The beginner's guide to Japanese drama
Japanese actor Takuya Kimura, who is also part of the popular Japanese boy-band SMAP, is a frequent star of J-dramas.
January 23rd, 2012
05:49 PM ET

The beginner's guide to Japanese drama

Often the key that opens the door to otaku culture is anime. Anime is a pervasive medium, and even those outside the fandom of Japanese culture and media can recognize the hallmarks of anime at fan conventions -  DragonBall Z or Bleach costumes are ever-present. (We saw a cute InuYasha at last year's Dragon*Con. His brother Sesshomaru was also milling about.)

Some fans remain firmly rooted in their love of anime for years. But more and more in America, otakus are discovering a form of Japanese television because of its sheer wackiness and anime-like humor. It's called J-drama (Japanese drama,) and it inspires obsessive dedication.

J-dramas are daily or weekly broadcasts that make up a great deal of Japanese television programming. These are comparable to sitcoms and dramas that run in America, but they have their own distinct flavor. J-drama incorporates many different genres, from medical dramas to romantic dramas, and frequently feature Japan's most prominent stars in key roles.

It's lovingly dubbed "J-Dorama," due to the way the Japanese pronounce the word. Since the Japanese syllabary consists of specific character sets, certain English words pose a challenge for them to pronounce. For example, Americans often notice something like a "U" sound added to the end of English words as spoken by Japanese (something fans often adoringly poke fun at). There is no character in Japanese for just the letter "D," but there is "DO," hence "Dorama."

The U.S.-based fandom that revolves around J-drama is strong and well-organized online. Many websites cater to fans through extensive forums, offering outlets for fans to talk about their favorites actors, actresses and shows, as well as upcoming dramas to look forward to. There are multiple wikis cataloging J-drama releases each season, making it easy for a new fan to discover what they might like or make friends who can point them in the right direction. Other sites offer a guide to dramas by season that allows fans to keep an eye on what's up and coming all in one place.

There's also "The Dorama Encyclopedia," which covers drama series that aired up until 2003 and lists hundreds of productions across all different genres. Whether you find you've been recently infected with the J-drama bug or have advanced addiction and need more, this book presents a fun read that is sure to bring your knowledge of this popular subset of otaku interest to the next level.

Since J-dramas are rarely if ever released in the United States in an official capacity, a very real challenge for fans is being able to watch these shows. Websites like Crunchyroll.com and digital media receivers such as Boxee or Roku offer a sampling of legally subtitled J-drama (and its cousin Korean drama) to jonesing fans.

It is a reality of the Internet age that some fans turn to file-sharing in order to get their J-drama fix. One subset of this fandom that's hard to ignore is the subbing community. Subbers are fans, often groups of fans, who translate the original shows from the Japanese into another language and distribute them via the Internet, usually without legal permission.

An average J-drama will be televised in Japan as a three-season run. Shows that are expected to be especially popular are scheduled for weeknight broadcasts, similar to how prime-time shows work in the states. One popular Japanese television station, Fuji TV, even has a name for its Monday night 9 p.m. slot because it is such a popular time to watch television: Getsu 9, or "Getsuku" which is a drama that airs during this "golden hour."

Programming leans a certain way at each Japanese television station, with Fuji TV focusing on the trendy shows, TV Asahi doing more crime-focused shows and NHK gearing its programming toward an older audience with epic period dramas (called "taiga dramas") and hero or heroine-centric stories that communicate a message of empowerment.

J-drama became really popular in Japan in the late 1980s, when writers and directors found success with an approach nicknamed "trendy drama," which simply meant shows that tapped into real-life issues in Japan such as the bubble economy of that time. Fuji TV is known for setting the pace for this formula by using popular young actors and actresses in its productions.

Often faces from big pop acts show up in dramas, such as members of long-running pop band Arashi. By using radio-popular songs as J-drama theme songs, producers increased viewership exponentially.

Another successful formula for Japan has been adapting manga or anime to live action drama, capitalizing on fans of the stories in their original form. Some of the most popular J-Drama shows are these types of adaptations, such as "Great Teacher Onizuka," which featured a large cast of young, well-known stars and told the story of a gang member-turned-teacher and his students. The show "Gokusen" was also set in a school and documents a young idealistic teacher's attempts to straighten up a class of delinquents. As Japanese spend so much of their life on education, the school theme is very popular, especially high school dramas.

When did you discover J-drama, and what show is your favorite?

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. M

    I like so many....Hana Kimi, Nodame Cantabile, Hana Yori Dango, Honey and Clover, Voice...I discovered drama through a friend few months ago:)

    May 25, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  2. global regulatory specialists

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    April 6, 2012 at 1:56 am |
  3. ps3chick

    Hana Yori Dango, and Boys Over Flowers (K-drama). Can't wait for Ouran High School Host club! Nodame Cantabile is also amazing.

    February 15, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Sally

      etzel33 on April 15, 2011 If the wind stops and starts cnimog from the other direction, what happens? Does the blade start rotating backwards? This might happen if during an extended lull.

      March 7, 2012 at 12:18 am |
  4. Jim

    Lovely set of igeams Ed and of course a great wedding & location to embark on your blog. Look forward to seeing more.

    February 1, 2012 at 1:23 am |
  5. Watcher

    Also, has anyone else noticed that it seems like every young male actor has been in Gokusen at one time or another? If they don't do another Gokusen, who's going to usher in the next generation of actors?

    January 25, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  6. Watcher

    Nice article. GTO and Gokusen are both very good. Unlike K-dramas (or at least the ones I've seen), j-dramas come with a wide variety of subjects and genres. I'm a big fan of humor, action/adventure and crime J-dramas. Also good are dramas from Taiwan. There are some very interesting one.

    I'm a big fan of the setup of Asian dramas in general. There's a limited number of episodes, usually 9 – 13 in J-Dramas, significantly more in Chinese and Korean. In those few episodes, they tell the entire story, beginning to end. If they want to continue, they set up a second season, also it's own separate story, beginning, middle and end. This prevents you watching five seasons of filler episodes just to have the show cancelled mid season only to never find out what happens. There are several actors that I tend to follow, as well, but if you watch enough, it'll seem like you keep seeing the same faces over and over.

    January 25, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  7. Alyssa

    Finally! Something about J-Doramas! I've had enough of K-Dramas(-_-;) Anyhoo, it's such a long story but to make things short and simple... My 1st would be Gokusen when it was broadcasted in my country around 2005 or 2006, I think. Then got totally hooked with J-Doramas after Hana Yori Dango that lead me into loving Arashi, and J-Pop. Yeah, and the rest is history♪♫♪I also am a big fan of Maou, Nodame Cantabile, Smile, 1 Liter of Tears, etc. Too much to mention, but those are my top faves♪♫♪

    January 25, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  8. Jonathan

    My first J-drama was Long Vacation, who happened to star Kimura, back on the International Channel when I was in high school I believe (1997-8?). It was also the one that left quite the impression on me with its story, characters, and especially the mix of classical music and pop music by Cagnet.

    Another one I enjoyed was Hero (also with Kimura) and the unique characters it offered. What is there to not like about a person who has an obsession with home shopping?

    January 25, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • PlanoBoy

      Long Vacation is one of the best !! I even bought the soundtrack. Another one I really like is Beach Boys.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  9. Jaime

    I kind of stumbled onto J-drama's. It was by pure accident and it took only one show to set off what has bow been 6 years of JDrama fandom craze. From the dramas I meet the actors, actress, music, artist, industry and now am an Avid followers of many actors, and actress. I love their stories and I love that they DO NOT TAKE FOREVER TO TELL A FREAKING STORY! if the story is good enough and the public demands it, a second season or special or movie might be released but that all depends on the success or the drama it self. all in all I am happy I found JDrama because when there is nothing good on TV on I can always count on a good Jdrama to watch ^^v

    January 25, 2012 at 3:43 am |
    • Alyssa

      I so agree with you! "THEY DO NOT TAKE FOREVER TO TELL A FREAKING STORY!"

      January 25, 2012 at 11:38 am |
      • Anderson

        callandrad on September 4, 2011 I love when moms fgiure out ways to work from home. Kudos to her. Her products are adorable and unique! Love them!

        March 5, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  10. Leah

    first drama i ever watched was Hana Yori Dango, at the time i liked the manga & anime and when i found out there were live actions i watched & fell in love with jdramas. i watch tdramas and kdramas at time but i prefer jdramas. as for favorite, I'd probably have to say Hana Yori Dango, Hana Kimi, 1 litre of tears and Koizora (drama & movie)

    January 25, 2012 at 3:42 am |
  11. Kimutaku FAN

    I started watching J-dramas Long Vacation and Kimi wa Petto with Koyuki/Matsumoto Jun. I also love Korean dramas Coffee Prince, My Lovely Kim Sam Soon, and City Hall. Watching these dramas was like a glimpse into another culture and dramas build slowly showing what true character development is about.

    January 24, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  12. jan greer

    Korean Drama City Hunter was also a good one

    January 24, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  13. jan greer

    Korean drama City Hunter was also good..

    January 24, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • ma-ku

      I believe that would be a K-drama

      January 25, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  14. Manny

    I hope that "revealing" these various websites does not bring down the filesharing of the hardworking folk who take the time to sub these doramas for the masses to enjoy. We're already worried that there will come a time that we won't be able to watch even non-subbed doramas. You are doing a disservice by posting this story.

    January 24, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • PersonA

      I wish I could upvote this, like Reddit. I know the poster of the article enjoys thinking she's the center of things, but if she were actually a 'fan' of anything she was talking about, she wouldn't be linking and exposing people like that. I guess it's nice to be ignorant, as well as get paid for it.

      January 25, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  15. Serena

    Hana Yori Dango, Maou and Nodame Cantabile. I started watching jdorama in 2003, I think.

    January 24, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  16. Foxy

    Hana Yori Dango was my first j-drama! I even watched the Taiwanese version and the Korean version of it afterwards. Still one of my favorites to this day.

    January 24, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  17. Jamie

    Hana Yuri Dango (Boys Over Flowers) is a fun drama to watch. Coffee Prince is a Korean drama but also very good and fun. Of course, nothing can replace my love for anime and/or the manga in general. lol. Gokusen also is a very good j-drama to watch.

    January 24, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  18. Rick

    What is said about the illegal nature of unauthorized translations (fansubs) of television shows applies equally to fan-translated anime, manga (comics) and books. So few of such things are translated legally, after a typical delay of several years if it is translated at all (to English, let alone other languages), that there are groups around the world actively translating such products. Some are true pirates, selling their unauthorized translations with no money paid to the original authors. Most, however, are not, and do not derive any income from what they do.

    January 24, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  19. Sybaris

    Godzirra!!

    January 24, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  20. fel

    My first dorama-love is Long Vacation. Takuya Kimura was young and cute and excellent in it and the music is fantastic! I still listen to those soundtracks. Say You Love Me was also pretty gripping. And Spirited Detective Force was both funny and well-done. And introduced me to Oda Yuji and his music.

    January 24, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  21. Kelly

    Great primer to j-drama! Gokusen is a lot of fun; I love the high school-type dramas the most. Nodame Cantabile is still my favorite.

    January 23, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
  22. Eddie

    Awesome Article, Takuya Kimura was in Mr.Brain, great series. A friend of mine introduced me to J-drama and I've been sort of hooked. I primarily try to watch Supernatural type of J-dramas or some crime related J-dramas

    January 23, 2012 at 6:39 pm |