Cool Japan: Why Japanese remakes are so popular on American TV, and where we’re getting it wrong

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Is your TV turning Japanese? With so many game shows imported from Japan and translated for American audiences, you may really think so.

Seven million viewers tuned in to the premiere of Hole in the Wall on Fox last weekend, a respectable amount for a show that is essentially a human version of the video game Tetris (the show was adapted for the United States after the Japanese version became a YouTube hit). And with ABC’s I Survived a Japanese Game Show, the focus of many a watercooler discussion this past summer, television executive eyes are surely looking for that next Iron Chef or Takeshi’s Castle — a Japanese game show that will become an American phenomenon in the time it takes to make ramen.

The Gross National Cool of Japan is soaring; Japanese cultural products, including TV shows, are undoubtedly “in” among American audiences and have been for years.

“There is a buzz around Japan right now,” said Patrick Macias, editor-in-chief of Otaku USA. “There is a market for these Japanese game shows because people at the TV network must know Cool Japan is happening now, especially on the Internet.”

Alvin Lu, vice president of production for VIZ Media, one of the major publishers and distributors of Japanese manga to the English-speaking world, sees that Japanese entertainment is attracting a loyal audience around the world.

“People are seeing an energy and quality in Japanese entertainment they don’t see elsewhere,” Lu said. “The web and global capitalism has somewhat eroded the barriers between different kinds of entertainment in different parts of the world, and for whatever reason, people around the world, not just in America, are gravitating to certain kinds of Japanese entertainment.”

But Cool Japan has been cementing itself in American culture long before the age of digital communication.

“You could say that interest in Japanese culture was very high in the 1980s, when things like anime and manga were being discovered by American audiences for the first time,” said Lu. “You can go back to Lafcadio Hearn in the 19th century,” referring to the Western author who was largely responsible for introducing Japan to the West.

Lisa Katayama, the author of Urawaza: Secret Everyday Tips and Tricks from Japan, agreed that Japanese pop culture has long been a foundation of certain segments of American society. “If you look at U.S. geek culture, knowledge of anime and manga is an integral part of it,” Katayama said.

And it’s growing. “Manga is huge, taking up huge sections of bookstores,” Katayama said. “Bookstores are going down, with people reading stuff online, but the manga section is growing.”

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Long Bui, an Ethnic Studies doctoral candidate at the University of California, San Diego, suggests that American TV networks are eager to import Japanese game shows because of that culture’s familiarity to Americans.

“Japan is the land of ‘The Orient,’ but America also has an economic symmetry with Japan,” Bui said. “Certain political theorists call it the first Western Asian country.”

Familiarity, however, does not necessarily breed accuracy, and larger stereotypes play into even the silliest of shows. On I Survived A Japanese Game Show, for example, “Americans are real and Japanese are goofy,” said Bui, noting that it runs contrary to the pervasive image of the stoic Japanese. Despite the fact that slapstick is almost universal, Bui adds, Japanese slapstick will always be seen in the larger cultural context, “almost inseparable from ideas of Japanese robotic efficiency, seriousness and racialized ideas of passivity and cruelty.”

Katayama said that show “is really based on the premise that Japanese are so quirky and crazy, that we don’t really understand that culture and we don’t really understand why they’re doing this, so it’s crazy and funny. Personally I feel like it’s kind of making fun of a culture without really understanding it.”

Think Geek
The largest criticism of American portrayals of Japanese culture comes from the web’s geek community. Geek culture on the Internet has a more nuanced understanding of Japanese pop culture and finds the American takes on Japanese programming to be outdated, according to Macias.

“After the show is filtered through the executive level, you end up getting a bad imitation of the real thing,” Macias said. “It’s riding on old bum stereotypes that originated, like Takeshi’s Castle, 20 years ago.”

And there are surely many Japanese shows that are destined to remain on that island — for now, at least. “To make a really successful Japanese variety show, you have to have really crass humor and there’s a lot of slapping involved and there’s a lot of violations of basic rights to privacy,” Katayama said, referring to shows where people are pulled from toilets or shot into the sky from porta-potties. “That would never fly in the U.S.”

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