The ``Japanization'' of programming on American television has begun. Just as the United States has witnessed a virtual takeover of the television set and VCR markets - and a partial takeover of the economy-car market - by Japanese industrial empires, there now seems to be growing evidence that these same industrialists are invading American television in an attempt to make certain there is a positive image of Japan before the American TV viewing public. What amounts to a subtle public relations campaign is being waged on PBS and on some cable channels at very little cost to the Japanese. It is expected that the return, in good will and good trade, will make the expenditures seem a very small price to pay for services rendered.
Public television seems to be a focal point right now. But PBS viewers are by no means suffering because of the presence of some fine Japanese entries into the PBS schedule.
This week, two excellent documentaries, examples of the best of this kind of programming, air on PBS: ``Japan Reaches for the 21st Century'' and ``Faces of Japan.'' (check local listings for day and time for both shows). Both are as finely crafted as a Japanese camera, presenting a wide range of relevant material in a seemingly balanced framework. The viewer can learn much about Japan from both films, and perhaps even more important, from the Japanese industrialists point of view, can come away with a vaguely positive attitude towards the nation as a whole.
``Japan Reaches for the 21st Century'' is a fascinating investigation of a fascinating society hosted by Daniel Schorr, an independent newsman with superb credentials. Written and directed by Philip S. Goodman, this documentary utilizes straightforward interviews and on-location film footage to make its point that family, village, race, and nation tie the Japanese together as they integrate new social attitudes, new political ideas, and new technology into their age-old culture.
What emerges is a portrait of a once-feudal nation that has evolved into an amazing high-tech era and is coping with the many new problems of such a pull between change and tradition. They are finding innovative solutions, but still recognize that there are societal as well as economic problems ahead.
While the program seems to be balanced, there is an obvious attempt to play down such negative aspects of recent Japanese history as the aggressive Japanese role in Manchuria and Pearl Harbor. Writer-director Goodman told the Monitor that only he had final script approval, but when the film was first screened at Japan Society recently, Hidy Kaihatsu - director, international relations, of Fuji Xerox (a joint venture of Fuji Photo Film and Xerox) - said he had played an active role in making certain Fuji, the underwriter, would get the ``fair'' image of Japan it wanted. In any case, PBS rules for restricting underwriter influence in program content need to be observed carefully.
``Faces of Japan,'' a 13-part series hosted by Dick Cavett, attempts to introduce American viewers to contemporary Japanese society through weekly portraits of individual Japanese. Episodes include everything from the story of a young career woman, to a high- school baseball team, to a small farmer in a mountain village, to the problems of small businessmen - Japanese and American - in Japan.
``Faces'' is produced by TeleJapan USA, the independent US subsidiary of TeleJapan International, a leading production company in Japan.
In addition to these two programs, there's other evidence of the Japanese media invasion:
TeleJapan is also currently developing a series on post-war Japan with WGBH/Boston to be presented on PBS.
Every Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. CNN/cable presents ``This Week in Japan,'' produced by its Tokyo bureau. TeleJapan is involved in the advertising end of the presentation.
``Japan Today,'' was a weekly program that recently finished its run on USA/cable.
``Ohayo! New York,'' a ``Good Morning, America''-type program aimed at Japanese-Americans in the New York area, airs every morning on WNYC, a PBS-affiliated station. Similar local programs are popping up in other major US cities.
WNET/NY is heavily involved in Japanese-oriented programming. ``Innovation,'' the WNET-originated program on PBS last year, presented a segment on Japanese industry, underwritten by Mitsubishi. WNET's ``The Brain'' series of 1984 was co-produced by NHK, the state-sponsored Japanese TV system. NHK also co-produced an hour-long special on ``Adam Smith's Money World'' titled ``Thunder in the East: The US-Japan Trade War'' and is planning another ``Adam Smith'' special about Japan's role in the world economy. Only a couple of months ago, WNET's ``Bye Bye Kipling,'' a global interactive variety show, was made possible by grants from several Japanese corporations.
There seems to be much more Japanese-oriented programming in the offing. In October, WNET/NY announced the establishment of the Japan Project, in collaboration with the Japan Society with Peter M. Grilli serving as Director.
``To foster increased public understanding in the US of Japanese culture, history, politics and economics through sustained public television programming,'' according to the official announcement.
The Project is being funded in its first year by the United State-Japanese Foundation of New York.
The Japanese orientation is not restricted to PBS and cable television. NBC has aired two documentaries that focused on the industrial growth of Japan in the midst of its cultural heritage. And this Friday, ABC is airing the premi`ere of a new series, ``Gung Ho!'' based on the recent movie about a Japanese company's takeover of an American auto factory.
Why all of this American TV focus on a better understanding of the Japanese, produced with the cooperation and, in most cases, the assistance of the Japanese themselves?
According to a spokesman in the New York office of the Consul General of Japan, there is a feeling that the Japanese know contemporary America better than Americans know contemporary Japan.
And since the two nations seem to be the world's industrial leaders, Japanese officials believe it is important to make certain that Americans understand Japan and the role it is playing in world affairs.
He points out that there is a tradition in Japan of commercial organizations sponsoring cultural events for the general public as a gesture of goodwill, a tradition that is being extended to the US.
However, experts in US-Japanese trade relations point out other, less altruistic, possible motivations as well:
The Japanese want to compete in the American market and they recognize that it is best to seem as American as possible.
As the yen grows stronger, Japan's exports are increasingly pricing themselves out of international markets. As prices rise, there is a need to promote the product in a wider variety of ways.
It is important to establish the idea that Japanese culture cannot be separated from the economy. Thus, for example, rice can be viewed as a sacred harvest that might understandably be excluded from importation. Other foreign items may also fall into this convenient category.
In view of Japan's selective exclusionary trade barriers, it is in Japan's interest to avoid reciprocal US protectionist barriers that might slow entry of compact cars and electronic equipment.
So the better Americans think of Japan, the better it may be for future trade relations.
Japanese industrialists may well be thinking ahead along these lines as they underwrite more and more ``informational and cultural'' good-will programming about Japan on American television. As Americans watch the growing presence of Japanese programming on their television screens, the question naturally arises: Is this a cultural exchange or a subtle maneuver to influence the US-Japanese balance of trade?
Some observers insist that it doesn't matter. While it is unfortunate that the US continues to lose the battle of the trade balances, they maintain that the first-rate quality of most of the Japanese programming constitutes a more important net cultural gain for US.