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From travelogues to Banzai, theres a history of portraying the country as kooky and odd saying more about its makers than its subject
It just feels so alien! So other! So extraordinarily strange! So said Sue Perkins as she walked across Tokyos most crowded zebra crossing in the opening sequence of her travelogue. But shouldnt this all be more familiar by now?
After all, BBC Ones Japan With Sue Perkins, which aired last month, was only the latest in a long run of British TV programmes inviting us to boggle at the east Asian country. These shows always feature a shot of the aforementioned Shibuya Crossing, items on AI and sumo wrestling, and a concerned interview with an undersexed young man (sometimes called otaku) and/or an overexcited young woman (something to do with kawaii). Only rarely do they offer fresh insight.
At least the upcoming Queer Eye: Were in Japan! on Netflix and BBC Twos drama Giri/Haji have obeyed the most basic rule of making British TV about Japan: dont name it after that slightly racist 1980s hit about masturbation. Thats where Channel 5s Justin Lee Collins: Turning Japanese went wrong. Or rather, it was the first of many wrong turns in which the since-disgraced comics 2011 travelogue erred.
TVs other orientalist missteps are less daft, but more common. The premise of Queer Eye five sophisticates makeover a sad-sack puts Karamo Brown in danger of doing an accidental Lawrence of Arabia when he arrives in Tokyo. That is, updating the colonial yarn of the westerner who is eventually accepted by an alien community and then asserts his inherent superiority by embodying the culture better than the locals. Happily, Queer Eye has addressed that risk by including Kiko Mizuhara, a Japanese-American model and Tokyo resident as its guide.
The illuminating presence of Mizuhara is, however, unusual. British television programmes have a tendency to represent Japanese people as stereotypically odd or kooky, without explaining the cultural context, says Professor Perry R Hinton, an expert in intercultural communication.
This kind of othering reveals a narrow-mindedness. As Shinichi Adachi, the Japanese-British film-maker behind YouTube culinary series The Wagyu Show explains, Japanese culture isnt particularly strange, just more accepting of humanitys strangeness. They respect people, even if they dont understand them. People dont really care if others have weird hobbies.
Another big contextual omission is Japanese self-awareness. A regular set-up in Perkinss show involves her making wry observations while her hosts look on, blank-faced from the edge of the frame, presumably excluded from the joke by the language barrier. Shes not the only one. Similar interactions took place in No Sex Please, Were Japanese (BBC Two, 2013), Joanna Lumleys Japan (ITV, 2016), Adam and Joe Go Tokyo (BBC Three, 2003), and even in Jonathan Rosss generally respectful Japanorama series (BBC Choice/BBC Three, 2002-7).
But Japan is in on the joke. Indeed, theyre the ones who cracked it in the first place. Hinton gives the gameshow Endurance as an example. First introduced to British audiences via Clive James on Television, then Tarrant on TV (1982-2006), it began a fascination with Japanese gameshows that has continued through Takeshis Castle and the controversial E4 spoof Banzai, which Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans described as an Asian minstrel show. Yet all this revelling in gameshow exotica was born out of a subtle mistranslation. Hinton points out that the word endurance has a particular connotation in Japanese culture, akin to stiff upper lip, with roots in the resilience required for post-second world war reconstruction. Rather than Endurance representing Japanese otherness, it showed a confidence in being able to mock ones own national character, similar to Monty Pythons Flying Circus, says Hinton. The Japanese gameshow is as much an example of cultural similarity as it is of difference, but its the latter that British TV producers choose to emphasise.
To attract viewers, its understandable, says Chiho Aikman, of the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation in London, but the reality of Japanese culture is quite different. She suggests architecture, regional cuisine (We dont just eat sushi!) and the spread of hate speech as topics that dont get enough attention. Instead, shows about hikikomori (modern-day hermits) and 40-year-old virgins with huge hentai (manga/anime porn) collections give the impression that subcultures typify an entire nation. In truth, such selections often say more about the audience than they do about the subject. So, if anyone comes out of this looking like socially inadequate, culturally insular, sex-obsessed pervs, well, its not the Japanese, is it?
Queer Eye: Were in Japan! is available from Friday 1 November on Netflix