The Misunderstood History of the Wacky Japanese Game Show

Zany contests have fallen out of style—even as the Western image of "crazy" Japanese TV seems to be ramping back up.

Disney; YTV

Earlier this month, the “Japanese-styled family game show” Japanizi: Going Going Gong premiered in the United States and Canada, on Disney XD and YTV respectively. The show puts teams of kids through physical challenges ranging from running along conveyor belts to dressing up as penguins in order to slide down a slippery slope—oftentimes while “ninjas” throw various projectiles at them. Marblemedia, the company behind Japanizi, describes it as a chance for audiences to “experience the zany world of Japanese game show culture.”

This isn’t a new proposition. Japanizi itself is a kid-friendly version of ABC’s I Survived a Japanese Game Show, which ran from 2008 to 2009. Even long before that, Japanese game shows have been sent up by the likes of The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. The punchline to those gags resembles English speakers’ Youtube comments on the subject: These programs are “crazy,” “wacky,” and “weird.”

But the stereotype of Japanese game shows as bizarre affairs where producers put contestants through strange punishment just doesn’t ring true in 2013. The “Japanese game show culture” Japanizi and I Survived A Japanese Game Show trumpet—and that comedies and comment sections mock—once existed, sometimes in forms even more extreme than Western parodies. But that hasn’t been the case in the last 15 years. If anything, more and more Japanese people say their TV choices nowadays have become boring.

Game shows existed in the programming mix since television broadcasting in Japan started in 1950. The earliest incarnations, though, were as benign as could be: One of the first and most influential was called “Gesture,” and was simply charades. Game shows became more complex as the years went on, yet quiz programs remained the dominant type. Most games were segments in “variety shows,” a popular type of TV program in Japan featuring celebrities engaging in discussions and contests. That format remains unchanged today, though personalities now also watch YouTube videos and talk about them.

The foreign image of Japanese game shows, though, arose from the ‘80s staple Takeshi’s Castle. Launched in 1986, the hour-long program depicted more than 100 contestants enduring several physical challenges—most of them involving lots of water and mud—in order to storm the titular fortress. Many games required contestants to wear ridiculous costumes and featured people on the sides throwing things at players.

The show shaped so many folks' perceptions because, unlike other Japanese programs in the pre-Internet world, Takeshi’s Castle received global syndication. It aired in nearly 30 countries, becoming a hit in places like the United Kingdom. In America, the show ran from 2003 to 2007 on Spike TV as MXC, where footage of the original program was dubbed over with (often ridiculous, deliberately inaccurate) English.

Despite its role in shaping international perceptions of Japanese TV, Takeshi’s Castle differed greatly from the country’s other game programs at the time. It wasn't just the challenges; Takeshi featured regular people as contestants, whereas most others only had established celebrities competing. Takeshi’s Castle portrayed contestants as being “forced” into taking part in the game, which explains another misconception: that Japanese game shows seem hell-bent on torturing innocent people (Survived presented American contestants as being “kidnapped”). In reality, most game show participants are totally willing celebrities, and Takeshi’s hostage-situation premise was of course just a shtick.

Not all Japanese game shows in the late ‘80s and ‘90s were weird—plenty of them focused on people playing video games against one another—but that period did feature some legitimately unique programming. Search for “Japanese game show” on YouTube and the first page will be dominated by the faces of Matsumoto Hitoshi and Masatoshi Hamada, better known as the comedy duo Downtown.* Their Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! was one of the country’s most popular programs of the ‘90s, and produced a large chunk of segments that became “weird Japan” signifiers in the Internet age. Particularly memorable were “punishment games,” wherein losing cast members had to do deeply embarrassing actions, and physical-pain games like “Penis Machine,” wherein contestants have to recite a tongue twister without error or face getting socked in the testicles.

Around the same time, Japan boasted a lot of sexually explicit games airing late at night, which went on to become “weird Japan” staples as well. These shows featured segments where men competed with the objective often being to reveal a woman in either skimpy clothes—or nothing at all (NSFW example here). These shows weren’t primetime staples, and it wasn’t like sex-soaked TV was unique to Japan in the early 1990s, but they did have a heyday.

So the wacky-Japanese-game-show cliché reflects real programming that once ruled the airwaves. But for a show in 2013 to pretend this model remains dominant today is off base. That’s because, even though shows featuring physical punishment and nudity were popular, there were also plenty of Japanese people outraged by them. The non-profit, non-governmental Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization set out to reform Japanese television, and in 1997 established The Broadcast and Human Rights / Other Related Rights Committee. This arm of the organization “aids parties whose honor, privacy or other human rights have been violated by broadcasting.” The group proved to have sway, and by the year 2000 the “punishment games” and sexy late-night programming were gone or toned down drastically.

This, coupled with an interest in the show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, ushered in the age of Japanese game shows that remains today—ruled by quiz shows with famous contestants. Only one program, Panel Quiz Attach 25, features regular people playing. Everything else stars celebrities, finding them answering trivia question while riding in fake rockets or guessing the price of items at grocery stores. The shows with actual physical contests are far more tame than Takeshi’s Castle or anything from the ‘90s; the challenges these days more resemble those on Nickelodeon’s Double Dare.

Save for the viral spreading of “Brain Wall” (Human Tetris) and the continued success of Sasuke (closer to ESPN than The Game Show Network, and inspiring American shows Wipeout and Ninja Warrior), very little considered a game show in Japan as of late has been worthy of the “wacky” tag. A recent viral clip, dubbed “Orgasm Wars,” appeared on a late-night cable program on a special pay channel and introduced another round of Western tittering about Japan’s supposed zaniness. It’s not reflective of anything most Japanese people watch, and the clip was met with as much surprise by the nation's online community as it was overseas.

Many viewers are starting to tire of what most of the nation watches, though. Stories on Japanese news aggregator sites like Matome Navier, Blogos, and Nifty News have focused why viewers have taken to the Internet to bemoan how boring Japanese TV (in particular, variety shows) have gotten. Popular TV presenter Dave Spector says the ease in which people can watch foreign television programs—and then compare them to Japanese programming—has also made audiences less interested in terrestrial options. Whatever the reason, Japanese TV today isn’t pumping out anything as strange as outside nations make it seem.

Marblemedia writes that Japanizi has already been pre-sold in over 120 countries, and will debut on Disney Channels around the world next year. The show claims to double as an introduction to the Japanese language and Japanese culture, and as a means to spread that language and culture far and wide. It’s too bad it’ll also be spreading a woefully outdated stereotype.

*This post originally misidentified Matsumoto Hitoshi as Yoshimoto Kogyo. We regret the error.