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TV Dramas Provide a Window on Japan

May 21, 1998

Strange sights around Japan, like these handkerchiefs tied to a station fence, are often inspired by scenes in popular TV shows. (Photo: Kyodo)

Serial TV dramas, Japan's version of soap operas, can be the shining star of audience ratings for a television station. That is why TV stations are pouring so much energy into these evening shows, which generally run once a week for a three-month broadcast season. While TV dramas reflect life, they often try to drum up sensations of one form or another, creating booms and taking on social issues.

Juvenile Delinquency Stops Rebroadcasts
The TV drama Gifuto (Gift) has drawn fire in the wake of the recent proliferation of stabbing incidents involving juveniles. Starring the most popular male star in Japan, this drama features frequent scenes showing the hero flashing a knife. Even though the original broadcast of this TV drama had ended by the time knife-related crimes picked up in Japan, the knife shown on this program is the same kind used in many of the knife-related incidents. Young people, it seemed, were carrying around knives because their idol "looked cool" doing so. This finding led to the cancellation of all rebroadcasts of the show.

Shitsurakuen (Paradise Lost), a TV drama centered around an illicit love affair, caused quite a stir by showing extremely graphic sex. The original story appeared first as a serialized novel in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, a leading daily newspaper, at which time it aroused considerable attention and was even made into a movie. Featuring nudity and bed scenes in every episode, the show sparked complaints that airing it after 10:00 at night was not enough to keep children from watching it. Nonetheless, it boasted a high audience rating. The same writer and actress teamed up on a new TV drama that started in April 1998, promising to create yet another stir.

Boon to Sign Language
TV dramas are certainly not viewed exclusively as problems. Recent years have seen the appearance of TV dramas that take up issues involving hearing-impaired or mentally disabled people, spreading awareness regarding such conditions and promoting the use of sign language. Of course, opinions differ regarding the depiction of people with physical and mental handicaps.

Seija no Koshin (When the Saints Go Marching In), a show dealing with the mentally handicapped that wound up its final episode in March 1998, had been criticized by a weekly magazine, among others, for "putting in too much violence and too many rape scenes to increase its ratings." One organization representing handicapped people, however, shows a certain degree of understanding, saying: "The mass media have only just begun taking up the issue of intellectually challenged people. Let's evaluate the overall effect and not get bogged down with details."

Another trend in TV dramas is the depiction of women at work. Many of these shows do not focus only on elite or career-oriented women, but present viewpoints of women everywhere. Two TV dramas started this spring with themes based on self-supporting "office ladies" (a Japanese term for often non-career-oriented, young, female office workers; usually shortened to "OL") who become involved in various real-life situations. By portraying women from a variety of angles, not only in the home or involved in love affairs, the shows provide a better reflection of the real world.

Top Dramas Reflect Real Life
One thing common among many TV stations is the current shift in focus in their dramas toward younger audiences, using teen idols and popular young stars. The reason so many dramas target young women is related to the importance sponsors place on the purchasing power of that group. The one-hour time slot beginning at 9:00 p.m. on Monday boasts several of the more popular dramas. It is often said that young women "vanish" from city night life during that time period. Fall 1997 program scheduling saw one TV station temporarily drop all of its shows featuring samurai life in past centuries, popular among people in the upper age brackets. As "samurai dramas" lose their footing, the move toward younger audiences is becoming more evident.

Popular TV dramas commonly reflect real-life themes: from school dramas of the 1980s, when school violence was a frequent occurrence; to illicit love dramas (one of which was so popular that an abbreviation of its name can now be used to mean "when a married woman has an affair"); to more recent dramas dealing with stalkers and psychological issues. As for which TV dramas will prove to be the rage this season, we will just have to wait and see.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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