Japan: In land of avid TV watchers, American dramas steal the show

Even Toyota has pulled ads from Japanese shows as American TV imports grow increasingly popular.

Takehiko Kambayashi
DVDs of American shows in Tokyo.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The Japanese, perhaps the world’s most avid TV watchers, are getting hooked on American television dramas. Current and past series such as “24,” “Alias,” “Lost,” “Heroes,” “Bones,” “The Closer,” “Prison Break,” and many others have eclipsed their Japanese counterparts and become a large presence in DVD rental stores, the primary way Japanese viewers have access to these shows.

This is bad news for the Japanese television industry, which is suffering as more companies cut advertising in the face of the prolonged economic slump. Last year, even Toyota announced it would slash its advertising by up to 30 percent.

But the biggest problem facing Japanese media is their production of poor-quality and “many harmful and vulgar TV programs,” says Sadahiko Sugaya, chairman of TV Tokyo. More domestic TV viewers are attracted to US products with their unusual plot lines and big-scale productions, says Misako Wakai, who handles foreign dramas at SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation, a digital satellite TV provider. Viewers can choose to watch the American shows dubbed or with subtitles in Japanese.

“Certainly, ‘24’ is a driving force of the boom,” says Ms. Wakai. Another appeal for Japanese viewers: The “lead character [on American shows] has some specific profession such as a CTU [Counter Terrorism Unit] agent in ‘24’ and a forensic anthropologist in ‘Bones,’ while those of Japanese TV dramas are a college student or ordinary worker. They have something really attractive that Japanese counterparts don’t,” says Wakai.

The Hollywood writers’ strike in 2007-08 is another factor in the success of American TV shows, says Takeo Itami, a public relations official at Geo Corporation, which operates a major rental DVD shop. “The [movie] vacuum was filled by American TV dramas,” he says.

“I’m so addicted,” says Toshihiko Tsunenaga, a medical school student and big fan of Jack Bauer, the main character in “24.” “I’ve been pretty busy keeping up with them.”

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