Japanese television is broken up into a few distinct categories: news, anime (Japanese cartoons, some for kids, many not), talk shows, samurai soap operas, music shows, and the infamous Japanese game show. It is some of the weirdest entertainment you will ever see.
Anime is probably the most familiar of Japanese television for foreigners–they are animated shows that run from very young children’s shows to very adult pornography. If you’re unfamiliar with anime, you need to be sure you screen shows before showing them to your children. I’ve seen shows begin innocently and then degenerate into incredible violence. There are a great many wonderful series with amazing stories out there, as anime is a serious endeavor, so it’s worth checking out, but do some research first.
Music shows tend to features “idols,” cute young women in short skirts who have questionable musical talent, enka singers who perform old style Japanese music in traditional kimonos, and rock bands with names like Bump of Chicken and Ogre You Asshole. Sometimes they’re all featured in the same show. (Check out a fun list of other Japanese band names here: http://blog.tokyogigguide.com/2009/05/amusing-band-names.html)
Comedy is very different in Japan. It tends toward slapstick, or relies heavily on puns, usually based on intonation or different readings of kanji that go right over foreigner’s heads most of the time. They have dubbed American television shows, but Japanese doesn’t have sarcasm, so they don’t translate well. (Fun fact: both Homer Simpson and George W Bush were subbed with a very similar voice, deep and solemn. It made watching both of them all the more fun.) There are some American sitcoms, like The Simpsons and Friends dubbed into Japanese, but due to the lack of sarcasm in the Japanese language, they are more nonsensical than funny. There’s also an international version of the Daily Show, which is longer because it includes Jon Stewart attempting to explain American culture and politics in between the segments. It’s hilarious and I miss it.
Japan has a distinct lack of lawyers, and as such, people get away with all sorts of things they wouldn’t in America. For example, Japan had a real version of The Truman Show. The locked a man in an unknown location for a year, naked, in an apartment full of magazines and pens. He had to win everything he needed to survive, and once he won ten thousand dollars he would be free. He had no idea he was being constantly videotaped and broadcast across Japan. He did eventually get out, and from what I heard in Japan, generally became a recluse afterward. (Can you blame him?) If you’d like you can read more here: http://news.moviefone.com/2011/02/07/real-life-truman-show/
Japanese game shows have to be seen to be believed; they rely on shock and sheer weirdness for entertainment. Unfortunately I could not find a clip of the man in his underpants being dipped into a tank of piranhas while trying to retrieve a diamond ring, but here are some other fun clips for your enjoyment:
Sleeping man launched from his house 150 feet in the air–no, seriously: http://www.uproxx.com/webculture/2014/02/japanese-wake-up-prank/
Men tethered to the wall with rubber bands eat marshmallows: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Rean7WVBM0
The “Wall of Boxes”–I don’t know how to explain it, just watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qh4VNuW_1w
People attempting to climb a flight of stairs covered in soap: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQBkMXn4NSA