Growing up in the United States, I had little contact with Japan beyond the sweetly nostalgic films of Hayao Miyazaki. My image of Japan was a lush green land where children bravely adventured in the company of gentle monsters.
When I moved to Japan, my Japanese cultural education via movies and television intensified. Now I had easy access to Japanese broadcast television. Admittedly such media portrayals can wildly distort the truth. That is what I tried to tell my Japanese lab mate, who owned all four seasons of “Prison Break.” No in American everyone is not gruff-voiced, gun-slinging, and heavily-muscled.
While movies and television certainly do not tell the whole story about a country, I did learn a quite few things from Japanese TV about Japan.
1. It is important to harmonize with the group.
In U.S., the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.” In Japan, the “nail that sticks out gets pounded down.” Japanese culture emphasizes fitting in and not standing out from the group (while people in the U.S. are praised for being unique). I learned how to fit into the group and harmonize my reactions with the people around me, while watching television. Many Japanese shows use the “picture-in-picture” technique with a small box in the corner with the face of a celebrity guest watching the same content you are watching.
Here’s an example. See the guy in the corner with the pink background?
The nodding/smiling/laughing/shocked/sad face serves as a visual cue to help the audience appreciate (in a proper way) the content being shown. When I barely spoke Japanese, I used the reaction of the guests to synchronize my reaction with my friends watching the same show (even though I had no idea what was going on). Some expats find the inset reaction shots infuriating and overbearing. I would suggest the phenomenon is similar to laugh tracks in American comedy shows… only with greater detail and nuance, which underscores the importance of group synchrony and harmony in Japanese culture.
2. Reliable and low tech is preferred.
One thing that surprised me watching Japanese television was the low-tech nature of the television shows, especially news programs. I was accustomed to slick video displays on American television with swooshing text and interactive graphics. In Japan, hosts commonly present material by holding up a physical board printed with information. Or sometimes a staff member dressed all in black will wheel out a large board printed with material and the host will point at it with a wooden stick. (As an aside – I wonder if the staff dressed in black is a reference to traditional Japanese bunraku puppetry where the puppet masters wear black, sometimes even covering their faces.) To make the printed board more dynamic, bits of tape are placed over important information. The host will then peel off the tape to reveal the information underneath. Like – “The hottest city in Japan this summer was….. (peeling) ….Shimanto!” Why bother with this low-tech and seemingly outdated presentation style? As a culture, Japan prizes reliability and predictability, while avoiding uncertainty. I have never seen a paper board malfunction. Not sure the same can be said of oversized digital displays.
3. Cats are your friend.
Maybe this is only in Hayao Miyazaki films… But cats seem to have a special place in Japanese culture. Cats can talk. Cats have a life of their own. Stray cats are not to be feared but trusted, befriended, and even revered. In “Khafka on the Shore” (one of my favorite Japanese novels) cats figure prominently in the story, as a source of mysterious power harnessed by one nefarious character. (You’ll have to read the novel for the whole story!) Last summer, I was watching television and saw a news story about a cat getting stuck on an I-beam beneath a busy street. Apparently the cat had been startled and jumped onto the I-beam but was unable to get back to the road or descend to the street below. Residents near the highway had been watching the cat with concern. After it became clear that the cat was trapped and would likely starve to death, emergency responders were called in. The cat was safely rescued by a worker in a cherry picker. Below him, additional city workers held out safety nets in case the cat should fall. The cat was taken to a nearby shelter and treated for mild shock. At the time the show aired, the shelter had already been inundated with offers to adopt the cat.
4. Aesthetics are valued.
During my first host stay in Japan, I learned just how deeply an awareness of aesthetics is built into Japanese culture. My host sister (then 6 years old) and I were beading keychains for our backpacks. After I finished my keychain, I showed it to her. She promptly declared that I had made a good effort but that my keychain “lacked balance.” >_< Ouch. In Japan, kids encounter the idea of balance in learning to write. The overall shape of the letters is important but so is the harmony within the character. Even television shows aimed at children instill a respect for design and aesthetics. One of my favorite shows in Japan is called “Design-A” (pronounced – design ah) produced by NHK. It is a short program, actually just a filler spot between major programs. And it is really targeted to children. Never mind all that. It is a fantastic show. It won a Peabody Award.
The show explores creative thinking and design. In keeping with the Japanese tendency towards restrained design, it features minimalistic video clips. The show is rhythmic, mesmerizing, and utterly beautiful. There is a deep reverence for design. Designers are frequently interviewed, describing their work and the challenging of creating good design. The quiet, simple, well-balanced beauty of “Design-A” seems so far from the frenetic energy of American children’s shows. (I’m looking at you Sponge Bob Square Pants.)
Here’s a clip from Design-A demonstrating the elegant design mechanics of loading passengers onto a plane…
5. The idea of acting selflessly.
Another lesson from a Japanese children’s show. “Let’s Go! Anpanman” – the anime adaptation of a Japanese picture book series – is one of the most popular anime series for kids in Japan. It has been continuously on air in Japan since October 1988. The main character is “Anpanman” (roughly translated – “Bean Bun Boy”). His head is made out of a soft bread bun filled with sweet bean paste, a common baked treat in Japan. When he encounters a hungry person, he offers a piece of his own head. I know that might sound sort of strange and almost disgusting…Eating someone’s head? The gesture is part of the Japanese cultural fabric of self-sacrifice, apparently important even for children.
Thanks for reading! Do you have a favorite Japanese television show or movie? Leave any questions or comments below.