Dear Alice,

I want to ask about something that has bugged me the entire 17 years I have lived in Japan. It irritates me so much I am tempted to replace the "heck" in "what the heck" with something considerably stronger but I will be a lady and restrain myself. Anyway, what the heck are those little video bubbles that pop up on almost every quiz and variety show on Japanese TV, the ones that show a celebrity guest reacting to what's going on in the show? I want to view the video clip and experience it for myself, not follow the overdone emotions of some TV personality!

Marian K., Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture

Dear Marian,
Those screens-within-a-screen are called waipu in Japanese, which would seem to come from the English word "wipe." As you may know if you're a film buff or work in television, "wipe" is a film-editing term. It describes a type of film transition where one shot replaces another by moving from one side of the frame to the other, or with a growing or shrinking shape. (Think of the shrinking circle used in the old "Looney Tunes" cartoons to mark the end of the story.)

Now wipe those images from your mind, because what we have here is another case of an English word borrowed into Japanese to mean something else. A waipu, which is what you're asking about, is something different. It is a superimposed image, smaller than the main frame and usually in the shape of a box, which is used (and overused) in certain Japanese television programs to show the reaction of a celebrity guest to a video clip.

I couldn't recall seeing this device anywhere except in Japan, but I put out feelers to other countries and confirmed it does exist elsewhere but is seldom used. The correct term in English is "picture-in-picture," abbreviated as "pip" or " p.i.p." (pronounced "pee eye pee"). A U.S. television director told me picture-in-picture boxes are used occasionally on American television, most commonly on interview programs with several participants, but that they are generally avoided because they're considered "distracting and cheesy-looking." In Britain, a director there reported, they show up "only on the sort of tawdry daytime audience show on which a family member confesses to something disgraceful whilst, unbeknownst to the confessor, the wronged person listens backstage and is shown to the viewer in a picture-in-picture box."

So how and why did these boxes become so popular in Japan? To find out, I went to TV TOKYO, a major broadcaster that with its five affiliate stations reaches 67 percent of Japanese households. I was lucky to get an interview with Eikichi Okada, a producer of top-ranking shows, who laid out the whole history for me.

In Japan, the standard in TV quiz shows through the 1970s featured audience participants responding to questions, he explained. But in 1981 Fuji Television tried a new format in which a panel of professional actors and comedians watched brief videos on international travel and answered questions on the place featured. The show, "Naruhodo! The World," was a huge hit and inspired a whole genre of similar shows. It's still the dominant format for quiz and variety shows on Japanese television.

Along the way, directors noticed that the panelists had reactions worth sharing with viewers. The first step was allowing the reactions to be heard, which Okada said functioned something like the laugh track on American sit-coms. Later someone figured out the reaction could be shown in a frame superimposed on the main screen. This proved very popular with viewers, who liked knowing that their favorite TV personalities laughed at the same things they laughed at and cried at the same things they cried at.

"Until then, television stars existed on a higher plane than their audience, seen and admired at a distance," Okada explained. "Viewers expected stars to sing or perform for them, or have a beautiful appearance." But when programs began to show the performers' reactions more clearly, viewers' expectations changed. "Now what viewers want is interesting talk from their favorite stars," Okada told me, "and to share emotions with them." To meet those demands, the number and duration of waipu have steadily increased.

Another factor that brought about the increased use of waipu is the prevalence of remote controls. "It used to be that Japanese viewers would sit down with the intention to watch a show, and then stay with it for the whole hour without changing channels," Okada explained. But now viewers are more likely to decide what to watch by flipping through channels. "We have only a few seconds to hook them, and a recognizable face in an onscreen box can keep them from switching channels. Younger viewers, in particular, tend to know a great deal about TV personalities and can tell just by which faces they see whether they want to watch a show."

This is certainly true of my friend Yoshiko, who recognizes every face that pops up on TV and can tell you all about them, including their romantic entanglements and where their kids go to school. I, on the other hand, have lived in Japan more than a dozen years and do watch Japanese television, but can name only two or three of the most frequently seen faces. I'm just not interested. And therein lies the problem I have with waipu.

"If you aren't interested in the personality, having the waipu on-screen is going to be meaningless at best and possibly so annoying that you change the channel," Okada conceded. This is true for older Japanese viewers, too, who are less likely to be interested in TV personalities and more likely to find waipu distracting. "Personally, I think it's best to make the video clips so interesting that they stand on their own," Okada said, and use waipu only when they truly add something to the program."