TV | Wide Angle

Twitter speaks: That joke isn’t funny anymore

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

An Aug. 16 episode of Tokyo MX’s variety show “Hirukyun!” found comedian Ken Horiuchi (better known as Horiken) joining the hosts in the studio. Over the course of his stay, he launched the other TV talent and stage hands into a wall of cardboard boxes, before throwing some at people too (including staff who presumably had nothing to do with the bit). Later, Horiuchi picked up Minami Tanaka and Ahn Mika to perform “cleaning,” which involved swinging them by the legs so that their hair worked like a broom or a mop.

This slipped by for a bit, until a user on Twitter expressed their disgust at the segment and shared the offending clips. The topic lit up online, with many condemning the footage as examples of sexual harassment and violence against women. Some registered complaints with Tokyo MX, while one of the prevailing sentiments that emerged on social media was, “Why is this being aired in 2018?”

Horiuchi has been a prominent comedian since the 1990s, and his shtick is that he’s an entertainer who can’t read a room, often doing awkward (or, more accurately, uncomfortable) things as a result. He has performed countless similarly obnoxious bits in the past, and he’s not alone. Physical comedy bordering on abuse has been central to Japanese programming for decades — it fuels the Western perception of Japanese “game shows” — as have actions that would be rightfully labeled “sexual harassment.” For a long time, this stuff wasn’t questioned — it was all just jokes (and you can find all sorts of YouTube compilations highlighting this).

Outright violence has been curbed over the decades, especially thanks to vocal organizations in the late ’90s. Yet content that could be considered sexual harassment or racist has festered far longer on Japanese airwaves. Following the Horiuchi footage going viral, some Twitter users shared other recent clips that made them feel uncomfortable, such as a game where young women had to run away from a man trying to catch them and who, if they failed, would give them a literal licking.

But 2018 has been a year in which viewers have fought back and questioned why this stuff continues to get to air. The conversation around Horiuchi and similar stunts shows a more vocal shift in what’s considered appropriate for TV, as does the fallout from this year’s New Year’s Eve blackface scandal. Some people are grossed out by this stuff and don’t want it pushed into their programming anymore.

For many, the definition of what’s appropriate for TV and comedy has changed. Now it remains to be seen if actual stations — and comedians — get the message.