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 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?