Entertaining Japan: the Early Japanese Entertainment Television

Seong Un Kim

In the summer of 2014, with the generous support of the Social Science Division’s summer grant, I was able to complete one of my dissertation chapters that deals with audience participation programs in the early Japanese television history (1953-73). Japanese television has been known for its sensational entertainment shows with violence, obscenity and nonsensical comedies. Since its inception in 1953, Japanese television has presented several entertainment programs that provoked fierce criticism of the “vulgarity” of television. Among those “problematic” shows, several of them involved audience participation as a core part of the shows, featuring unpredictable excitement created by amateur participants who were usually unfamiliar with the broadcasting process. Contrary to regular TV stars, these amateur participants, seemingly representing “ordinary Japanese TV viewers,” appealed to the TV audience with their unique freshness and vitality. Ironically, it was the very unpredictability of audience participation shows that drew criticism of “vulgarity” from TV audiences. In order to understand what was at stake in the public discourse of postwar audience participation, we require a detailed examination of the first few audience participation programs broadcast on radio during the allied occupation period (1945-52) and public discourses that revolved around those programs.

The initial discourses of audience participation in Japanese broadcasting emphasized its democratic value of giving the public opportunities to freely express their opinions on the national microphone. Such positive view on this broadcasting practice was upheld by allied occupation and NHK, both of which had great interest in using radio for the purpose of promoting reform policies of the occupation. This perspective of audience participation as a centerpiece of postwar democratization of broadcasting has been challenged by recent scholarship which focuses on a pedagogical use of this practice in teaching Cold War cultural values to Japanese public. These scholars shed new light on the way in which the radio stage of “free speech” came with certain set of rules.

During the occupation period, political debate programs with participatory format particularly flourished on NHK radio, and gained popular support. In a sense, these programs were designed to provide radio audiences with a classroom where they could learn how to participate in debates in a “democratic” way. In the production of these programs, the spirit of “democracy” was articulated in several ways: adherence to “impartiality” among opposing opinions, and independence of any political organization. Entertainment programs, which offered amateur performers opportunities to show their talents on the radio airwave, also sought to establish a certain set of behavioral codes regarding amateur performances. Broadcasters hoped that performers on stage were productive members of society who enjoyed performing without any aspiration of entering show business. They also kept an eye on stage performances so that “vulgar” elements could not appear on radio.

In the TV era, these pedagogical ideals were greatly challenged by the new breed of audience participation programs that foregrounded commercial success and ecstatic performances. Some critics accused these programs of wrecking the democratic potential of audience participation, and defined them as “vulgar.” Yet, other commentators supported these “vulgar” audience participation shows by arguing that “vulgarity” should be interpreted as the vitality of ordinary people, and that this “good vulgarity” must be even promoted. In the meantime, these two seemingly opposing arguments converged in the sense that they both advocated the “democratic” nature of audience participation. They both agreed that eliciting public participation on broadcasting stage was democratic in nature, where participants represented the “people” who formed the building blocks of Japanese postwar democracy. In other words, opposing commentators embraced the “liberation of microphone” narrative that the U.S. occupation, in cooperation with NHK, initially established. The dialectical relationship between the two diverging interpretations of “vulgar” audience participation can be read in the context of the complex dynamic of the Cold War culture. Here, the totalizing impulses of the containment culture were supplemented by the emancipatory rhetoric of the resistant popular culture, delivered through the expression of the popular media.