Have you ever channel-hopped around Japanese TV?
I’m imagining you ended up doing some nearly endless zapping—scared and perplexed by all those people screaming and waving their hands in the air while speaking a language that seems to have nothing in common with this beautiful and melodious language you were taught in school.
The truth is that TV variety shows in Japan aren’t always the ideal option for beginners or intermediate learners. TV personalities speak fast, use dialects, make jokes and throw out puns. The complex mix between diverse levels of politeness can be confusing. On top of that, their behaviors are often pretty far from real life too. You’re more likely to get discouraged than to practice your language skills efficiently.
That said, this kind of program is a huge part of Japanese television culture, so you can definitely feed your curiosity and learn a couple of things by watching. Just be aware of the fact that it’s perfectly normal if you feel like something’s lost in translation. Plus you’ll be able to talk about on-trends jokes with your friends or coworkers! Good for your social life and immersion, but maybe not the easiest bet for your language practice.
On the other hand, if you watch the evening news, you’ll probably understand opening and closing greetings only (if you actually understand anything). Levels of politeness in Japanese are like this: Confusing. TV news—needless to say, radio news is worse since you can’t even see people—is difficult to understand in any language and for all learners, so wait until you have a sharp grasp of the language to give it a try.
So, What Japanese TV Shows Should I Watch?
First, and as already stated above, I believe it’s better to avoid anything humor-related. Understanding jokes requires a very high level of proficiency, and humor is highly cultural. As a consequence, if you watch one of those many (many, many) comedy TV series or variety shows, chances are you’ll have a feeling you’re watching beings from another planet. Not to mention, seeing people laugh and having absolutely no idea of the reason why they’re laughing can be fairly frustrating.
There are two things to check before sitting comfortably with a cup of tea and your dictionary on your couch: The level of formality and the vocabulary the program features.
Most Japanese students learn and understand neutral Japanese (～ます、～です), hence will find it difficult to follow conversations when it’s either too casual (gangster movies for instance) or too formal (such as the news). The trick is to choose something that is as close as possible to what you understand, but also to what you actually need.
The same reasoning applies to vocabulary. That documentary on Japanese Whiskey may be fascinating, but do you really need lexicon on traditional brewing techniques?
Of course, it’s TV, so they’ll definitely do things you would never do, yet it’s very resourceful for learners, especially if you’re struggling with the fundamentals. It will help you understand when the conversation requires being casual, neutral or formal. Watching this kind of shows will also surely provide you with a more global vision of body language and relationship structures in Japan.
Finally, although parts of those shows are staged, the fact that they’re behaving naturally means they’ll give you opportunities to learn tons of words you need and probably don’t know yet.
Keep your dictionary close, but don’t dig into it all the time. It’s fine to not understand everything—it will actually take years until you do—so use this as an exercise to improve your oral comprehension skills and check only the words that keep coming back in the conversation and systematically prevent you from understanding what’s going on.
Generally speaking, steer clear of historical documentaries, family stories, coming-of-age portraits, romance or crime related themes, unless you’re okay with picking up only a few words in each sentence. If you really want to watch a large spectrum of shows, fair enough, but remember that if you get one full sentence here and there, it’s already a victory!
Oh, and to get started watching any kind of Japanese TV program right now, regardless of your current skill level, you’ve got to try FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
All you have to do is select the Japanese TV clips that seem most interesting to you, and you’re off! You can toggle interactive Japanese and English subtitles on and off at will, and every spoken word is carefully annotated so that you’ll have plenty of support while you watch. Just hover your cursor over any subtitled word to see an in-context definition, image, pronunciation audio and multiple example sentences. You can even click on a word to see how it’s used in other videos across the site.
The interactive subtitles, vocabulary lists and tailor-made flashcard decks will help you learn actively while watching your favorite videos, giving you an extra boost in Japanese reading and listening practice.
All of this support makes it possible for Japanese learners of all levels to experience Japanese TV firsthand, without breaking a sweat!
5 Japanese TV Shows That Learners Love
In Japan, “wide shows” (ワイドショー – わいどしょー) are usually scheduled in the morning. Sometimes, they have guests, sometimes they don’t. In any case, they review the news using headlines from the morning papers. If there are guests, they’re more likely to be experts on current society of political issues rather than entertainment related.
They provide visual content with the newspaper pages themselves, which makes it easier to keep up with the information as they speak. They also repeat and develop all these points in a somewhat academic style. The idea is that the Japanese audience should be able to get the information without having to listen carefully, but as an indirect result, it means you’re likely to feel less overwhelmed than when watching a regular debate or news broadcast.
Finally, a lot of content is subtitled (pretty much all interviews) which is, in my opinion, one of the best tools ever to enlarge vocabulary and improve listening comprehension.
Besides, it’s a wonderful way to keep track of important events in the country and overseas if you’re interested in economics and politics. I always recommend this type of show to students from business schools, because it’s an excellent way to enlarge your vocabulary in those topics too.
Deciphering TV programs can be intimidating when you get there and discover how it feels to be surrounded by kanji all day long, so here is a little shortcut to the jungle of TV channels.
1. スッキリ! (すっきり!) — “How Refreshing!”
I love this one. First, it’s conveniently scheduled every day from Monday to Friday and runs from 8 to 10:25 AM, which means that you can catch at least part of it everyday. That’s my breakfast watch when I’m staying in Japan.
I always try to not miss the first five minutes of the show, because they start with 知ってスッキリ！！６つのNEWS (しって すっきり！！むっつの にゅーす), which consists of six pieces of information that often turn out to be quite surprising.
I like that they relay and discuss information from various sources, including social networks such as Twitter. Besides, they make space for entertainment news which are not gossip related. The team is fairly relaxed and although they invite experts to comment, there’s a very friendly and fun atmosphere on screen.
Make sure to check this show on Nippon Television (日本テレビ – にほんてれび).
2. モーニングバード (もーにんぐ ばーど) — “Morning Bird”
This one is a somewhat serious and studious variation. No pranks or hysterical laughter here, anchors have done their homework and topics are fully developed.
I like the general tone of speech, they feature plenty of encounters with pundits, investigation-style reports and street interviews. Best of all, they obviously love their jobs.
No need to be such a morning bird though: It screens every morning at 8:00 AM from Mondays to Fridays on TV Asahi (テレビ朝日 – てれび あさひ).
3. よ〜いドン (よーい どん) — “Steady…Go”
This wide show is settled in and revolves around the Kansai region. It does a lot of coverage on local events. For example, they often go and meet craftsmen and creative people, ask questions to people in the streets, visit factories and shops, etc. It also deals with a broad range of topics, from the most random themes to academic and economic issues.
The set itself has a cozy vibe—no crazy amusement park style deco here—which goes well with the friendly, casual atmosphere among the team. They’re sitting around a table, surrounded by tatamis and interior decoration elements, and there’s even a wide window with a fake landscape. How relaxing, right?
4. アッコにおまかせ (あっこに おまかせ) — “Leave it to Akko”
This one is sort of an hybrid between variety and wide shows. It pairs a well-researched review of the news with a super kitsch TV set, neon lights flashing everywhere, an overexcited audience, tons of guests and an above average sound level. They discuss the newspapers headlines, but also offers entire chunks with narration illustrated by lots of videos. It’s both instructive and fun to watch.
This one can be seen every Sunday on TBS and starts at 11:45 AM, so it’s sleep-in friendly.
On a side note, Akko—Akiko Wada (和田アキ子 – わだ あきこ)—has been a TV star for so long (she’s also a voice talent and singer) that you’ll need to get to know her at some point anyway.
Some people absolutely love this show, some can’t bear it more than ten seconds—pick your side!
5. ヒルナンデス (ひる なんです) — “It’s Twelve O’Clock”
As the title indicates, this one is designed for those who can’t make it in the morning or need a little catch-up with the news midday, since it screens Monday to Friday from 11:55 AM to 1:55 PM on Nippon TV.
It’s the least academic on this list, with many somewhat random (and at times absurd) news coverage, but it’ll let you keep up with wiser topics as well. It’s perfect for one of those days when your concentration skills are not willing to collaborate and you need a lighter approach.
So, Is TV Only for Studying?
Of course not! But if you are in Japan, keep in mind that your stay won’t last forever and access to these resources will become more challenging once you’re back home. Make the most out of this experience. It will make your life there easier and more enjoyable, and you’ll be able to discuss all this with your Japanese friends.
If you are back home, then think about it as a way to combine fun—wouldn’t you watch TV anyway?—and study. The quicker you move forward into your learning process, the better your experience will be in the event you visit Japan or meet Japanese people.
If you just want to chill out, ditch the dictionary, get popcorn and watch something you’d truly fancy in your own language. Or, to the contrary, find something completely new so it becomes exotic.
I remember watching baseball a lot during my first year in Japan, when I was an exchange student. That said, despite the multiple games I watched, I realized I still didn’t know the rules the first time I actually went and watched one for real.
Why not invite friends over and watch TV together? This way you’ll have somebody to ask for explanations when needed!
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