Japanese TV rulz!
Ask any gaijin what they like the most about Japan and they will usually say stuff like: the people, culture, food, temples, hot spring baths...that kind of thing. I like all that stuff too - except for the hot spring baths, which I quit going to a couple months ago - but what I love the most is the glowing box in the corner of my little tatami room.
I really like Japanese TV. No, I don't think you understand. I REALLY REALLY like Japanese TV. In fact, as pathetic as it may sound, I will miss the TV programs here more than anything else when I leave this country.
For example, there's the trivia show that features useless but fascinating facts. Did you know that the little projections on the upper half of temple bells are called 乳(chi chi)? That means "breast" or "nipple". Did you know that the pictures of Natsume Soseki on the 1,000 yen note and Inazo Nitobe on the 5,000 yen note were taken at a wedding? On today's show, they investigated a question that has surely been on everyone's minds for years: The word "stupid" is written 馬鹿 in Japanese, where the first character means "horse" and the second "deer". (There must be an interesting etymological story behind that.) So which animal is actually the dumber of the two? The horse or the deer? After a series of sketchy IQ tests, it was determined that the horse is the dumber animal.
After each bit, the panel members hit a button in front of them a number of times relative to how interesting they found the trivia. Each hit counts as one へぇ (he), which might be translated as "Hmmm" in English. Then at the end of the show, they tabulate the total number of he's for each piece of trivia to determine the winner. The person who submitted the winning trivia receives a golden brain trophy which opens up to hold a loaf of "melon bread".
Do American TV programs have such tongue-in-cheek humor? Not as much, I think. In fact, Japanese humor sometimes reminds me of British humor: good natured, sometimes deadpan, lots of slapstick, and always self depreciating. I love it.
There are so many interesting programs like this on TV. My all time favorite, however, is 世界うるるん滞在記 (Sekai Ururun Taizaiki), a show that sends one celebrity or TV personality (usually an actor or musician) to live in a foreign country for one week. Sometimes they are sent to developed countries, and other times they are sent to live with forest-dwelling tribes that walk around naked and wipe their asses with leaves. The program does a great job of showing that all the peoples of the world are fundamentally the same; we all value family, children, friends; we all enjoy eating; and we must all cope with sickness and death. And we all wipe our asses in one way or another.
I always wondered why the US doesn't have a similar show. Could it be because many - or most - countries of the world would not be so welcoming of an American guest? Japan has done a pretty good job of spreading good will around the world after WWII. I suppose if you are an island nation with few natural resources surrounded by countries that are still deeply upset about their wartime abuses, you'd better spread good will like there's no tomorrow. Are there any Western countries that feel animosity toward Japan? None that I can think of, especially after Japan's bubble burst. I guess that's why they are much more free to roam around the globe without fear of encountering enmity. I mean, imagine a show where an American goes to live with a French family for a week. When you think about it though, it's less that the French would be unwelcoming and more that Americans simply wouldn't give a damn about someone learning how to make croissants in Paris.
Have you noticed how many of the Japan Self Defense Force boys in Iraq have mustaches? Apart from construction foremen, I rarely see mustached men in Japan. It seems to me that the troops are doing their best to respect the local culture. It may sound inconsequential, but these little gestures can make a huge impression on people's minds.
I envision that in the near future, we will be able to watch any TV station in the world for a reasonable fee. Some things are available on-line, and a few stations, like NHK, broadcast via satellite TV services, but there's still a ways to go before we get Meta Cable. Thousands of stations at your fingertips! That's gonna be awesome.