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Japanese TV seems to be obsessed with interviewing foreigners and asking them what they think of Japan. There’s even a whole NHK show called “Cool Japan,” where a bunch of foreigners sit around the studio opining about Japanese pickles and delivery services, discussing whether people in their home countries could learn something from how Japanese cope with summer weather, and deciding whether Japanese train stations are cool. You’d never see anything like it on American TV, presumably because Americans couldn’t care less what any other country thinks of us.

I never imagined that I’d be one of those people – even once. Then on my last trip to Tokyo, in the space of less than a week I was followed around town by three different TV crews.

Chosen for Stardom

japanese-film-crew

It was my first morning at a small traditional inn in Yanaka, in the old downtown of Tokyo, when I saw a sign at the front desk announcing that a TV crew was coming to interview guests. To some people this might have been exciting. Me, not so much. I have what you might call a face made for writing – I don’t even like the way I look in photos, so the last thing I want is to see what I look like on TV.

But the innkeeper asked me to please show up, and he was such a nice old guy, and after all, probably they’d just ask a couple of questions and it would take only a few minutes. It would be no big deal, right?

Here’s the thing I forgot: Just interviewing the foreigners isn’t enough. You also need to get that footage of them walking around Japan.

I’m pretty sure the reason they asked me was that I was the only one travelling alone, which would make the whole deal less complicated. But I thought I had a Get Out Of TV Free card: I was there as a reporter, working on a travel article about the neighborhood. In the US, reporters aren’t supposed to interview other reporters when they’re looking for regular people.

Well apparently there’s another cultural difference I wasn’t aware of: instead, my job actually seemed to make me more interesting to them. And it turned out that they were also working on a story about the inn and the neighborhood. So how could I say no?

The Quantum Physics of TV

cedar

You know the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says that the mere act of observing something changes the thing being observed? That goes at least double when the observer is holding a TV camera. You could call it The Japanese TV Crew Principle: When a film crew says to go ahead with whatever you were going to do and they’ll follow you around and nothing will change, don’t believe it.

My plan was to go to the local shopping street and take photos for my article. I figured things wouldn’t start opening till at least 10 AM. But now I had three guys with a bunch of expensive equipment waiting around with nothing to do. How could I make them wait another two hours?

So the observers ended up changing everything about the plan. We headed out, taking photos along the way, and I pointed out bits of local interest, and it turned out that none of them had ever set foot in Yanaka before. Like nearly every other Tokyoite I know, they knew nothing about this part of the city. So there I was explaining that this winding street was called Hebi-michi because it was shaped like a snake, as if they were the tourists and I was the local expert.

When we got to the shopping street, of course everything was closed – but I had a sudden inspiration for the next change of plan. There had been a second sign on the innkeeper’s desk. It asked guests to sign a petition to save a big old cedar tree, an icon of the neighborhood, that was on a piece of property that had been bought by a developer. Immediately I had a vision of myself as the crazy American lady who became a local heroine by getting the tree on TV and inspiring all of Tokyo to save it.

I dragged the crew way the heck back across the neighborhood to this tree. They filmed it at great length, hanging on my every word as I told the story, to the extent that I started to worry that I was not exactly what you’d call an expert source on this particular topic. I was relieved to find an explanatory poster nearby and made them read it. I know it’s not really likely that this TV show is going to start a big Yanaka Cedar Preservation Movement, but if it does, at least they’ll have their facts straight.

Stage Directions

stage-direction

After another detour to a shrine, it was finally late enough to go shopping, so we headed back to the shopping street, Yanaka Ginza. Which brings us to another way in which you shouldn’t believe a film crew when they say they’ll just film you carrying on as normal. Yes, they will do that a good part of the time. But if you’re going to a shrine, of course they’re going to want a shot of you washing your hands with the ladle in your clumsy, unaccustomed way, whether you were planning to do so or not. And if you’re going to walk up the iconic stairs at Yanaka Ginza – which a film crew is likely to recognize from TV shows even if they’ve never been in the neighborhood before – of course they’re going to ask you to wait while they run ahead and get a shot of you from the front.

Some shots are just too important to trust to un-directed reality, I guess. And after three hours or so, the stage-managing had come to seem normal, and it had all actually been fun. Still, I was totally OK with the fact that after I took all the photos of crafts stores and bakeries and sweet shops that I needed, it was time to say that it had been great working with them and I was done now.

I was a bit bewildered when the guy in charge replied by asking if I was sure I didn’t want something to eat. Why did he care? Was he offering to buy me lunch in some very roundabout way? And then it dawned on me. “You want me to eat something so you can film it,” I said, and he kind of sheepishly agreed.

So, I bought and ate an apple turnover. Hey, I can take a baked good for the team with the best of them.

Strange Feeling of Deja Vu

chalet

The next day I was surprised to see that the sign about the TV crew was still there on the front desk. The innkeeper was pretty on the ball and it didn’t seem like the kind of thing he’d forget and leave lying around. It wasn’t, as it turned out. There was going to be another, different film crew.

This one was doing a piece on what foreigners thought about the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, which of course would also need the obligatory footage of the foreigner walking about the city. No point in messing with success, I guess, so the innkeeper pointed me out.

This morning, my goal was the most un-Japanese destination possible: a Swiss chalet, built by a Swiss guy who’d lived in the neighborhood for many years, who I was hoping to interview. When we arrive, the owner is out, and the manager is understandably kind of freaked out by this bizarre parade of a foreign reporter followed by a crew of local reporters. It takes the head of the film crew about ten minutes just to convince him to call his boss and ask if he’s willing to talk to us.

When it turns out that the owner won’t be back for 30 minutes, the crew decides they can’t wait and heads back to the inn, and I’m relieved that I won’t be on a second TV show after all. And I definitely I got the best end of this bargain – they walked around in the rain for an hour and probably can’t use the footage, but since they were there to speak Japanese to the manager for me, I’m going to get my interview.

But when I return to the inn afterwards, I find out I have not escaped my fate: the crew is still there. So I get interviewed after all, expressing my profound opinions on the Tokyo Olympics including “I hate tearing down old things to build new things,” and “Isn’t Tokyo crowded enough already?”

Getting to Be A Habit

mask

The next day I make a joke about “Where’s today’s film crew?” and get back to my solitary plans… but not for long. Two days later, there it is: the sign is on the desk again. Yes, it’s a third, different TV crew.

My plans for the day are to go to the zoo to see tanuki and to Yoyogi Park, so the big difference this time turns out to be the need to get permission to film from bureaucracies. The zoo won’t let them bring in the big cameras, so the two guys go ahead to Yoyogi to wait for us. Even for the translator to use her little camera, we need to make a long detour to get a press pass.

As a staff member fills out the forms, he asks us what exhibit we’re planning to film, and reveals to my disappointment they don’t have tanuki anymore. So instead I’m filmed at the other exhibit I visit every time I’m in Tokyo, the tapir and capybaras, and I console myself with the fact that since we had to come to this behind-the-scenes office, I got to take a photo of the zoo commissary and a bunch of neatly stored cleaning tools. (I know that might not thrill the average person who doesn’t make a special trip to see tanuki, but since I used to work as a zookeeper, to me it was pretty cool.)

After lunch, it’s time for more stage management: the translator films me walking into Ueno Station, and then when we get off the train, asks me to wait while she goes out and finds the rest of the film crew so they can film me walking out of the station.

And then, there’s another detour: we get in a car and drive to an office the other side of the huge park. While the translator is filling out the paperwork for permission to film, I discover that this is also where you get a permit for a nearby dog park. So now it’s my turn to change the plan: the crew has to stand outside the fence of a huge dog park while I play with a pug named Pu.

Prepare for Your Close-up

totoro

Eventually I leave the pug and we drive all the way back to where we started. They film me walking around the park, and we finally finish up with an interview. Which brings us to the other things to keep in mind, aside from the Japanese TV Crew Principle, if you ever find yourself in this situation.

The first is, don’t get your hopes up about how much screen time you’re going to get. As one translator explained, they have to keep the cameras running the whole time, because they’ll kick themselves if something cool happens and they miss it. The third crew was with me from first thing in the morning to the late afternoon. The end result? As one of my Japanese friends who saw it reported, no more than two minutes of me eating ice cream and looking at a capybara.

The other is that no matter what their story is about, they’re going to ask you what you like about Japan and how more foreigners could be convinced to travel there.

For me they’re both impossible questions to answer. For the latter I want to say, why are you asking me? I’m someone who IS travelling here. I can’t put myself in the head of someone who doesn’t want to come to Japan. And it sounds awfully ugly-American-y, even if true, to say that what most Americans probably want is for the Japanese to speak more English.

And any halfway accurate answer to the first question would be way too long and weird for a sound-bite. I don’t think anyone really wants to hear that I wanted to see the tanuki because they exist at the intersection of my interests in yokai and in how much the Japanese seem to love uncommon animals.

So I mostly stuck to an awkward shrug and “I really love the food,” and while it sounded kind of dumb, I’m pretty sure it was for the best.

All photos by the author, Linda Lombardi

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Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Aya

    PUUUUUGS I LOVE PUGS

  • DS

    Have you heard of the TV show “Why did you come to Japan?” YOUは何しに日本へ? I was caught by one of their crews a few months back.

    Couldn’t see a UK version of this show happening!

  • キツネじゃない

    Yeah, sure, they “don’t have” tanukis any more. We all know how that went down. They’ve obviously disguised themselves as other animals in order to infiltrate their cages. Come back in a year, and I guarantee it’s going to be nothing BUT tanuki. Nice pictures, by the way.

  • Mitch Nesbitt

    As someone who has worked on a few production crews, The Japanese TV Crew Principle is just The TV Crew Principle. It’s always like that.

  • Genji

    I love that show, caught it last time I was in Japan and was thoroughly entertained by a Canadian guy who pooped his pants on a road trip with his friends.

  • I can’t believe it :p

    Errr…you had 3 TV crews stalking you and you only got a picture taken? I can’t believe it.

  • linda lombardi

    These illustrations are AWESOME THANK YOU

  • linda lombardi

    I have to add a postscript to this story: There’s a local Japanese restaurant I eat at a lot. Last time I went, the cook asked me “Did you go to Japan?” I was totally bewildered as to how he’d know to ask this, but I said yes. Of course – he saw me on TV! One of the stations streams online – I didn’t know when it would be, so I didn’t see it.

    I was surprised he recognized me even so. I mean, he’s the cook, he’s mostly in the kitchen. I guess I really have been eating there a lot for a long time.

  • linda lombardi

    Yeah, I figured as much. I watch all these kinds of shows a lot differently now, it’s kind of entertaining to imagine.

  • linda lombardi

    You’re probably right. They claimed the tanuki were exiled to the zoo at Inoshikara Park, but I didn’t have time to go check out whether that was true.

  • linda lombardi

    I hadn’t, but now that I’ve been through this my reaction is – of course, that show HAS to exist.

  • linda lombardi

    I hadn’t, but now that I’ve been through this, my reaction is – of course there is such a show!

  • linda lombardi

    I was actually on at least two of them… I might even get a DVD to prove it, if my Japanese friends come through.

  • linda lombardi

    OMG. There’s another thing that’d never make it onto TV in the US.

  • Tora.Silver

    Pugs are the BEST example of kimo-kawaii.
    They are so ugly they are adorable.

  • Yuki

    I know the show Cool Japan! I think its really weird tho, its like people know nothing of other countries. I dnt think I’d want to be on one of those commercials or TV, knowing Japanese tv being all about making fun of people. But I think they only pick Western people anyway, since I’m Asian I doubt they would take a second look lol

  • linda lombardi

    Cool Japan is just totally bizarre. There is like a whole dissertation that needs to be written about that show.

  • http://www.tokyotako.com allie

    All 4 times I’ve been to Japan I’ve been approached by photographers or TV crews (on more than one occasion each visit). I can’t help but feel like a zoo animal myself sometimes… half the time I wait for them to give me a cookie for answering their questions. I very, very much love Japan, and appreciate that they find me interesting (at least someone does! hah), but enough already!

  • たぬき万歳

    Being a Malaysian Chinese and looking like a Japanese-wannabe, this is definitely not a problem I’d face I think (probably think I’m just a rare local who can speak English fluently)… in fact, they usually thought I was Japanese until I started going ‘Hai?’ when the Japanese words got too big for me to understand. Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing though. XD

    Though I can’t imagine being filmed by a TV crew, let alone THREE crews in one trip! Kinda glad that didn’t happen to me last April seeing as it was my first trip to Japan and it would’ve been a bit annoying. But still. Sounds like a very interesting experience :)

  • Sulim

    What’s the name of the inn?

  • Guest

    Why does this remind me of Squealer from Shinsekai Yori? lol

  • just a physics nerd

    “The mere act of observing something changes the thing being observed” is called the observer effect, not Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Neither the observer effect nor the uncertainty principle can be meaningfully used to describe what happens while observing anything larger than subatomic particles. Just FYI! Otherwise I enjoyed the article.

  • linda lombardi

    I’m not sure I should mention it. I didn’t ask them if it was OK to write about them.

  • Aya

    Aaaawwhh, I’m glad you like them! ♡

  • Reina

    This is so much fun to read, especially since I can relate to it! I was on the most recent episode of YOUは何しに日本へ? (Why did you come to Japan?). They actually told me that my life looked too fake (because I got a job/audition very quickly), so they wanted some shots of me walking around, shopping, eating, etc. I never thought I’d be told that my life looked too fake for TV! They didn’t end up using those shots, but it was still fun! It made my trip to Japan less lonely. ^^

  • linda lombardi

    why won’t it let me upvote that a hundred times!?!

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I rarely get approached, but I do not often hang out at the major tourist spots, so that’s probably why.
    A Japanese camera team made a “tourism video aimed at foreigners” and asked me if they can film a little scene with me. That was in Gujo-Hachiman.
    I’ve been on local TV, once for my company and once I was approached on the street as they do surveys every now and then.

    And I’ve been in the newspaper a few times. If you’re pretty much the only foreigner at some festivals or sightseeing spots that are off the beaten track, I guess that just happens.

    I hate it, though. I try to be invisible as I don’t like being the center of attention at all.
    Whenever I see cameras somewhere, I try to turn around and walk the other way. ;)

  • …But I read on Wikipede

    Doesn’t the observer affect apply to anything? I admit (with head bowed low in shame) that I brushed up on it via Wikipedia, but it’s definition includes ANY situation which is affected as a result of being observed. e.g. Having* to let some (potentially negligible) amount of air out of a tyre to check the air pressure. It seems like a sensible definition to me.

    And metaphorically, I think the mere notion of ‘something being changed when you observe it naturally extends beyond sub-atomic particles. Taking this new, wider definition, it actually applies LITERALLY.

    I agree about the name confusion though. Wikipedia (sorry again) mentions the confusion between the two on both the Uncertainty and Observer Principle pages. ‘Observer principle’ sounds a bit more prosaic than ‘The Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle’ though, but in the name of the Scientific Education of the Population of Japanese Learning English Speaking People of the World, it should probably be changed. You could still fill a few sentences with stuff about photons, and the metaphor would keep it’s googley-eyed scientific awe-striking cool. I think.

    Anyway, with regards to the article; after reading I felt super satisfied for digesting all the interestingness. So yay and thank you!

    *Should this be capitalised?

  • lumiina

    I saw YOUは何しに日本へ camera crew at the airport. I think they were eaiting for a celebrity. But I was still preparing my script in my head. Then one of the guys looked at me and my heart raced and I walked away quickly, looking like I wasn’t interested. I don’t think they were going to approach me, ha. But it just shows me that even if it sounds dreamy, I’m too camera shy! Plus, I wouldn’t want my moment on TV to be of me after 14 hours on a plane!

  • justa

    I’ve been approached twice in my 4 months of living in Japan. The first was in Downtown Fukuoka, where a camera crew was milling about. A man in a funky suit and bow tie came up and asked in english if I wanted to be interviewed, but I was nervous and said I was busy (which I was, but 5 minutes wouldn’t have been that different). Afterwards, I thought it would actually be really cool to say I was on Japanese TV, but on my way back they were gone. Luckily, I attended a mochi making event afterwards, and chosen as the international student rep and interviewed for the local station.

  • simonsickboy

    lol@bonus wallpapers. I like you, kiddo. But..d00d…the only person that’s putting that up as their desktop *not that it’s “bad art”* is the girl with a crush on you who could easily crush you if she rolled over on you. Hatorz hate away. It’s sickboy.

  • silly girl

    urra arsehole for saying that ! I’m hawt and I have his Walls up as my desktpp rite now, rilly ido. You’re just an 0ld-ass hata who doesn’t like that he can sprakken de Jap. Fuck off.

  • Tokumei Yamada

    I know you said it sounds ugly to say that more Japanese should speak English, but I think a bigger issue is that train lines and bus maps are equipped with multi-lingual markers, such as having stop names in Roma-ji (and possibly Hangeul, though Koreans will almost certainly be able to read Roma-ji). Kanji REALLY DOES create a barrier to travel for non Chinese / Japanese in Japan, and in Korea, for instance, there is Romaji and Hanja for every train stop. This does wonders in making a place more accessible to foreigners.

  • Forgetful Orange

    When you said this “You’d never see anything like it on American TV, presumably because
    Americans couldn’t care less what any other country thinks of us”

    I thought this is just due to the difference between multi-cultural vs mono-cultural society.

    If I were Japanese, where everyone looked like me and had the same cultural background, what “foreigners” thought of my place would be something of interest. Because there’s a very specific contrast.

    For muti-cultural US or Australia, there’s no real unique culture other than tendencies & habits that have developed over a few hundred years since our ancestors left Europe.

    So this is totally understandable, to my mind. I wouldn’t expect any other country to have such a TV show but I would expect Japan to.