeera et al.But not with BBC and CNN.