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: firstname.lastname@example.org