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Thoughts on Japan

Kingaku kara no omoi - 金額からの思い

Thoughts on Japan from the National Institute of Japanese Studies. University of Sheffield

June 06, 2009

Dorama - What A Drama!

Whenever I visit Japan these days, most of the time I’m working in various ways all day, so that when evening comes I usually find that all I want to do is go back to my hotel room and relax – rather than go out exploring bars, as I might have done twenty, or even ten, years ago. Once there, I could read, but usually I prefer to switch on the television and dip into the world of Japanese TV broadcasts. This is a good exercise, both linguistically, because one gets to hear naturally spoken Japanese language, and culturally, because you get to observe what interests and entertains the Japanese people – to see the kinds of things which much of the population enjoy, what moves them and, in the dramas, how the Japanese see themselves, or more accurately, like to imagine themselves to be.

Obviously, I’m not claiming that Japanese TV is necessarily a truthful reflection of Japan as it is – all dramas have to reflect the exigencies of their genre first and reality second – but there are enough common themes and character types running through many different programmes that it is clear they must supply something with which the Japanese can identify. The same is true for any nation’s television, of course – you’d pick up a pretty distorted view of what the UK is like if all you did was watch popular dramas, and soap operas (probably that the more bucolic, or picturesque, the location, the more likely there were to be murderers lurking about, and people living in close-knit communities in the inner cities always have disastrous times at Christmas), but you could get an impression of the iron grip the class system still holds on British (or English) social relations, attitudes and past-times, and what a long way there still is to go before Britain sees anything like the kind of uniformity in outlook there is in Japan, for example.

Turning back to Japan, as far as I can tell, there are essentially two basic plots used for the majority of dramatic productions: first, and perhaps most common, is the story of what one might call the deru kui 出る杭 – from the much quoted proverb deru kui wa utareru 出る杭は打たれる ‘the protruding stake will be hammered down’, meaning that anyone who doesn’t conform will be made to. In the deru kui dramas, however, the non-conformist, while causing frustrations to his/her group (and there’s always a group), almost always, ends up teaching the group a lesson about something, while possibly becoming a bit more conformist. Classic examples of this type of drama would be: Asahi TV’s Satorare サトラレ (‘Transparent’) (2002) featuring Odagiri Jō as a genius who telepathically projects his thoughts to anyone in a 12 metre radius around him, which naturally causes endless opportunities for comedy, embarrassment and pathos, as everyone is forbidden by law from reacting to them, or telling him that he’s doing it; Fuji TV’s long-running Naasu no Oshigoto ナースのお仕事 (‘A Nurse’s Job’) (1996-2002), starring Mizuki Arisa 観月ありさ as an accident-prone and headstrong nurse, who nevertheless cared passionately for her patients; Asahi TV’s Fugō Keiji 富豪刑事 (‘Millionaire Cop’) (2005-2006), starring Fukuda Kyōko 深田恭子 as the daughter of a fantastically wealthy whose father essentially buys her a place in the police force, and who then uses her wealth to help solve crimes; and last year’s Shibatora – dōgan keiji Shibata Taketora シバトラ~童顔刑事・柴田竹虎 (‘Shibatora: Baby-Faced Cop Shibata Taketora’), starring current heartthrob Koike Teppei 小池 徹平as a police officer who is so youthful looking that he can pass for a schoolboy – something, along with his psychic ability to see when Death is reaching out for someone, which gives him a special insight into delinquency and youth crime.

The second basic plot is ‘the group overcoming its conflicts to win through in the end’ – something which is certainly not a purely Japanese plot. An obvious example of this would be Fuji TV’s 2003 series Water Boys about a high school synchronised swimming team. You also, of course, get combinations of the two plots – most often in police, or crime, dramas. The detective in a Japanese murder mystery is often something of a loner – an offbeat detective, a lawyer, or a prosecutor – but who, nevertheless, is firmly part of a group – of police, or other legal professionals – with whom he, or she, has disagreements, but which are resolved in order to catch the killer, or killers. Just check out the huge list of characters such as Mōjin Tantei Matsunaga Reitarō 盲人探偵・松永礼太郎 (‘Blind PI Matsunaga Reitarō’), Onna Kenji Kasumi Yūko 女検事・霞夕子 (‘Lady Prosecutor Kasumi Yūko’) and Bengoshi Asahi Takenosuke 弁護士・朝日岳之助 (‘Lawyer Asahi Takenosuke’) on the Japanese wikipedia page for the extremely long-running Nihon TV show, Kayō Sasupensu Gekijō 火曜サスペンス劇場 (‘Tuesday Suspense Theatre’) (1981-2005) to see what I mean. Another example would be the Odoru Daisōsasen 踊る大捜査線 (‘Bayside Shakedown’) franchise, which from its beginnings as a TV show in 1997, has spawned a large number of specials and spin-offs, including four films. The initial series and films starred Oda Yūji 織田裕二as a salaryman who gives up his office job to become a police officer, and gets assigned to the Tokyo Bayside Police Station, where he has to fight against the inertia of his superiors to get the job done (the original series was remarkable for suggesting that the many police officers treated the job just like working at a company, and weren’t passionate crime fighters). A more recent example would be Hotaru no Hikari ホタルノヒカリ (‘It’s Only Little Light in my Life’ – this is the ‘official’ English title, but a more natural one might be simply ‘Hotaru’s Light’), starring Ayase Haruka 綾瀬はるか as a young woman working for an interior design company – where her department has to compete for contracts and work together to complete jobs (the group working together), but who is secretly a himono onna 干物女, a ‘dried fish woman’ (this isn’t a standard expression, but rather something invented by the writer), who prefers slobbing around at home rather than keeping herself presentable and going out on dates (the non-conformist element).

Within both of these plot-types, you also get a number of clearly defined characters: the essentially incompetent superior who’s more interested in golf than the job, but who may, nevertheless, come through in a crisis; the colleague who’s only got the job through family connections; the slimy colleague who’s jealous of the protagonist and wants to get rid of him, or her; the loyal sidekick – often female if the protagonist is male, and vice versa – who clearly has a yen for the protagonist, but will never get anywhere because the protagonist is too wrapped up in the job; the wise old colleague who provides the voice of experience; the young female colleague who provides comic relief; the loyal friend, and so on. It shouldn’t take you too long to identify which archetype any character in a given drama belongs to, if you watch it for a while.

So, what does all this tell us about Japan and the Japanese? Well, primarily I think it’s a very good demonstration of the importance of group relations: individuals are only seen in the context of how they fit into, or influence, their group, and, on the whole, it’s the success or failure of the group that’s important. In addition, the overwhelming focus on the world of work, or school, hints both at the importance these places play in people’s lives, and perhaps, self-image. You do get workplace-set dramas in the UK, of course: medical, police – I can even recall a couple set in hotels – but it’s frequently the characters’ relations with each other which are more important than what they do. I can’t imagine a character making an extended speech about how hard they intend, or want, to work to make their, say, department store, the best in the country, but this happens regularly on Japanese TV. Of course, you could say that this is just the Japanese business elite manipulating the masses, but I’m not quite that cynical yet.

Next week, I’ll take a slightly more academic look at Japanese TV, and discuss how other scholars have analysed it recently.

« Journeys Outside of the Bubble | Main | What can we learn from dorama? »


Dr. Tom seems firmly in the territory of Wm. Penn here (writer for the Daily Yomiuri and author of The Coach Potato's Guide To Japan - great read). I regularly hear people complain vociferously about Japanese TV and say they absolutely refuse to watch. I can understand that (the comedy and cooking programs just get to be too much). But I myself love the dramas. I've been a big fan for the last 11 years. The language practice is so important because, I think more than English, Japanese language puts a huge emphasis on how certain phrases fit into a prescribed situation. TV is where the idioms really come to light. And, perhaps a cultural insight here, the young actresses are truly photogenic and the TV producers seems to play up this fact unabashedly. It's interesting how an entire drama can seemingly be used just to get one currently popular actress' face on screen for as long as possible.

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