The Krypton Factor Lite

When I was a teenager, I always used to stay up late on a Saturday night to watch Saturday Night Clive with Clive James. Uh, when my busy social calendar of being invited to rockin’ underage high school parties permitted it, of course.

By far, my favourite part of Saturday Night Clive was when he would show weird TV from around the world, and my favourite part of that was when he would show Japanese game shows. There’s probably no Japanese game show that saved Mr. James more script-writing time than Endurance, the show where the person who could tolerate being dragged pants-less across gravel, trapped in a glass coffin with snakes or simulated-ly drowned the longest wins.

Ah, thems were the days. Unfortunately, Japanese TV today is a far more sedate affair, much more reliant on goofy comedy and celebrities rather than the simple pleasures of laughing at an unfortunate dancing around with a weasel down his pants. In spite of that, every now and then you find a charming, simple idea on one of the many, many game shows available on Japanese TV.

The idea of this quiz show is that contestants are given a question to which they must provide a number of answers (such as “Name 4 movies by director X”). To make things slightly more interesting though, they must speak their answers into a microphone which is only raised when their partner runs over a threshold speed on a treadmill:

This makes it a bit more entertaining, except that the time limit for each question is only 15 seconds and the threshold speed required is only around 15 kph, so the runner hardly breaks a sweat. Then again, the participants are generally celebrities from the pool of talento, so the idea is really more to lob them softball questions while making small talk about their new DVD / movie in between.

Ah, for the old days… bring back Endurance, I say!

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Late night language learning

It’s pretty hot and steamy in Tokyo at the moment, and Al Gore has guilted me into sleeping without air conditioning.  Or rather, attempting to sleep without air conditioning.  I try to put my insomnia on these occasions to good use, however, and turn to Japanese TV to keep training my ears to absorb language.

One of the staples of late-night Tokyo TV are language-learning shows.  As native English speakers, we’re quite spoiled in that we can visit most countries with the assumption that many signs will be bilingual and at least someone there will speak our language.  However, for a native Japanese speaker only knowing the language spoken on the Japanese islands, if you have even the smallest interest in communicating with people of other nationalities, some foreign language study is going to go a long way.

This means you’re going to see many more people studying foreign languages (mainly business English) on the train in Tokyo than you will in most English-speaking countries.  While I’m of course biased, language shows aren’t as dominated by English as I had expected.  Russian, French, Italian, German, Korean and Mandarin shows can all be found channel surfing on most nights.

The formula for low-budget language-learning shows seems pretty well-established.  Ingredients:

  • middle-aged Japanese guy with thick head of hair as host;
  • very cute but clueless-acting starlet to act as the learner’s proxy;
  • older, academic-looking guy (always with gray hair, always in a lab coat for some reason) to explain the finer points of the language as needed;
  • native speaker of the language in question, who usually also has decent Japanese.

So, why does the foreigner need command of Japanese on a foreign language show?  Because a surprising amount of the show’s content will be in Japanese – usually more than the amount of the language being studied. This was surprising to me, since all the Japanese schools I’ve attended to date take the full immersion route (i.e. no English) from day one.  Even a high-level English learning show I saw explaining how to talk about things like prevailing economic conditions and mergers and acquisitions was about 60% Japanese, 40% English.

By chance, I did see a language learning show this week that broke this mold in a particularly interesting way.  Starting off conventionally, it was a French learning show with an attractive native speaker who also spoke decent Japanese:

Along with this guy wearing a beret so you know you’re studying French:

Once the native French speaker had finished explaining a point, a panel of young (and needless to say, cute and seemingly clueless) girls have to pick and attempt to read out loud (in French, naturally) the action they’d like an on-hand Frenchman to do.  The twist is that only one of the choices is a thing you would want, like a present.  The other two are humiliations.  Below, choice 1 is “Please wrap a stocking around my head.”  Choice 2 is “Please wrap this as a present for me”.  Choice 3 is…

“Please hit me in the face with a pie”.

Now that’s a good motivation to study: avoiding public humiliation.

Honestly, I didn’t know how effective this was as a learning device – it seemed that the girls were more or less picking randomly.  The French guy played his role to the hilt: being very French and doing what was asked with a sense of smug bastardry, like rifling though the girls’ bags when they unwittingly asked him to do so.

Well, I’m writing this post for the very insomnia-related reasons I was talking about to begin with.  It’s just gone 1am and I’m watching the 8th hour of a 26-hour telethon, which seems to have abandoned the use of a script or any pre-planned ideas between midnight and 8am.  Two guys are just sitting around a table (and horrors, casually lighting up cigarettes on live TV), having a grand old time amusing themselves. I think I’ll go and quickly read some global warming skeptics’ op-ed pieces and flimsily rationalise cranking up the AC to 11 and getting some sleep instead.

Obama Daitouryou done Japanese

Talk about falling into a job. Meet comedian Nozomu Sato, Japan’s “official” Obama impersonator:

Japan's Obama

Caption: “What do you think of the President? And America?”. I don’t know if this is referring to the likeness, or if they’re asking him for his political insights.  He is sufficiently qualified after all, wearing a suit and all.

Any time I’ve happened to turn on the TV of late, this guy has invariably been on, whether it be a talk show, quiz show or cooking show. Celebrities on Japanese TV (“talento”) seem to be like that – once you get noticed for your thing, whether it be some stupid catchphrase or looking like the POTUS, prepare for some super-overexposure.  Does Mr Sato say “Yes we can” a lot?  You bet!

In Japan, President Obama is called “Obama Daitouryou”, which can be literally translated as “Big Chief Obama”. People in Japan love Obama, but perhaps for more than the obvious political reasons. In a country where studying English can give you a big leg-up career-wise,  every bookstore I walked into during and after the presidential election last year was playing (and selling) a CD with Obama’s speeches. Not a bad idea, actually – those crisp, lawyerly tones would be an excellent model to learn from.

Ah, so extrapolating from that, then: perhaps if I were to model my Japanese on Fake Big Chief Obama’s, my Japanese would get…. weird.  Weirder.