Saturday, February 16, 2008

One Thing I Love About Japanese People

Japanese culture has always fascinated me. I think this is mostly due to the fact that it seems so palpably foreign to a Westerner like myself that it might as well be from another planet. Some aspects of it appear utopian, some seem alien and extrinsic, and others are downright wacky.

There's a Japanese television show on G4 that you might have seen called Ninja Warrior (Sasuke is the original title) that I find fascinating on several levels and taught me a thing or two about our Asian friends. If you haven't seen it, it's basically a game show where 100 people attempt to complete a set of increasingly difficult physical challenges in order to be crowned the ultimate Ninja Warrior.

The 4 Stages involve obstacles that test the competitors' agility, strength and stamina, all characteristics vital to a stealthy feudal assassin. Most stages are stringently timed in order to weed out the unninja-like weaklings and ensure that only the Darwinian cream of the crop advance. The contestants range from Olympic athletes, to common working folk, to downright crazy people seeking some notoriety. The show has been very popular in Japan since its inception in 1997 and some of the recurrent contestants have become local celebrities.

Here's one of the show's more colorful elderly contestant, known as The Octopus, going through Stage 1:

As you can see, watching people fail is a pretty entertaining part of the show. It's also the typical outcome since only a handful of the original 100 contestants even make it to Stage 2, and it only gets exponentially harder from there in Stage 3 and Stage 4. This is what really fascinates me about the mindset of the show (and, in turn, of Japanese culture) because over the course of nineteen seasons, only two men have ever completed all four stages, Kazuhiko Akiyama and Makato Nagamo.

100 contestants have competed for every one of the show's 19 seasons, so that means that there have been 1,898 failed attempts at becoming the ultimate Ninja Warrior. Only 0.00105% of the people that participate reach the ultimate goal.

This ratio of success to failure would never fly in the United States, where the ostensibly trivial Ricky Bobby motto, "If you're not first, you're last", is pretty much the raison d'être and the basis for all state sponsored propaganda. It's so American that it might as well be on the tail side of all the coins and engraved on the crown of the Statue of Liberty.

In the U.S., after one season of no one reaching the end, the producers would have certainly made the stages progressively easier until someone could reach the ultimate goal and sate the audiences' intrinsic appetite for a conventional victory at the end of every show.

But this is where the Japanese are different. Not only did they NOT make the stages easier after multiple seasons of failure, but they kept making them intensely harder. This is why no one even finished the challenge until season 4 and not again until season 17.

I love this irreverence to the notion of what it means to succeed and what a true challenge should be.

Could you imagine this approach to competition in American game shows?

It's inconceivable.

If a show is deemed too difficult on American television, the bar is lowered until someone wins. This is why we get the "Million Dollar Mission" on Deal Or No Deal where they keep changing the odds in favor of the contestants until someone eventually wins. This is why most of the current game shows don't involve any skill whatsoever but merely rely on chance--or in the case of Fox's Moment of Truth, just telling the truth gets you money.

American Gladiators is the closest in spirit to Ninja Warrior (they actually lifted a few of the new challenges from it), but there's always a winner and a loser at the end of every show and the challenges are reasonably winnable by most contestants. If they weren't, people would not watch it.

The American audience seems content with the perception of success even though the reality is only made possible by establishing lower standards. So in this case, the means are inconsequential to accomplishing an end. In Japan, it's all about the difficulty of the means, therefore making the end more fulfilling when it finally materializes.

Which viewpoint do you think is a more favorable approach to progress and benefits the advancement of the human race?

The answer is pretty clear to me.

If game shows are a barometer for the values of the culture itself, we're in deep trouble. It's yet another sign of the dumbing down of America to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and evidence to the growing glorification of ignorance. Instead of giving people something to aspire to, we're given something that's easily accessible but ultimately less substantial. Without the challenge, the rewards are less meaningful.

And I, for one, can't get behind that.

The Japanese, however, are setting the bar high and not only that, they're constantly raising it. They seek and glorify the perpetual pursuit to produce perfection. And that puts them ahead of us as a culture.

It is also worth noting that the Japanese seem to revel in public humiliation and, as far as competition goes, favor a good effort and humility over domination and boastfulness. Ego takes a backseat. This is evident in Ninja Warrior as the audience always seems to laugh with, instead of at, the contestants that epically fail, and always applaud their efforts, feeble as they may be.

Contrary to this, in the U.S., seemingly every reality show is based on ridiculing people's shortcomings and pointing out their flaws with no redeeming value whatsoever to the viewer, except maybe for a cheap laugh. This only perpetuates the importance of the individual over the masses and the lowering of expectations. It's easy to see that in turn an individualistic world view is only self-serving and does not lead to betterment of the species.

And again, I can't get behind that. I want to be inspired by true greatness, I don't want to be appeased by mediocrity.

You should want the same for yourself.

You can start here with sailor Makato Nagano making his glorious run through the various stages and proving to us that he is the ultimate Ninja Warrior:



  1. 1. That video was brilliant.
    2. Your cultural insights were also brilliant, and thus I feel justified reading this instead of paying attention to my intercultural communication class.
    3. The best part was undoubtedly the rock paper scissor face-off at the end of the first video. It reminded me of Monty Python. 'Tis but a flesh wound!!

  2. very nice :) indeed, the virtue behind these "mediocre" game shows are something to behold.



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