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Japan Book Reviews

The Couch Potato's Guide to Japan - Inside the World of Japanese TV

Author : Wm. Penn
Publisher: Forest River Press
ISBN: 4-902422-01-8. First edition, (2004)
pp. 202

Reviewed by :

Shawn M. Clankie
Otaru University of Commerce

"...don't ever say: 'It can't get any worse.' It always does."

Just in case you've missed the past 50 years of Japanese television, or can't handle the self-aggrandizing tributes on NHK this year, William Penn (the pen name of a prominent local writer) has brought together a very readable and often witty selection of the best and worst that Japanese TV has to offer. Penn, the Televiews columnist of the Daily Yomiuri since 1987, draws upon the vast experience of having endured all that Japanese TV has to offer. What is truly amazing is that anyone that has watched that much television can still write at an intelligent level. Maybe TV isn't as bad for us as we have been told?

As someone who constantly endures the endless supply of NHK morning dramas, senseless variety and wide shows, and the talentless tarento, all for the sake of a Japanese spouse, I can attest to a general apathy towards Japanese television. Give me cable or give me the radio, but please not Japanese TV. Yet, William Penn puts it all in perspective in one flawless statement, "...don't ever say: 'It can't get any worse.' It always does." One hallelujah later and the book had my attention. It is that kind of humor that makes this book so approachable, even for the most jaded of us.

The book is organized into 10 readable chapters covering genre such as dramas, comedy, news, and variety shows. There is additionally a very thorough 11th section containing contact information for broadcasters, as well as important television-related websites and places to go.

Organized as a journey around the important television-related locales of Japan (starting at Kansai International airport heading for Kyoto and ending at Sapporo's Chitose airport), a nice linear flow takes us behind the scenes into the wheres and whys of television as well as presenting many memorable (and some forgettable) shows. The first three chapters provide ample background into television, including important plot lines, recurring themes, and the hidden subtleties and innuendo that appear again and again in Japanese programs. Put it this way: you'll never look at a bento the same way again. Anyone interested in learning the techniques of screenwriting would find this book full of ideas and approaches to subject matter.

From chapter 4 onward much of the writing originates from the original Daily Yomiuri Televiews columns of the author. This approach makes the book very readable as the longest portions (the background nuts and bolts stuff) are at the front of the book. From Chapter 4, the organized columns are easy reading. The reader can read one or two of the columns and stop, without ever losing one's place. This book is an ideal accompaniment for a trip, or as something to read on the daily commute. It could also be adapted to content-based English language classes specializing in comparative television or media, and this is how I plan on using it. Aside from the entertainment segment of television, some of the columns take us back to important television events (the Hanshin earthquake and coverage on Aids in particular) and how Penn saw the coverage at the time.

Penn's book is a welcome and needed addition to understanding Japanese television. I was quite surprised at how many of the shows mentioned in the book were actually familiar. Penn answers a number of questions as well and has an answer to many of those questions I've been wanting to ask. How many Mito Komon have there been? What's the big deal with SMAP? Why is the 7:00 news on NHK sometimes only 8 minutes long? They're all answered here. Both long-time Japan residents and those new to the scene will find the book has something to offer. Even those who are turned off by some of the program choices will find a new way of looking at Japanese TV, and maybe a new appreciation, through Penn's book.

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