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Japanese Game Shows: Unpacking Their History

Rachael has been interested in many aspects of Japanese culture for a long time and hopes other people can learn her sense of appreciation.


Japanese Game Shows

For Westerners, the terms "insanity" and "Japanese game show" are pretty much synonymous. We see small clips, or read articles about some of the crazier stunts, pass them around on social media, and then forget about them. But we're not the original broadcast audience for those shows. When most people in the West see part of a Japanese show, they aren't going to follow through with trying to figure out the facts and context. We're just going to laugh, go "aren't those Japanese crazy" and move on. As if we don't have just as much crazy sh*t going on on American TV? Puh-lease.

I'm making it my personal mission to understand these shows. The clips and articles spark my curiosity. I'm compelled to seek information that can make sense out of chaos.

My questions?

  • Who made the first Japanese game show? What was that like?
  • How did Japanese game shows evolve throughout the decades since then?
  • What Japanese game shows and reality shows have done the craziest thing?
  • Are all Japanese game shows crazy or just certain "edgy" ones?
  • What cultural reasons might explain the differences between our game shows and theirs?

So the first item to sate my curiosity is, what was the first Japanese game show?


Early History

Were Japanese game shows always freaky? The first one was just called 'Gesture.' I can't find much information about it, but The Atlantic called it 'simply charades'. The first Japanese TV shows were mostly cartoons. These were usually action-oriented boys' anime, like Speed Racer, Astro Boy, and Kimba the While Lion. Girls got titles such as Princess Knight and Sally the Witch, but early Japanese TV was dominated by boy-focused action anime (shounen).

During the 1970s, anime became more mature, with shows like Mazinger Z and Lupin the Third offering action, but also exploring character depth, and targeting adult audiences more. Live-action TV shows at this time were similar to anime, action-driven and mostly involving dudes fighting in rubber suits.

In the 1980s, we saw the growth of variety shows and news-type shows. This is the birth of the "Japanese Game Show" as we think of it, in the form of Takeshi's Castle. Takeshi's Castle was the genre codifier for what we consider a Japanese game show to be — people falling down while trying to run a ridiculous, difficult obstacle course. Takeshi's Castle was a hit, going on for 155 episodes and spawning international copycat versions worldwide. Thus was born the idea of the "wacky Japanese game show."


The Top Japanese Game Shows of Today

1. AKBingo

Infamous on the internet for its premise of "let's make some incredibly cute girls do icky things", including, but not limited to, blowing cockroaches back and forth between two people's mouths inside a tube! The most internet-infamous challenges involve the girls being blindfolded and having to guess what they're touching or tasting.

Who are these girls? Well, the game is hosted by, and challenges are done by, members of an idol (pop music) group called AKB48. Sounds like the name of a gun, doesn't it? The group is huge, and rotates members in and out.

According to Wikipedia, the group is "... one of the highest-earning musical performers in Japan, ... and has been characterized as a social phenomenon. ... AKB48 is the highest selling musical act in Japan in terms of singles sold." (Wikipedia: AKB48).

The show started in 2008, and involves a variety of games. If you've only seen a clip, you've probably only seen the show's weirdest moments. I provide a complete episode below from YouTube, so you can see that if you watch the whole thing, it's really just a normal game show/ celebrity talk show

2. Ninja Warrior (aka Sasuke) and Kunoichi (Women of Ninja Warrior)

This one is probably the most famous outside of Japan, at least in the US, where the show American Ninja Warrior has become pretty popular. The obstacle course is less zany than that in a show like Takeshi's Castle, being more of a straightforward athletic competition. It tests endurance, speed, dexterity, and strength with various obstacle courses.

Women are allowed to compete in Sasuke, but it's so difficult that none have cleared even the first stage. According to TV Tropes, "Out of the 3,400 attempts across all 34 competitions to date, only four men have ever defeated the entire course—a success rate of about 0.118%." (Source: TV Tropes: 'Ninja Warrior (Series)').

So... yeah. You probably won't see me going on that one.

3. Panel Quiz Attack 25

This is one I could actually have a shot at (maybe?). This game is a 4-person combination trivia and board game. Four players answer questions to take control of a board with rules similar to games like 'Go' or 'Othello'.

4. Run For Money Tousouchuu/ Battle for Money Sentouchuu

Run For Money Tousouchuu requires players to run around and avoid chasers called Hunters for a certain amount of time in an enclosed space, for cash prizes if they remain not tagged long enough. TV Tropes notes that this show usually starts out fairly easy, then suddenly becomes a lot harder after the first challenge.

Battle for Money Sentouchuu is a more recent spinoff. Instead of just running away, contestants now have a dodgeball to defend themselves with, and women are given shields. This show basically sounds like a most extreme version of dodgeball. There can only be one winner in this one - if two players are left at the end of the time, nobody wins the grand prize!

5. Iron Chef

This one, like Ninja Warrior, has become popular internationally, and got international spinoffs. The original Japanese show involves two contestants who are given one hour to cook a multiple-course meal for the judges, using a specified ingredient. Whoever can make the best meal with that ingredient wins!

Most Westerners are familiar with this through its international spinoff, Iron Chef UK. The format and exact rules changed a little, but Iron Chef retains an element of excitement and surprise in all versions. The show is fast-paced, sometimes a little campy and goofy, and dramatic. The original show isn't running anymore in Japan, but some American spinoffs are still airing.

Differences Between Japanese and American Reality Shows

The dominant genre of reality TV in Japan is the obstacle course. Celebrity variety shows, like AKBingo, are second. There are some obstacle course shows on American TV, but that is not the dominant flavor of American reality TV.

Reality TV in America focuses on the journeys of individuals in a contest. Wannabe singers, entrepreneurs, and chefs tear up for the cameras as they recite their whole bloody life stories. Some shows involve a guru who comes in and fixes people's problems (mostly white, upper-middle-class problems), such as Dog Whisperer or Nanny 911. House-hunting, house renovation, and tiny house shows are also popular.

The common thread is that we are presented with a person, or family, we're supposed to feel sympathy for them. We're to feel moved or inspired by watching them struggle and overcome personal problems. Other shows, like Real Housewives of Whatever, Jersey Shore, Big Brother, and Keeping Up With the Kardashians, follow around hot, young, sometimes-sorta-famous people with cameras. These shows focus on getting an up-close and personal look at someone's life and their day-to-day struggles (pretty, rich, famous struggles).

But Japanese reality TV is a lot less personal. It may even be dehumanizing sometimes. A lot less focus is placed on the contestants as individuals, and a lot more emphasis is on the contest they're competing in. Notice how on Jeopardy, the contestants rattle off their whole life stories? On Japanese TV game shows, they don't blather on about themselves half as much. It shows a different cultural mindset, one that de-emphasizes individual life stories.

Japanese shows are also more often about an intense physical struggle or challenge, while a lot of American game shows are about chance, skill, emotions, and/or general knowledge. Of course, this is generally speaking. Ninja Warrior got a popular American version, and that was a physical contest. And we did have Fear Factor for a while, which was mostly about making contestants eat gross things, with some timed obstacle course challenges as well. In American TV, there's typically a harder line between sports, which are physically challenging, and game/reality shows, which usually aren't, save for rare exceptions.


Have Japanese Game Shows Killed People?

Probably not (Source: Quora). When contestants fall, it's onto padding or into a safe pool. The shows play up the danger aspect for ratings and publicity, but a lot of safety precautions are taken. People have been injured, once even a Hong Kong pop singer who fell from a slippery stage and died. But Japan has strict rules about showing blood and violence on variety shows. Any injury to contestants is always an unfortunate accident, never the intent of the show. Deadman Wonderland and Danganronpa will remain safely in the realm of animation for the near future. For better or worse.

Missitsu Nazotoki Variety Dasshutsu Game DERO! (pictured above) was a game where contestants fell to a fake "death" when they failed to escape from a room by solving puzzles before time ran out. That game show was canceled, when the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit. There were concerns that the show's "water room" challenge, which simulated the drowning of failed contestants, would hit a little too close to the hearts of people who were grieving for loved ones who had really drowned.

A sequel program returned later, Takarasagashi Adventure Nazotoki Battle TORE!, which had an Indiana Jones theme (Source: TV Tropes). And uh, no more water room.


We're All Crazy

The tone of most Japanese game shows is a bit silly, yes. It's supposed to be all good fun. The Western media goes a little overboard with exaggerating the craziest moments on these shows while overlooking a lot of stuff that happens that's not so crazy. It would be like if people in other countries got their entire opinion of American TV from the weirdest or craziest moments on shows like Jerry Springer or Honey Boo Boo.

The "wacky Japanese game show" where players risk life and limb on TV is a total fabrication and/or exaggeration by the Western media. When dealing with other cultures, it isn't helpful to accentuate differences. I like to focus on what unites humanity as one. So what's the deal with Japanese game shows? Well, they're probably actually pretty similar to shows you would see in the US or UK, or anywhere else.

© 2018 Rachael Lefler


Rachael Lefler (author) from Illinois on July 20, 2019:

Yeah it would be great if more of them were translated!

Granddad1941 on July 20, 2019:

I like watching Japanese live shows, it's a pity they are not translated into English, so a lot of us would understand them.