by

When I first came to Japan when I was 11 years old, Japanese TV was a source of mystery and wonder to me. I kinda knew about all of the parodies about Japanese game shows, and I can remember sitting transfixed in a hotel room, watching Japanese Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, seeing a Japanese Regis Philbin dramatically pause before exclaiming すごい!

Now that I’m a bit older and wiser, Japanese TV isn’t as mysterious to me anymore, but it’s still damn entertaining, especially now that I understand what’s going on. And in the month that the Tofugu team has been in Japan, I’ve been watching more than my fair share of Japanese TV in our hotels after long days of work.

I thought that I’d throw together a guide for some of the most popular and entertaining types of TV shows from Japan. Included is a summary of the genre, some of the tropes, and how you can use that particular type of show to help you learn Japanese. Enjoy!

Variety Shows

Japanese variety shows are great. Take a bunch of Japanese celebrities, put them together in a TV studio, and watch the magic happen. Plot? Writers? Who needs ‘em!

japaneseshows

Variety shows, as the name implies, have a lot of different things going on. Depending on the show, you can expect panel discussions, quizzes, minigames, comedy sketches, or none of the above.

There are lots of different types of variety shows, like Gaki no Tsukai, LINCOLN or AKBingo, so you’ve got your choice of cast.

Not only does the format vary a lot, but variety shows are usually pretty off-the-cuff and unscripted. They’re a ton of fun, and you never know quite what to expect.

They’re also a great study tool for learning Japanese since it more closely represents how actual people talk than other types of shows (I’m looking at you, anime).

What To Look For

  • Japanese television personalities (tarento)
  • Bright, garish sets
  • Picture-in-picture shots
  • Unnecessary captions

Game Shows

Everybody knows about Japanese game shows. As I wrote about in my article about the awesome Japanese survival adventure game show Tore!, Japanese game shows, with their bizarre, quirky premises have long been the subject of American curiosity and amusement.

tore

Nowadays, I’d say that there’s a lot of crossover between Japanese variety shows and game shows. A Venn diagram of the two is getting close to just a circle.

Both genres usually involve celebrities, quizzes, and minigames. Beyond that though, they’re a little more nuanced. There’s more of a reward system in game shows, although it’s much more often predicated on punishment. Hey, whatever works!

This is another great genre for learning how real people talk in Japanese, as a lot of it is unscripted.

What To Look For

  • Tarento
  • Weird premises
  • Challenges involving punishment

Drama

Besides anime, drama is a popular type of TV in Japan and overseas. Japanese drama are live-action shows that are usually an hour long, with an emphasis on plot. They can be about pretty much anything, from epic period pieces to modern-day problems.

gto

Screencap from the Venerable Gakuranman

We’ve written before about our favorite dramas and how to study Japanese using drama, so check those out if you already know and love J-drama.

As for using drama as a tool to learn Japanese, it depends a lot on the type of drama. Some are set in the current day, starring everyday people, while ohers are set in the Edo era and star samurai. Your mileage may vary in terms of the usefulness of the diaglogue.

What To Look For

  • Dramatic camera angles
  • Conflict (physical and emotional)
  • Lots of continuity

Anime

Of course, everybody knows anime. For better or worse, it’s one of Japan’s biggest cultural exports, if not the biggest. Without much exaggeration, otaku fuel the Japanese economy.

Anime is just a general Japanese animation, which can be really about anything at all, have drastically different art styles and writing, and appeal to different markets. But over the years, trends and tropes have emerged, making the half-hour anime show sort of a genre unto itself.

polar-bear-cafe

As for using it as a tool to learn Japanese, that’s . . . questionable. While some people claim that you can learn Japanese from anime in only 5 minutes a day, anime is problematic as a learning tool. Generally, anime characters are written in very specific situations that cause them to talk in kind of unrealistic ways.

Still, anime’s hard to beat for the entertainment value of giant robots clashing, wacky romcoms, or sweeping adventure shows.

What To Look For


Do you like to watch Japanese TV? What are you favorite shows? Let me know in the comments!

  • DAVIDPD

    Call me a rube, but anime is still King in my book.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.peregrin.stilson Christopher Stilson

    Are there any good dramas that are less likely to trigger my severe Fremdscham (I can’t watch most American sitcoms because embarrassing situations and misunderstandings make me squirm, and most of the dramas I’ve seen recommended have seemed like they’d do the same)?

  • Prince

    Dude litarly? C’mon man? everything you wrote in this article can be summed up in 1 sentence and that is ”On tv in Japan you can watch Variety shows,game shows,Drama and Anime” . and thats all that this article said. It lacked enrichement and it felt generic and supericial in my opinion.

    For example you couldve told us something abotu why japanese TV is different than television in other countries and or why Japanese tv could be unique or not ?

    Stuff like that man, TV in N.America and Europe, also has variety game shows dramas and Anime/cartoons. Its a standard package of TV that you will find everywhere in the world.

    No hard feelings but I really feel this article needed a bit more information than the generic things you wrote.

  • shuirin

    You may not learn how real people speak when watching animes but it helps with vocabulary, grammar (example sentences) and polishes your listening skills.

  • http://twitter.com/Riechanster Riechan

    Toyko dogs, Maou, … the more serious drama’s. Or are you looking for the more funny/romantic once?

  • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.peregrin.stilson Christopher Stilson

    Anything will do as long as the embarrassment is minimal (I like rom-coms that don’t have the ‘boy loses girl over stupid misunderstanding that would be cleared up in two seconds if they’d just listen to each other’ plot). Period drama recs would be nice, since all the articles here seem to be about modern-day stuff.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cody-Dalton/27704471 Cody Dalton

    Ugh, TV is so horrid here. And I think you did a good enough job summing up Japanese TV. Only thing I can think of that you’re missing is the local (Prefectural-ish) level that has a ton of travel shows. Well, I guess I’ve seen a lot of them on NHK as well. Where people travel, do some ridiculous task, eat a bunch of food while we get to see reactions of various celebrities via Picture in Picture (and hear the 3 adjectives they actually use when talking about food) and so on. >.>

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cody-Dalton/27704471 Cody Dalton

    Although I guess this does often happen in variety programming, but it’s worth a note anyways…

  • shadowmonk

    In a way I do agree with you, the article is kinda vague. Here’s a little filling out from my experience. I lived in Kansai for 4 months for school and had local TV only.

    Variety shows are king, you find those more than any other type of programming. Then game shows, drama’s and then anime. Also, if the show isn’t about food it is a rarity. I would switch through all 10 channels and sometimes find only one channel would be non-food related programming sometimes.

    The biggest difference though is programs do not necessarily start on the hour or half hour, it is completely normal for a program to start at 10:07 or 13:58. I can’t tell you why, maybe someone with more knowledge could comment on that.

  • shadowmonk

    The show he has in the picture, Shirokuma Cafe, is awesome for people in upper beginner because it is obviously for kids, so it is basic grammar and simple-ish words. Luckily it is also absolutely hilarious. I wish I knew how to find more kid-focused anime… hint hint Tofugu team.

  • http://twitter.com/eennnnuuhh innadee

    I’d go as far as saying I didnt get cable because all i watch is Japanese TV. If you know the celebs, then Japanese talk shows would be really entertaining.

    My fave tv shows thus far are TORE!, Shabekuri 007, Nep to Imoto no Sekai Banzuke, Arashi ni Shiyagare, VS Arashi, kanjani8 no Janiben, Nep League, and Getsuyou kara Yofukashii.

  • John

    Also with Japanese shows, at least compared to many American shows I
    feel, is that they tell their story in one season, sometimes two. Of
    course there are always a handful that go on for many many seasons, but
    my favorite dramas and anime are the ones that are two seasons or less. I
    like when each episode feels like it’s moving the story forward with no
    fillers or anything and you can blow through the entire show really
    quickly if you want to.

  • John

    If I knew of any easy ones I’d be happy to share, but other than Shirokuma I haven’t really gotten into any I would consider “beginner” :(

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500065617 Meredith Peruzzi

    I have learned a fair bit from watching Chi’s Sweet Home. Of course I probably talk like a three-year-old…

  • John

    Better than talking like a two year old!

  • shadowmonk

    Unlike the Bleach/Naruto shows they end up splitting the series up into well thought-out season, Chihayafuru and the combat butler (can’t remember the full name) for example. But then there are shows like Shirokuma Cafe that is just a bunch of self-contained episodes of hilarity with no true season.

  • Ugly Pig

    Hooray! GTO!!

  • John

    Yeah, I usually prefer overarching story shows as compared to self-contained episode shows. Unless the self-contained ones are really, really funny.

  • Flora

    I find anime to be a pretty good Japanese teacher – it all depends on what you want to learn & what you watch.

    I self-study, so my grasp of proper Japanese is pretty good, but I’d also like to learn thing like (current!) Japanese slang or simply how everyday Japanese people talk on the street (if you have sources, please share). I don’t know any Japanese people – although I am studying up so I can join Ameba Pigg sometime this summer – so it’s pretty much my only option.

    Like dramas, there shouldn’t be any problem if you watch a perfectly realistic slice-of-life/modern anime. Obviously, “Naruto” should not be your go-to source for RL Japanese lessons, but something like “Fruits Basket” shouldn’t be an issue. (I also recommend “Kuragehime” and “Durarara!” :) )

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1438943897 Stephen Knight

    Actually, the humor on Shirokuma Cafe is, if anything, skewed to a more adult audience–a lot of surrealism and off-beat jokes that I think would go over the heads of most of the Sesame Street crowd… one reason it’s one of only two or three anime I can stand to watch!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1438943897 Stephen Knight

    You forgot the morning and afternoon “wide shows,” which eat up 4-5 hours of programming a day on most of the broadcasters’ schedules, and unlike the variety and game shows and weekly dramas, are not quite as dominated by AKB, Johnny’s Jimusho, and the yuk-yuk gang from Yoshimoto Kogyo. They do a lot of fluff, certainly–celebrity cooking, scandals, etc.–but they’re also good at picking up more serious topics and delving into them at some length, on the assumption that the housewives who make up their biggest audiences are good conduits for spreading information the networks think is important (the judgement of the networks regarding what’s “important” is another matter, of course…).

    I really do wish, though, that the broadcasters would agree to at least a one-day-a-week moratorium on *anything* having to do with AKB.

  • shadowmonk

    But the important thing is that it is still basic grammar, and even if you don’t get the adult humor it’s still funny/cute. Kinda like the Japanese version of Animaniacs. Shows that work on multiple levels make it enjoyable for adults to watch kids shows.

  • linguarum

    Another big category is food. Sometimes you can’t tell if it’s the Food Network or just regular TV, because they look a lot alike. Famous people talking about food, going places and eating strange new foods, or my favorite, Bistro Smap, where famous people cook for other famous people.

  • Amanda

    I think this is a pretty good sum-up of Japanese TV, but I have one disagreement about variety shows. There is never a show that is unscripted on Japanese television. Every story that a tarento recounts, every question that is posed, and every “happening” on these shows is heavily scripted to look, well, unscripted. I’ve seen episodes of variety shows where they say things like, “Hey, that wasn’t on the script.” Of course I can’t cite any sources, but if you watch enough variety, you will eventually come across evidence of this.

    Another category that may or may not fit within variety is the talk show genre. Shows like Shabekuri 007 is more of an interview program than a variety show. There are also newer sketch comedy shows such as Pikaru no Teiri. And I agree with the other commenters about local travel shows, tabearuki (walking around and visiting food and beverage establishments around a certain area), etc. There are also sometimes large “forum” shows where large audiences (celebrity or not) are gathered to talk about certain topics.

    I find Japanese TV to be interesting. It’s definitely a change from sexed-up American drama and reality TV, but for me it’s a good change!

  • shuirin

    I’m already watching the show but thanks for the tip(^_^)

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    And now I’ll never be able to read article comments without thinking of them as the Internet equivalent of those picture-in-picture reaction shots.

    (Also, got quoted by a Tofugu article, wheee~!★)

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    Peter Payne of J-List has said one of THE biggest categories of TV shows in Japan are ones that show the cuisine of the local prefecture. I can just see people arguing about monjayaki (invented in Tokyo) and the two styles of okonomiyaki (Kansai and Hiroshima styles) on TV….

  • http://twitter.com/darjeelinglocal Gordon Freeman

    I would really appreciate a guide to Japanese TV channels, the difference between BS, CS and other terms, what type of audience watches which channel, etc.

  • Hannah

    Shabekuri is great! My students get really weirded out that I love it and ザ世界仰天ニュース. lol

    I watch ひるなんです most days ’cause it’s a pretty fun daytime show and gets in a lot of practice, but there are some other ones I find amusing right now, like Matsuko Deluxe’s late night show and イッテQ. 志村動物園 and ダーウィンが来た are good for animal lovers. :3

  • Jeffrey

    Totally looking forward to a guide like that. I can recieve japanese TV but it is really just switching around the channels every time until I find a good show to watch.

  • Rachel M.

    I find looking at the time tables on channels’ websites help me to figure out what to watch on TV more easily.

  • Lakeside

    I like variety shows for thegeinin. They’re so interesting and funny

  • Dkskso

    I love the bgm and sound effects in variety shows for Japanese shows. The bgm and sound effects and visual effects in korean are so obnoxious and noisy and over the top.

  • Hannah
  • Lauren

    you could write a whole post on variety and them some. there’s so many. i found so many i like. i have a huge que list right now. you forgot to mention kaeta shows, dokkiri shows, kaidan shows, konto shows, manzai shows, etc,etc, i mean i guess they fit under variety

    dokkiri :
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cA6motY8SJg
    there’s more hilariuos ones but this is the one on youtube. check out youku for more.

    kaeuta :
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=y7tsANNxVlk

    konto :
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnIl2DhGFX0
    jarujaru had a hilarious conto about keigo but it’s not on youtube anymore :(

    KAIDANBANASHI
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UItzRGFslKs
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXIom7MZJag
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0FMz7ous-Q
    I guess you watch thse during the day. I ccan’t stand japaense movies because they just suck. there must be a good one out there but i’ve never seen one. and that applies to the horror genre as well. i like kaidan banashi it’s scary and way shorter. there’s also ZOTTO SURU HANASHi which i love. if you get into that there’s suberanai hanashi and yurusenai hanashi which ilvoe too.

    the geinin group in the kaeuta doing their neta WITH TRANSCRIPT:
    http://tsukinofune.tumblr.com/post/37520849879
    http://tsukinofune.tumblr.com/post/37520158834

    manzai:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opKeASWLqmc
    there’s some realy funny ones. they have m-granpuri which i don’t know if they stopped doing that.
    recently i watched the hokuto no ken episode for ame talk and that was so hilarious. i don’t even like shonen anime or even seen that but the ep was so enjoyable to watch. and i’ve been watching the old maji uta eps because the latest one they did at the end of december in 2012 was HILARIOUS. you should watch. it’s one of the funniest things i’ve seen on japanese tv.
    the thing on youtube:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpC4k0NjQF4
    I love ootake manager!!!

    before pikaru no teiri there was red carpet or red theater or something. but i like that better conto wise but the shiratori conto and the bibari and rui conto is something special!

    plus geinin awesome like there’s no one like ariyoshi in american tv or korean tv. speaking of geinin i love the black mayonnaise show called atsu atsu hanashi and this was one of my favorite eps
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocJmS8zSq4c

    here’s my huge post on talk variety shows.
    https://choronghi.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/recommendation-for-japanese-talkvariety/

  • Lauren

    I think anime is great for learning when you’re advanced because they talk so coloruflly in anime with the way they talk and sometimes they use expressions and idioms and wordplay and whatnot. if you’re advanced you can enjoy that and look up stuff etc. it’s also useful for beginner too but i feel like you’re better off learning common/useful japanese when you’re at that level by like watching talk/variety than anime.

  • x_stei

    (I think it makes more sense to put Anime before Dramas, because the first sentence “Besides anime” assumes that Anime precedes the Dramas section..)

    I find variety the best kind to learn Japanese. Mainly because the captions are a really good indication about what the people are saying. I remember watching tons of Tensai Shimura doubutsuen paying more attention to the captions than the people.

  • x_stei

    This wikipedia sorta explains the weird start hour: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_television_drama#Dramas.27_starting_hour

  • shadowmonk

    Thanks, after reading it I remember I saw that awhile ago just forgot.

  • http://www.facebook.com/KanjiDecoder Sean Donovan

    Does anyone know where I can watch free live tv channels from Japan on my computer? Keyhole tv sucks… there is jtv24 but you have to pay and Im broke,, I’m trying to immerse myself in Japanese.

  • Chester

    Shirokuma Cafe is absolutely not aimed at children, as most of the jokes require an adult-level of background knowledge, not to mention the very adult situations many characters find themselves in (namely the multiple love stories, the violence of Shirokuma towards seals, and the overall theme of Panda that work sucks, which could be argued as a parable for children to become responsible, but, trust me, if you knew the slightest thing about Japanese culture, you would know full well that they DON’T teach children that here; the mere fact that “work sucks” is a theme of the show in itself tells us that it is not aimed at children in any way shape or form).

    Have you even watched the show…?

  • Gerry Yanis

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jessica.marie.35175633 Jessica Marie Olmstead

    My absolute favorite thing to watch is anything with Downtown or Cocorico. They are my favorite duos to get a laugh. I used to be a big anime otaku but my love has faded over the years and my taste has definitely changed. But I could go for a good Ghibli making any day.

  • Charlene

    I love Japanese TV. I first got into it with Hana Yori Dango and just bloomed from there. Since I’m an Arashi fan, I mostly just watch the group’s shows, though they do have their own variety shows, dramas and game shows. I love the game shows the best because even with my limited Japanese (still relying on subtitles, unfortunately), I can still get the gist of the show.

  • http://www.dandelion-cha.com/ Tampopo

    http://www.youku.com/ This is a Chinese website. But type in pretty much any Japanese tv show and it will be there. You can also try http://www.tudou.com/ which also has a lot of Japanese tv shows and anime. I think tudou has an app. The downside is that everything is in Chinese, but you just put the title of the show in the search box and you will probably find it. Also, there are no English subtitles. I watch a lot of shows on these websites. You just have to know when the shows come out. For example, I watch Himitsu no Arashi-chan a lot, and it comes on once a week, so I just check back once a week and the new episode is usually there right after it airs. :) You can also download shows on d-addicts.com. However, those are all torrents but they have a good variety of television shows and dramas. Oh and these aren’t live, but it’s better than nothing. What I do is watch one show, and just click the next episode. It’s great for immersion. Hope this helps!

  • http://www.facebook.com/KanjiDecoder Sean Donovan

    Yeah…….. I…. know….. those…..websites…..but… I said LIVE not recorded and uploaded shows :P

  • http://www.dandelion-cha.com/ Tampopo

    Well you’re either gonna have to pay or get NHK on cable because there isn’t much in the way of live streaming. :/

  • EskimoJo

    Mainichi Kaasan?

  • EskimoJo

    How about podcasts by young (University-aged) Japanese people? If you search google or whatever Japanese learners’ forums you frequent, you should be able to find some recs. Otherwise, just gamble with the Japanese i-tunes.

  • http://twitter.com/Riechanster Riechan

    I’d recommend My boss, My hero and Nodame Cantabile to start with :)

  • kzer

    Getting bored of people who aren’t fluent in Japanese talking about how anime is the anti-Christ as a learning source.

    I’ve seen Naruto, and it’s all normal Japanese. 95-99% of what they say can be repeated in real life.

    I know people who learned English exclusively from things like hip hop songs, cartoons and final fantasy. Their English is incredibly natural.