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Who wants to say he’s a millionaire?

by Philip Brasor

Everybody knows that the popular quiz show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was dumbed-down after it was exported from England to the U.S. Some advertisers, in fact, were very angry because they thought the level of difficulty made it too easy for contestants to go all the way.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Without the real possibility that someone can win a million, there’s little incentive to watch. In any case, the Yanks don’t seem to be particularly bothered by the news that they are less brainy than the Brits. Who needs brains when you’ve got the strongest economy on the planet? Which is another point that appeals to Americans — the vicarious thrill of watching someone make lots of money without doing much work to get it. It’s a wonder they weren’t the first to think up the show.

The Japanese franchise that airs on Fuji TV (Thursday, 7 p.m.) is almost identical to the American version, even down to the title, which has been retained, I imagine, for identification purposes. The word “millionaire” has little meaning when the currency in question is yen, but at least the producers were alert enough to place a dollar sign in front of it. They obviously want the Japanese public to know it’s a copy of that famous American show.

It isn’t the first time an American TV program has been imported and adapted. It isn’t even the first time Japan has imported an American program that was itself imported from England. TV Tokyo’s long-running antique and collectibles show, “Nandemo Kanteidan,” was adapted from “Antiques Roadshow,” the highest-rated public television show in the U.S., which was adapted from an older BBC program.

On the British version of “Antiques Roadshow” (which is occasionally broadcast on NHK’s BS2 channel) the appraisals are less important than the stories attached to the heirlooms that average people bring to the show. On one show, a woman explained to the appraiser that her drawing by Henry Moore was given to her mother by the artist himself after the two had an affair.

The American version is all about money. If the same woman brought the Henry Moore sketch to the American show she’d tell the story, but what’s more important is that she could probably get a cool 50 grand for it on eBay. They still need the stories, but they’re auxiliary and can even be made up. It’s been revealed that some people who’ve appeared on the show were frauds.

“Kanteidan” gives the stories even less room. The show is just one long parade of junk. There’s no need to make up stories because the program is upfront about its purpose, which is to titillate viewers with the possibility that they, too, may have something in the tansu that’s worth a lot of money.

Similarly, the questions on the Japanese version of “Millionaire” seem even simpler than those on the American one. There’s no way to reliably measure the difficulty of the questions, but even I know most of the answers to the ones about Japanese culture without ever having studied Japanese history; and the ones I don’t know right away I can guess correctly through the process of elimination.

Since the Japanese contestants have gone through 12, sometimes 16, years of formal education that uses the multiple-choice testing system extensively, they have a greater affinity for the show’s format. The emblematic “Is that your final answer?,” which has become a cultural catch phrase in the States along the lines of “Where’s the beef?” and “Whassup?,” mimics the way the brain works when taking a standardized test. As my Japanese students used to tell me when I taught English, knowing how to take the test is sometimes more important than knowing the answers.

“Millionaire” also fits current Japanese programming trends, which are moving away from celebrities as on-air talent toward greater use of average people. The only celebrity on the show is the acerbic host, Monta Mino, who is better at this kind of thing than the avuncular Regis Philbin. Mino’s reputation as a taskmaster of taste and morality was challenged last year when it was revealed that some of the couples seeking divorce on “Aisuru/Wakareru Futari,” which Mino hosted, were ringers. He’s a bit warmer on “Millionaire,” but his meaningful scowls and histrionic delivery are appropriate given that the bare-bones conception of the show does not allow for much dramatic variety. How many different ways can you say “Correct!”?

Nevertheless, “Millionaire” is not the ratings blockbuster here that it is in the U.S. and Europe. Because even lower income people buy nice cars and fancy clothes, it isn’t always easy to tell the rich from the poor in Japan. Most Japanese people are uncomfortable waving large sums of cash in public, especially if it hasn’t been earned the old-fashioned way. Most of the contestants, as a matter of fact, seem happy to quit halfway and collect their 2.5 million yen.

Just think of the lottery here. Though hundreds of thousands of people buy takara-kuji tickets, you never see the winners on the news holding huge cardboard reproductions of checks and telling reporters how they’ll spend their windfall, which is what they do in America. Everyone may want to be a millionaire, but not everyone wants everyone else to know about it.