Hashi’s Field Guide to Japanese TV And Which Awesome Shows You Should Watch

    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 sugoi 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!

    Hashi viewing Japanese TV shows about alpacas

    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.

    Three contestants on the Japanese game show 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.

    The cast of the Japanese drama Great Teacher Onizuka
    Source: 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


    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.

    Animals from the anime 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