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Anyone interested in Japanese television is familiar with the term “yarase,” which refers to on-air situations staged to look natural and spontaneous.

When the content is news-oriented, charges of yarase will lead to in-house investigations and, if proved, apologies on the parts of senior executives. In the realm of entertainment, however, viewers usually let things slide. In fact, recognizing yarase is a component of media literacy in Japan. Not just because people wise up to subterfuge after years of exposure to it, but also because producers actively incorporate the idea into their shows. Wondering whether something is fake is part of the supposed fun.

One program that has perfected this concept is “The Innen,” which TBS broadcasts several times a year. “Innen” means “fate” or “karma,” and the subtitle of the show always promises that something momentous will be revealed. Celebrities, most of them situated somewhere on the washed-up spectrum, revisit past scandals and try to come to terms with poor choices and bad behavior. From the outset there is a strong whiff of yarase. After all, who willingly exposes their foibles for the sake of cheap schadenfreude?

The producers don’t even try to confound the assumption that the objects of scrutiny are appearing for reasons other than personal redemption. There are lots of jokes about the amount of money they are making by just showing up and how doing so may boost a flagging career, especially if it’s flagging due to the faux pas under discussion. The show flatters viewers for their knowledge of how these matters play out in the media.

What may fool people is the gravity of the issue at hand, which on paper wouldn’t normally merit much in the way of outrage or even curiosity.

One show that aired last March generated much internet chatter when former sumo grand champion Akebono was reunited with TV personality Yu Aihara. The two were an item back in the 1990s when Akebono was at the top of his game and Aihara was ubiquitous on TV for her preternatural cheerfulness. It didn’t work out and Akebono dumped Aihara, who was left puzzled and bereft since she learned about the breakup through the media.

During their “Innen” hookup, Akebono explained that he told her to her face that he was leaving her, but for some reason she didn’t comprehend what was happening at the time. This revelation was dramatically enhanced with close-ups of Aihara’s distressed countenance and concluded by Akebono losing his temper and storming out of the room as staff tried to stop him. Yarase? Maybe not, but it was difficult to get worked up over the sight of Aihara, whose image centers on her artless refusal to think ill of others, acting as if someone had just killed her dog.

The bombshell for the two-hour installment aired Sept. 29 was a promised deathbed confession by 89-year-old actress Mitsuyo Asaka to her 63-year-old son, who was born out of wedlock. Foisted off on her maid, the son would occasionally visit Asaka but was not allowed to call her “mother,” only “sensei,” and though he eventually succeeded as a producer for a video company, he’s never known who his father is because Asaka promised the man she would take the secret to her grave.

Asaka’s “hidden child” has been a tabloid topic for years. During her heyday as a chanbara (sword action) stage actor who specialized in male parts, she was famous for her string of lovers. Now, she is mostly bedridden but managed to make it to a coffee shop to meet her son in front of the camera. He badgered her to tell him who his father is and — after making some ancillary but provocative admissions, including the news that her lover had tried to persuade her to abort him — she said only that the father was a politician who eventually became prime minister after being deputy prime minister. He also had a son who was a politician.

Those clues apply to more than a few public figures, but viewers who know something about postwar Japanese politics can narrow the short list down to two or three possibilities. Still, it isn’t a bombshell unless names are named, and like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear it, the segment felt like something that only had meaning because it took place in front of cameras.

In other segments, viewers could vicariously snipe at misbehaving celebrities through designated inquisitors. In one, singer Kenichi Mikawa, known for his acid tongue, berated up-and-coming second-generation impersonator Ryotaro Shimizu for getting caught up in a gambling scandal. In another, the show’s hosts and some female guests ganged up on ikemen (good-looking) actor Yoshihiko Hakamada for cheating on his wife, who watched the interrogation from a remote location. In both cases, derision was aimed not so much at the subjects’ misdemeanors, but rather at their failure to act sufficiently remorseful in public, a showbiz ritual that is itself a form of yarase. In any case, Shimizu didn’t seem to learn his lesson. He was arrested last week for drug possession.

And then there was stylist-turned-TV personality Ikko‘s prosecution of Ai Yahata, a former idol who vanished several years ago after appearing on a variety show where she dared to question Ikko’s qualifications to lecture a group of ingenues like herself on beauty tips. Yahata’s articulate self-defense was useless against Ikko’s notorious petulance, especially since the only purpose of the segment was to generate a cat fight, with guests jeering from the sidelines.

But Yahata’s argument indirectly explained the show’s reason for being. When Ikko accused Yahata of insulting her on the variety show just so she could stand out from the crowd, Yahata didn’t deny it.

“You have to understand how many women like me wanted a career on TV,” she said, believing that acting up on camera would ensure attention that she could exploit. Though Ikko of all people should have been sympathetic, she wouldn’t have any of it in front of an audience. The protocols of yarase demanded nothing less.

Correction: This story was updated on Oct. 16, 2017, to reflect that fact that Ryotaro Shimizu was recently arrested for drug possession.

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