As television goes, my desires are... unconventional. I don’t know what kind of game one plays with thrones (the notion of a throne game sounds heavy, dangerous, and unpleasant). I don’t know why the men are mad. I don’t really know what True Detective is, apart from a supernatural force that sweeps over Twitter for an hour every Sunday evening. I didn’t start watching Breaking Bad until the show had been off the air for a year. You get my point.
I don’t particularly want to be made to think, feel, or get outraged by my TV shows. When I get home from work, the last thing I want to do is get stressed out over the fate of a fictional character, or watch someone cry because a ripped bro didn’t give them a rose. Just beam chill, shallow, inoffensive, and contextually meaningless thoughts into my consciousness while I switch my brain off for a couple precious hours. That’s all I ask.
And when I moved to New York last year, I found my drug. In flipping through my hundreds of Time Warner Cable channels, I discovered NHK World, which is a bit like the Japanese equivalent of BBC America and BBC World Service, rolled into one: a multi-language platform for blasting locally produced news and entertainment programming across the globe.
It is wonderful.
I should be clear that I don’t consider myself a Japanophile (though I do think Japan is a lovely country). I don’t watch anime, I don’t read manga. You don’t need to in order to enjoy the simple pleasures of NHK World, which is effectively one long commercial for Japanese tourism interspersed with 10- and 30-minute editions of Newsline, an even-handed, English-language news program devoid of the hyperbole and seizure-inducing chyrons American networks hold dear. There are also dubbed gems imported from NHK proper like Supreme Skills!, where two teams are tasked with building a mundane object taken to the extreme: a top that can spin for 15 minutes, for instance, or a really, really sharp knife blade. You also have Cool Japan, which features a roundtable of foreigners deciding whether various concepts culturally unique to Japan — say, kimonos or cute pencil erasers shaped like sushi rolls — are cool or not. The discussion gets heated at times, inasmuch as a discussion about sushi roll erasers can get heated.
Not everything has to be about death, drama, and destruction
But peak NHK World can be found on Lunch ON!, a program that is quite literally about eating lunch. No more, no less. Much of it is devoted to camera crews interrupting salarymen to find out what’s in their bento boxes. It’s somehow twee, conceptually small, and endlessly fascinating at the same time. It’s easy to digest, both literally and figuratively. It is impossible to overstate how little you have to think while this program is on, apart from firing the neurons necessary to visually interpret white rice and shrimp tempura.
There’s a market for this. There’s a place for not just a single show, but an entire network that can focus on the little things. Not everything has to be about death, drama, and destruction on a grand scale. Yes, there is plenty of that, both in fiction and in the real world — but sometimes, we just need to chill the hell out and talk about skipjack tuna or sumo or the best place to buy headphones in Akihabara.
Check your local listings for NHK World, because you might be surprised to find that you have it for free. It’s also available streaming to anyone — no cable subscription required — at http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/live/.