|

To appear or not to appear on Japanese TV . . .

by Amy Chavez

If you’re in Japan long enough, you’re bound to get the opportunity to appear on Japanese TV. If you live in the countryside, such chances could come much sooner and more often, because local stations are always looking for something new and different, and even old, boring foreigners are new and different to the Japanese.

As a result, I’ve been on Japanese TV so many times that I can’t count them. Being the only foreigner on a small island of 566 people, I am a natural target for TV directors looking to do a documentary about a crazy gaijin (foreigner) who lives on a remote Japanese island, channeling Tom Hanks in the movie “Castaway.”

But you might want to think before you make the leap to “TV gaijin” in Japan. I learned a long time ago what you can and cannot do on the screen. This led me to believe I was a smart TV guest. But even now, I am constantly proven wrong.

For example, when the interviewer asks you a question, most people being interviewed don’t realize that they don’t have to answer that question. Particularly if you don’t like the subject matter, you can merely answer a different question that was never, in fact, asked.

Let’s say the TV director is fascinated that you came from a family of 19 children. She may try to bring this out in the interview by asking, “So, how many siblings do you have?” But what the director doesn’t realize is that 13 of your siblings are in jail, five are in drug rehab and your father is Homer Simpson. You just don’t want to go there. You hate talking about your depressing family.

So, what do you do? Instead you answer, “I absolutely love the ajisai (hydrangea) in Japan’s rainy season!”

You see, Japanese TV documentaries are not live productions. They are a mix of quotes from you, plus the station’s own narration. The director is asking you questions merely to get content — any content — for quotes.

If you’re savvy, you can even use this opportunity to slant the documentary in the direction you want it to go. For example, it’s a given that you’re going to be asked, “Why did you come to Japan?” You don’t have to answer, “I came to teach English” (or whatever). You can say something more interesting, such as: “My mother is a hydrangea botanist and has always raved about the sublime quality of the ajisai in Japan. I remember observing the blushing petals of the ajisai in the anime I grew up watching. This, I believe, spurred my deep interest in Japanese culture. So I was ecstatic when I was offered the opportunity to come here to teach English.”

Now, isn’t that more exciting than “I came to teach English?”

You are now not only a more gratifying guest — you’ve also set yourself up to further pontificate on your passion for anime, having provided a segue into your favorite anime programs, characters, subjects, etc. In addition, you have relieved the interviewer from having to ask the next predictable question: “But you could have taught English anywhere, so why Japan?”

TV documentaries are created by splicing together various takes. Like in movies, where actors may redo a scene several times before they get it right, you have a second chance if things go wrong. So, if you screw up a line, you can simply repeat it correctly, and the editor will, of course, use the corrected version.

Except when they don’t.

Having noticed that some of my Japanese-language mistakes had not been edited out of final broadcasts in the past, I made a point of speaking up after I fluffed a line recently.

Here was the mistake: When asked about what I thought of the turnout at one of my events, I said, “Minna yoku kite kudasaimashite, arigatō gozaimasu.” (“Thank you, everyone, for coming today”). While the phrase is correct, the flub was that I was speaking to the camera, not the audience itself. It was more of a language slip with the last word: I am used to speaking to large audiences in Japanese, so this is a phrase I often use (but with the more respectful minna-san at the beginning).

Immediately realizing my blunder, I started laughing (along with everyone else), and corrected myself by repeating the phrase but changing the last word: “Minna yoku kite kudasaimashite, ureshii desu” (“I’m happy everyone came today”).

When I asked the cameraman to use the corrected version for the final edit, I was stunned by his answer: “We’ll probably keep the first one, because Japanese people think it’s cute when foreigners make Japanese language mistakes.”

If you think something like the above example is akin to making you look like a fool, or is inimical to your role as a foreigner in Japan, then you should not appear on TV. While I don’t agree with the director’s thinking, I have to accept it. The broadcaster will also most certainly use captions (subtitles) even though you are speaking Japanese, maybe even all-katakana captions (gag!). Again, if you are not willing to be a tractable guest, then avoid ignominy altogether by not going on Japanese TV.

Remember, the broadcaster’s agenda is bound to be different from yours, and many times it is hard to know what exactly their agenda is. Recently another friend of mine, an expert in Buddhist sculpture, was disappointed after he spent a week filming with a TV crew and the program aired as a lighthearted travel program touching only superficially on the exhibits he had worked so hard to explain in depth.

Directors are paid to create a program. You are there to help mold that program. Your input ends there. What they decide to do with the content is up to them, so be prepared to give up control.

What sets apart good directors is their ability to know what to cut, what to keep, and how much to edit according to their audience. It has little to do with what we, as guests on the show, feel about this. These are some of the hard truths about appearing on Japanese TV.

Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Thursday of the month. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    You may as well put on a monkey suit and let them throw bananas at you. Any foreigner who appears on Japanese TV simply feeds the insular small minded navel gazing that is anything to do with the “foreign” on Japanese TV.

    • Gordon Graham

      The JT simply feeds the small-minded pettiness of discontented ex-pats.

    • Steve Novosel

      Serious question: do you ever have the slightest positive thing to say about anything in Japan? Your commenting on JT articles is an unending stream of negativity. Don’t you get tired of being that bitter?

      • phu

        Negativity for its own sake is counterproductive. Complaining about negativity that has a purpose, though, is also counterproductive; why is it you feel the need to attack someone for being dissatisfied?

        If you take issue with the points someone makes, then address them. “You’re always negative” says nothing about the topic of the article or the statements to which you’re replying, and only distracts from any relevant or useful discussion.

      • Jamie Bakeridge

        The politeness, the cleanliness, the amazing food, the wonderful trains, the little rural islands, great skiing, the general society focused demeanor of the population, the lack of crime, mountain shrines, the atmosphere as you emerge from the fourth tunnel on the Niigata Shinkansen in winter, picking up the litter in stadiums, onsens oh the onsens, the rebuilding efforts in Ishinomaki, Taketomi-jima.

        I could go on. I absolutely love Japan. Which is why when I see the minority of those Japanese who are boorish, racist, inefficient, stupid I call it out. So that they will change.

      • Jamie Bakeridge

        The politeness, the cleanliness, the amazing food, the wonderful trains, the little rural islands, great skiing, the general society focused demeanor of the population, the lack of crime, mountain shrines, the atmosphere as you emerge from the fourth tunnel on the Niigata Shinkansen in winter, picking up the litter in stadiums, onsens oh the onsens, the rebuilding efforts in Ishinomaki, Taketomi-jima.

        I could go on. I love Japan. Which is why when I see those Japanese who are boorish, racist, inefficient, stupid I call it out. So that they will change.

  • Diane E Johnson

    My daughter and I recently appeared on local TV in Fukuoka. We were thrilled – we’ve been laughing at these man-on-the-street interviews for years. Also, the interviewer said I looked like Maria Sharapova (not quite, ha) and that was flattering.

  • Kazuhisa Nakatani

    Many native Japanese scholars and critiques have also been complaining about the same thing: “The director is asking you questions merely to get content — any content — for quotes.”

    Whether or not to accept this as matter of fact defines the boundary between TV personalities/pundits and serious journalists.

  • James Smith

    >The broadcaster will also most certainly use captions (subtitles) even though you are speaking Japanese
    To be fair most people (regardless of if they are Japanese or not) seem to get subtitled on TV in Japan. I’m not sure why they do this over using dedicated subtitling features (like dramas).

    • Tbanger9

      if you’re curious about where the money goes on TV programs…. any live/ish TV programs…look at the budget for GRAPHICS first…. it’s usually a bundle…. and top TV shows these days, especially sports… use 3D stuff…. I love Japanese JiMaKu….. KanJi looks awesome on TV…. and ‘closed captioning’ is metadata on the signal…..

  • Gordon Graham

    I’ve been on TV as a hockey analyst and they didn’t take any shots, …My son is currently on a TV commercial for Bandai toys as a Steve Jobs type promoting the new colour i-pad. He’s also been on a Sony commercial and on NHK’s Egio de Asobo…None of which was he asked to don a monkey suit so they could throw bananas at him.

    • Jamie Bakeridge

      Have a banana Graham…..
      *throw…!

  • Tbanger9

    awesome article…..

  • Adam

    This media issue is not unique to Japan, but that’s interesting. Many journalists ask questions to engender quotes that have a feeling of an argument, because audiences like it. The more you know about that, the better you can influence the outcome.

    A very interesting article. I was on a few local channels but whew I’d avoid big TV in Japan.

  • Gordon Graham

    Please quote one…just one…only one racist comment I’ve ever made. Thanks

  • K T

    While I respect people in all walks of life – carpenters, tv announcers, prostitutes (we all have bills to pay) – I think if you choose to appear on Japanese tv, you really should be aware of what you are doing. You are essentially going to the petting zoo, and becoming an exhibit, for visitors to point at.
    If you are ok with that role, then how can I judge you?

    • Gordon Graham

      It depends on whether you’ve got anything to offer besides just being a foreigner. For example, are you an expert in any kind of field or are you a talented musician? If not, then of course you’re only there for a kind of outsider’s perspective.