TV is a wonderful way to learn about culture. While I've mostly given up TV for this new fangled "internet" thing, I do enjoy the bits and pieces of Japanese TV that make it to the net. Here are some of the best ones I've turned up recently.
These shows are amazing because they have no qualms about using "physical pain" as the primary source of entertainment. There's also a healthy dose of shame here. The shame is the interesting bit, because shame is the primary means of enforcing social rules here in Japan. Drinking on the street isn't illegal, but it is discouraged. People will stare and frown and generally express that they feel your behaviour is "shameful". Public shaming is among the worst punishments, as most social discipline is expressed in a private setting. Taboos are fascinating, and therefore, everyone loves watching some poor naked sap get pitched down a ski hill with his willy waving around. It's also dead funny for just about everyone but the doodle dangling downhiller.
On to the "pain" bit. This is fun because pain itself is funny, but we feel a bit guilty when we watch someone else get hurt (even if you sometimes laugh a bit... and I'm looking at you "Three Stooges".) The solution to this little ethical dilemma is to use the THREAT of pain as a driver.
Again, watching someone scream for his life can be pretty funny when you know he'll be ok in the end. Want proof? Take a ride in this taxi.
I wonder what they tell people when they make them sign the waivers. After all, I doubt that they're spoiling the prank...
This next bit is purely about scaring the living crap out of people. It's wickedly funny, because the camera operator knows what sells: people screaming in sheer terror while we laugh at their misfortune. Sounds evil doesn't it? Clicky Clicksity...
I find Japanese TV most intriguing for the use of a studio audience and call-out boxes to display people (often celebrities) reacting to key moments. I suspect that they use this image to let you know which "reaction" you are expected to have. Shocked? Happy? Amazed? What if you're unsure? Well, just follow the guy in the box. They pop them onto the screen and show the viewer that it is socially acceptable to laugh out loud, cry or shout at the contestant.
The in-show commentators are seemingly designed to create the feeling that TV is more of a community-based experience than a personal one, which is very important in a society that pursues unity to such a large extent. The studio audience lets you seek consensus, or at least the generally accepted way to react to a given situation.
After all, the whole audience is laughing. Why aren't you?