Japanese dramas (テレビドラマ terebi dorama?, television drama), also called dorama (ドラマ?), are a staple of Japanese television and are broadcast daily. All major TV networks in Japan produce a variety of drama series including romance, comedy, detective stories, horror, and many others. For special occasions, there may also be a one- or two-episode drama with a specific theme, such as a drama produced in 2007 for the 60-year anniversary of the end of World War II, focusing on the theme of the atomic bomb.
Japanese drama series are broadcast in three-month seasons, with new dramas airing each season. The majority of dramas are aired week-days in the evenings around 9:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m., or even 11:00 p.m. Dramas shown in the morning or afternoon are generally broadcast on a daily basis, and episodes of the same drama can be aired every day for several months, such as NHK's asadora, or morning dramas. The evening dramas, however, air weekly and are usually nine to twelve episodes long, though sometimes there will be an epilogue special made after the final episode if the drama has been a huge success.
Japan has four television seasons: Winter (January–March), Spring (April–June), Summer (July–September), and Autumn or Fall (October–December). Some series may start in another month though it may still be counted as a series of a specific season.
One characteristic of Japanese drama that differentiates it is that each episode is usually shot only a few (two to three) weeks before it is actually aired. Many fans have been able to visit their idols shooting scenes even as the show is still airing.
Most people associate today's Japanese dramas with the modern style of screenwriting which has coined the term "trendy dramas." The "trendy" formula for Japanese dramas was invented in the late 1980s when screenwriters decided to reach the television audience with themes that covered real-life Japan, at a time when the Japanese were experiencing a bubble economy. The "trendy" formula was improved in the early 1990s, when the story lines changed with the times. By gambling on harder issues, including teenage violence, child abuse, and modern family life, the trendy drama formula is tweaked to fit the television viewers' changing taste. Even today, the success of Japanese dramas is a result of sticking with the trendy drama formula.
Although some people consider Super Sentai and tokusatsu type shows as dramas, they are not covered when dramas are referred to using the "trendy" definition. Generally, most evening dramas aired nowadays are "trendy dramas," and the term doesn't apply to other types of dramas such as asadora.
Difference in focus between networks
Fuji T.V. is widely known as the inventor of the drama formula. During the 1980s and 1990s, Fuji TV popularized the trendy dramas with their use of young and popular actors/actresses of that time. The network's 9:00 p.m. dramas shown on Monday nights are commonly called "Getsuku" (a shortened phrase meaning Monday at 9). The dramas usually involve a love story. It is considered to be a very popular time slot for dramas, generally bringing in a high rating during the season. However, in recent years, the popularity of "Getsuku" dramas has worn off, with most dramas not crossing the 20% mark for average rating.
Other Japan television networks also have their own focuses. TV Asahi, for example, focus heavily on jidaigeki and crime-situated stories. NHK puts more effort into programming that reaches an older demographic, focusing mostly on epic period dramas of historical significance, often with all-star casts, called taiga dramas, as well as inspiring dramas that focus on a young, strong-willed hero or heroine.
Theme music and background music
Theme music and background music sets the overall tone of the Japanese drama series. Most dramas will start off with one or two minutes of opening theme music during the opening credits. Other dramas will have at the very least a catchy melody in the beginning, displaying the drama's name that lasts a few seconds, and then one to two minutes of ending theme music during the closing credits. Background music is placed and used at strategic points of the episode in order to set the mood of that particular scene.
There is a sub-genre of Japanese drama fans that are also huge fans of the drama's original soundtrack. Most television networks work with music companies to produce original soundtracks. Most opening and closing theme music is written especially for the drama series, while other theme music is licensed from other sources that previously existed. Once the library is put together, the television network will release the original soundtrack compact disc, usually a few weeks after the start of the drama. Closing themes are often sung by a popular J-pop singer or band.
NHK produces its own theme music and is one of the only Japanese television networks that has its own orchestra. Most of the theme music heard in their taiga and asadora dramas were written and produced in-house.
In recent years, many theme songs have been licensed from sources outside of Japan. In some instances, theme songs have been licensed from some of the biggest names in the Western recording industry. This practice has disadvantages. When the Japanese drama is licensed outside of Japan, theme music licensing becomes very costly. For example, in the Fuji TV drama Densha Otoko, the opening song and some of the background music had to be replaced in the release that aired on the Nippon Golden Network because they couldn't get the rights to use the music.
Importance of ratings in Japanese drama
As in many other countries, Japanese television is arguably the most important media type. A survey completed in 2000 by NHK, Japan's public broadcasting network, showed that 95% of Japanese people watch television every day. Eighty-six percent said they consider television an indispensable medium, and 68% said the same of newspapers. There are other forms of media that can be used to promote products and services, such as the Internet. However, Shinji Takada, a television executive at Nippon Television (NTV), believes that although the Internet is popular among drama fans, "We don't regard broadband as mainstream media. It will never happen. Broadband is a complementary medium."
Television ratings are calculated by several researching firms. Video Research Ltd. is one of the more reliable firms, and more television networks, advertisers, and Japanese drama fans use the numbers from this firm than any other. The ratings focus on the Kanto (Tokyo) and the Kansai (Osaka) areas, which are believed to serve as a good representation of what most of Japan watches. The ratings become available for the general public every Wednesday.
The rating system is very simple. All the major Japanese television networks make up the Japanese television market, so a research firm must determine the size of an average audience. The audience size is determined using two factors: the amount of content that is transmitted and the amount that is received, as market size varies from firm to firm. The actual viewer count of a given episode is calculated using a variety of polling methods. Ratings are calculated using a percentage or point system. This is based on the episode's viewership numbers divided by the market size. Finally, the numbers are published on the research firm's website. A hard copy is also produced.
There is no solid science on how to interpret these rating percentages. For drama fans, simply the drama with the highest percentage is the "winner" for the week. The fans use these numbers to decide which dramas they should watch during the remainder of the season. Despite this simple interpretation, there are one or more factors that may come into play that explain why some dramas receive higher percentage points than others. For example evening dramas draw better ratings than dramas that air in the mornings and afternoons. Although the transmission size is virtually the same in the mornings, afternoons and evenings, the evenings draw higher numbers because most evening viewers work during the day, and fewer people are at home watching television. There are, however, some exceptions to the rule. For example, the NHK Asadora drama Oshin drew an average rating percentage of 52.6%, a number that would be extremely good for an evening drama but even more extraordinary for a drama that airs in the mornings and six days a week.
Finally, rating percentage play a heavy role in the success of a drama artist. The numbers of an artist's previous work are used by TV producers to determine whether or not the artist is a marketing success. If the ratings drawn by the artist's previous work are good, the artist will receive offers to star in dramas that are better written and produced.
Formula for good ratings
In evening dramas, the cast members are carefully selected and tend to be famous actors that audiences are very fond of. The choice of cast members frequently affects the drama's audience rating and, pairing the right male and female artists is especially important in a renzoku ren'ai (romantic or love) drama. Cast members of morning and afternoon dramas are not as popular as those of evening dramas, as reflected by the ratings, but with time good actors gain popularity. Extra effort is put into dramas that air during the winter season, as viewers tend to stay at home more during the colder winter months.
Dramas' starting hour
Most Japanese dramas never start exactly on the hour or half-hour mark. Instead, some episodes start at 8:58 p.m., while others start at 9:05 p.m. Before television ratings started to matter, episodes started exactly on the hour. Later, because of the aggressive TV ratings war, some stations decided to beat the competition by starting their shows a few minutes earlier. The theory behind this practice is that when a show ends a few minutes before the hour or half-hour, a viewer would start changing channels until they found one that wasn't showing any commercials. Similarly, if an episode runs a few minutes past the hour or half-hour, viewers are more likely to watch the next program because they missed the first few minutes of an episode on a different channel.
The exception to this trend is NHK, which continues to start their shows exactly on each hour or half-hour. Potential reasoning behind this is that because every other television station is constantly changing its start times, this strategy no longer holds the potential advantage over competition that it once did.
- JDorama.com - Large database of Japanese dramas, actor profiles and seasonal schedules.
- Video Research Ltd. - Weekly TV ratings (in Japanese).
- Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro: THE DORAMA ENCYCLOPEDIA. Stone Bridge Press. ISBN 1-880656-81-7.