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July 13, 2011

Between Cultures: Japanese commercials, poetry instead of prose

TV commercials are influenced by culture, even the basic way they are made. For one thing, the commercials I am forced to watch when I am in the Netherlands could not be more different than the ones that flashed over my TV screen in Japan.

Interestingly, the one basic difference reminds me of the basic difference in literature (of all things!) between East Asia and the West. Our Western literature is epic, it starts with Homerus and went on to create the 19th century novel. In other words, it always tells a story, even our poetry.

This in sharp contrast to China and Japan. Although both countries do have great novels, their culture is basically lyrical. The literary tradition starts with collections of lyrical poetry, the Shi Jing or Book of Poetry in China, the Manyoshu in Japan. These poems do not tell a story, but sing of the feelings aroused by a particular situation: a mood, a landscape, a personal situation.

Now, this same difference holds for commercials on TV. The ones I see in the Netherlands always try to tell a story. That is difficult in the span of 30 seconds, so most of them fail to be interesting. It is also extremely boring to get the same story on your screen everyday. No, I much prefer the lyrical, almost abstract, sometimes even surreal way of Japanese advertising. Not to say that there are no silly commercials in Japan! But the best ones just set a mood, with beautiful images, after which the product is just shown briefly, almost as an afterthought.

Like so many lyrical poems, they only rely on emotional and visual impact.