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Why Japanese formats are trending again

With iconic formats like Dragons’ Den, Hole in the Wall, and Ninja Warrior, it’s no surprise that Japan is a powerhouse in the unscripted format industry. However, in recent years, South Korea has taken the spotlight in Asia with the phenomenal success of its guessing games. Thus, it came as a pleasant twist to many when Japan experienced an impressive 54% surge during 2023, surpassing South Korea to become the fourth-largest exporter of unscripted formats, according to our latest Tracking the Giants Report launched in April 2024 (check out the report here). In light of this, it’s an opportune moment to reflect on Japan’s journey to success, their resilient efforts over the years, and the emerging themes shaping the future of their exports.

Tracing the journey of Japanese formats takes us back to the 1980s, when the first Japanese formats were adapted overseas. In 1983, TBS launched the educational quiz show Waku Waku Animal Land, which quickly made its way to the US in 1987 and the Netherlands in 1988, eventually reaching around 20 countries. Another gem from that era was Fun TV with Kato-chan and Ken-chan, later adapted as ABC’s America’s Funniest Home Videos, which is still running in the US. These early successes paved the way for more Japanese formats to enter the global stage, with many even earning spots in the Top 100 Unscripted Formats of All Time by K7’s Tracking The Giants. To date, over 40 Japanese formats have been adapted worldwide, amassing over 350 adaptations across 75 countries.

In 2023, 17 Japanese formats travelled abroad, with Dragons’ Den (created by Nippon TV and distributed by Sony Pictures Television) and LOL: Last One Laughing (Yoshimoto) driving the country’s exports. Alongside these two successes, a diverse array of formats contributed to Japan’s total number, from timeless titles like TBS’s Ninja Warrior to newer hits like TV Asahi’s game show Trick House, which debuted in 2021 and quickly found an adaptation with Norwegian channel NRK (locally titled Vettskremt) in 2023.

When we examine the success of Japanese unscripted formats, it’s clear that entertainment game shows stole the limelight. Approximately 80% of Japanese unscripted format exports throughout history have been game shows. The country has earned a reputation for crafting super-fun, comical gameplay concepts with visually colourful executions, a winning formula that has propelled them to enduring worldwide success.

To explain Japan’s abundant supply of game show formats, it’s worth emphasising the high volume of segment-based variety shows on mainstream local TV. Many international hits such as Hole in the Wall (Fuji TV) or Silent Library (Nippon TV) started as segments within larger variety programs. Even recent launches like TBS’ dancing game show Match My Moves, unveiled at MIPTV this year, began as segments within the variety program Please Let Snowman Do. Some TV channels also strategically develop segments or episodes with the potential to become standalone international formats. For example, BS Yoshimoto debuted the variety show World Home Run Factory in October 2023, with each episode featuring a different concept ripe for development into a format targeting the international market. For anyone interested in adapting or co-developing Japanese formats, it’s worth keeping an eye on their segment-based variety shows, both old and new, as hidden gems may be waiting to be discovered within these archives.

Regarding the themes that have influenced Japan’s exports, streaming platforms play a pivotal role, with their growing appetite for unscripted formats. In 2022, Netflix commissioned three versions of Fuji TV’s cooking competition Iron Chef for Brazil, Mexico and the USA, while Prime Video expanded the reach of LOL to multiple markets. Notably, these platforms have not only launched new adaptations but also revived iconic formats. Since 2021, Netflix has breathed new life into a number of Japanese classics including TBS’ dating reality The Future Diary from 20 years ago and Fuji TV’s outdoor tag game Run for the Money, while Amazon similarly resurrected Takeshi’s Castle in 2023. Even YouTube has joined the fray by adapting TV Asahi’s wacky game show No1 Chicken, where its creators compete to become the weekly winner just to exit the show.

Another standout trend is the increasing collaboration between Japanese companies and international partners. According to K7 records, Japan contributed to 60% of all East-West co-developed unscripted formats introduced to the global market over the past five years. Remarkably, this cross-cultural collaboration isn’t concentrated within any single company either. In just the past three years alone, almost all major Japanese unscripted distributors have been involved in co-developing formats with international counterparts. At MIPTV 2024, the trend reached new heights with the release of a trio of Japanese-Western co-development unscripted formats: Celebrity Fight Club between TV Asahi and Youngest Media, The Swap Project between Fuji TV and TGC Global Entertainment, and Lovers or Liars? helmed by TBS and All3Media International. These collaborations serve as compelling evidence of Japan’s growing flexibility and openness towards the global industry, underscoring the proactive efforts to learn from international professionals and gain a deeper understanding of audiences worldwide. These partnerships also offer a strategic shortcut to address a common challenge faced by many Asian creators: striking the delicate balance between catering to local preferences and achieving broader global appeal.

To conclude, let’s gaze into the crystal ball. Recently, there’s been a rising demand for fresh concepts from Asia. Yet, as these Asian format exporters strive for the perfect balance between local flair and global appeal, they may diverge onto different paths. In South Korea, music game shows have been the top-traveling genre, but reality shows hold strong domestically. Thus, the country may lean towards pursuing a blended genre that merges game and reality, evident in the recent travels of The Genius Game or Bloody Game. Compare this with Japan, where studio shows combining games and comedy maintain local popularity, aligning closely with the country’s export strengths. This greater harmony would encourage local creators to focus more on game show formats, reinforcing their status as the primary export genre. International collaborations are also set to flourish further. And here’s another prospect: today’s East-West partnerships might sow the seeds for tomorrow’s cross-Asian unscripted format hits – who knows, a Japanese-South Korean blockbuster might be on its way.

Trang Nguyen

Trang graduated from the University of Manchester with a master's degree in Business Psychology. Having joined K7 Media in 2019, she tracks the evolution of TV and entertainment trends across the Asian territory. She has also expanded her knowledge into the Middle East and Africa region, overseeing K7's MEA monthly report.

Outside of work, Trang enjoys watching Asian dramas and checking out new restaurants around the area.