Inside the World of Japanese TV

T.E. McAuley, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield [About | Email]

Volume 4, Issue 1 (Book review 4 in 2004). First published in ejcjs on 18 February 2004.

Penn, Wm. (2003) The Couch Potato’s Guide to Japan: Inside the World of Japanese TV, Sapporo: Forest River Press, Paperback, ISBN: 4-902422-01-8, xi and 202 pages.

The Couch Potato’s Guide to Japan claims to be ‘a rollicking ride through the world of Japanese television’, according to its cover-note. Its author, Wm. Penn has written the ‘Televiews’ television column for the Daily Yomiuri newspaper since 1987, and so would seem to be well placed to document and comment upon the nature of a medium which entertains almost every Japanese household, and there is no denying that she possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of, and great enthusiasm for, her subject.

The book is composed of eleven chapters, each documenting a different aspect of the Japanese television world: chapters one and two introduce the Japanese TV archipelago and cover the various social themes addressed in Japanese television programmes; chapter three provides an overview of the types of dramas most commonly shown; chapter four addresses issues of the language used on television; chapter five describes the Japanese television comedy scene; chapter six covers television news; chapter seven addresses variety programmes; chapter eight describes the pastimes most commonly engaged in on television; chapter nine discusses TV tourism — the Japanese public’s wish to visit the sites of their favourite programmes; chapter ten is a compilation of ‘Televiews’ columns; and chapter eleven provides a list of sources and addresses for further research on Japanese television.

In fact, chapter ten is not the only place in the book that previous columns make their appearance: the majority of the material in chapters 4-9 also appears to consist of previously written material, interspersed with occasional pieces of new information and linked together by Penn’s conceit of ‘Virtual TV Travel’s three-day, two-night guided tour of Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo, Hokkaido’ (p.1).

To confirm what the above may imply: this is not an academic analysis of the phenomenon of Japanese television, nor does it claim to be. It is simply ‘a book about watching TV’ (p. xi). Taken on this basis, it provides an interesting and accurate description of world of Japanese television, written in a never less than entertaining and engaging style. As might be expected from a long-term columnist, Penn has an eye for the pithy, well-turned phrase, which sometimes serves to disguise the soundness of the observations she makes. In particular, her description of Japanese television news as haiku ‘in the present tense, totally fixed on the moment, like the local news which concentrates just on the incident in question, seldom seeking background data or investigative reporting to put things in context’ (p. 98) is particularly memorable.

This is not to say that the book is without its weaknesses. As so much of it is composed of previous Daily Yomiuri columns, aimed at an audience of Japan-dwelling expatriates, a considerable background knowledge of Japan and Japanese life is assumed, and so the book cannot be recommended as entirely suitable for students seeking an introduction to the world of Japanese television. Moreover, the short nature of the individual columns occasionally gives the book an episodic and unstructured feel. The book is also self-published, and this shows in the inclusion of extraneous material (some of the columns in chapter 10 have little to do with Japanese television) which an editor might have encouraged her to omit. Penn states in her introduction that ‘about once every two years since the mid-1990s, I have suggested to one publisher or another that I write that TV book’ (p. x) and this reviewer was certainly left wishing that she had actually written a new book, rather than spending so much time regurgitating old material. One further criticism concerns the lack of Japanese in the text: anyone wanting to read about Japanese television would presumably have at least a passing familiarity with the Japanese language, both written and spoken, and the book would be much more useful as a reference and information source if Penn had included the Japanese script versions of people’s names and programmes’ titles.

In conclusion then, in the absence of anything else, The Couch Potato’s Guide to Japan provides an entertaining and accurate depiction of the world of Japanese television, and is certainly worth reading by anyone interested in the subject, but we are still waiting for a true guide to the medium.

About the Author

T.E. McAuley is a lecturer in the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield, where he teaches Japanese-English translation and runs the Japan 2001 Waka website and mailing list. His research interests focus on pre-modern Japanese linguistics/literature, and his most recent work 'Switch-reference and semantic discontinuity in late old Japanese' was published in 2002 by the Journal of Japanese Linguistics.

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