Japan experienced no shortage of change in 2019, whether via the arrival of a new imperial era or the ongoing transformation of Tokyo ahead of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. There was at least one place, however, where people could turn for the familiar — television.
Japanese terrestrial TV over the past year occupied a strange space in the country’s fabric. Younger people tuned in less, based on a Jiji Press survey from last month, but the medium still remained a trusted source of information, according to a study by the Nippon Foundation.
However, even if certain demographics are trending downward, TV remains vital in the country — especially when it comes to newsworthy moments, with 2019 being full of eye-catching stories, from the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito to Japan’s performance in the Rugby World Cup.
Traditional TV remains important in Japan, even if the actual programming cramming up the airwaves has felt like a throwback to the past rather than a reflection of how the world is changing. Television shows mostly stuck to tried and tested formulas in 2019, save for a few notable arrivals that offered a peek at what the 2020s could potentially offer.
Glancing over ratings reports provided by groups such as Video Research Ltd., the biggest winners of the year were familiar shows, ranging from longstanding news programs to music specials. On the narrative front, 2019 saw stations succeed by sticking with familiar characters and tropes. The 18th season of “Aibo: Tokyo Detective Duo,” a detective drama, reminded us that if something has worked for nearly two decades, don’t mess with it. The sixth season of medical rollercoaster “Doctor-X: Surgeon Michiko Daimon” similarly performed well in the fall.
New offerings also generally stuck to the familiar, with most shows leaning toward either “mystery drama” (Fuji Television’s “Sherlock: Untold Stories,” which asks “what if that ‘Miss Sherlock’ show from last year dropped the ‘Miss?'”) and “complicated journey to fulfill your dreams drama” (the restaurant-centric “Grand Maison Tokyo” as one example, and “Kizuna no Pedal,” which deals with a dilemma involving organ donation and the desire to be a bike racer, being another). Even a more low-key show like TBS offering “The Good Wife” was just a Japanese take on an American creation.
The consistent ratings winner in terms of original content, however, came via NHK’s asadora (morning drama) programming. The national broadcaster’s morning drama slot has been going strong since 1961, and 2019 productions “Natsuzora” and “Scarlet” kept the tradition alive. It’s tempting to view these series — which focus on women trying to break into the heavily male-dominated spaces of animation and ceramics, respectively — as progressive developments in broadcast TV. But of course, this has served as the template for asadora for decades, which says more about the familiar state of storytelling in 2019 than anything else, besides maybe that it will take more than daily dramas to overthrow the patriarchy.
Even scandals felt far more pedestrian in 2019. While 2018 started out with one of the biggest New Year’s Eve specials dabbling in blackface and violence, sparking a wide-ranging debate on both topics, the biggest TV kerfuffle of 2019 was a TBS variety show called “Crazy Journey” planting exotic creatures in places the hosts would encounter soon after. Nothing all that salacious, though, and a good sign that TV pretty much dodged any serious racist scandals this year, leaving those for the worlds of advertising and comedy, which didn’t keep so clean.
The actual narrative shift regarding Japanese television came via streaming. This was the year Netflix broke through thanks to boundary-pushing series like “The Naked Director,” which offered many the chance to experience something redefining what Japanese TV could be.
Terrestrial airwaves, however, have changed a lot over the years, and part of 2019’s familiar feeling was once-radical ideas becoming ho-hum. Matsuko Deluxe’s various shows remain must-sees for many in Japan, giving the personality continued status as one of the country’s most unlikely entertainment power players. Following the runaway success of last year’s “Ossan’s Love,” “What Did You Eat Yesterday?” once again placed gay relationships in modern Japan into the spotlight, coupled with great footage of food. Fuji Television’s “My Husband Won’t Fit,” meanwhile, offered some welcome subversion to the romantic drama genre by making the central tension about, well, take a guess where exactly the husband doesn’t fit.
The station doing the most to offer a new spin on Japanese TV, though, was a somewhat unexpected one. Traditionally seen as somewhat stuffy, NHK has spent the last few years going in unexpected directions with its programming, especially after dark. The past 12 months saw continued love for interview-show-meets-puppet-theater “Nehorin Pahorin,” while the slightly unsettling character Chiko-chan became popular enough to warrant her own line of food. New offering “Numa ni Hamatte Kite Mita” presented topics in a way geared right at the internet crowd, while “Oshiete! Sei no Kamisama” offered a straightforward panel discussion wherein two hosts and a rabbit puppet (again with the puppets!) fielded questions from young people about sexuality and identity.
Change in Japanese TV has been bubbling up for a while now, even if no paradigm shifts are on the horizon. Rather, it’s a lot of the familiar with pockets of new lurking around. Yet those programs do offer an intriguing image of how easily broadcast television can feel fresh with a few tweaks, and maybe some strings attached.