The Difficulties with Exporting Japan’s TV Dramas


Japan’s television stations produce many live-action dramas, but very few are exported overseas, whether for unadapted rebroadcast or remake purposes. Among the issues are short seasons and low budgets.

Dramas Account for Fraction of Exported Programming

While Japan’s anime, like One Piece, or films like Monster or Drive My Car are powerful presences overseas, the country imports far more live-action television dramas than it is able to export.

In December 2023, Japan’s public service broadcaster NHK was showing the second season of Italian medical drama Doc: Nelle tue mani. TV Tokyo was showing the Korean series It’s Beautiful Now, while Fuji TV had another Korean series The World of the Married. Meanwhile, on premium satellite stations, one can find a foreign series any time of the day.

At the same time, Japanese broadcasters’ own television programs are very rarely shipped overseas. A Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications survey showed that the total value of television exports came to ¥65. 6 billion, of which anime accounted for ¥56.7 billion, with live-action series coming to only ¥3.6 billion, or 5.5% of the total.

Leaving aside Taiwan, which has always had a large contingent of Japanese TV fans and has recently started broadcasts of Japanese shows simultaneously with their home market, the only productions that have been sold overseas in the past year are the two-episode 2022 Japan-Britain coproduction from NTV Connected: The Homebound Detective and TV Asahi’s Ossan’s Love, which started as a miniseries in 2016 but was revived as an extended series in 2018.

Connected, about a man who refuses to leave his childhood room but begins investigating the murder of a pop idol over the internet, was optioned by a United States company for remake purposes. Ossan’s Love, a comedy about romance between middle aged businessmen that gained a rabid domestic fanbase, has a 2021 Hong Kong version, while a 2024 Thai remake has also been announced. Two series sold is a tiny fraction of the more than 100 series Japan produces each year.

Short Japanese Series Runs

There are two main ways of exporting television series: selling them unadapted for syndicated rebroadcast or selling the rights to produce a remake. Korean series are typically sold for syndication.

TV Asahi purchased remake rights for the 2020 Korean series Itaewon Class, about a poor youth who struggles as he searches for success in the restaurant business, and then remade it as Roppongi Class in 2022, but this is unusual. Remakes require large production budgets and long filming times, while simply rebroadcasting a purchased series is much quicker.

Here is a hidden reason why Japanese productions struggle for overseas sales. It is easy to rebroadcast a series after overdubbing or subtitling, but Japanese series have short runs, making them difficult to broadcast overseas.

Series on Japan’s private stations run over three-month blocks—called kūru from the French word cours—starting in April, July, October, or January. There tend to be 10 to 12 episodes lasting about an hour, although 30-minute episodes are common for late-night series. Leaving aside its traditional asadora morning serials and historical taiga dramas, even NHK has recently started making more series on a kūru basis.

Compare that to the previously mentioned Korean production It’s Beautiful Now, which has 50 installments of around an hour each (reorganized to 65 episodes in Japan). The series Winter Sonata, which sparked Japan’s Korean drama craze in its 2003 Japanese rebroadcast, ran for 20 installments of about an hour each. The hit series Crash Landing on You, streaming in Japan on Netflix, not only runs long at between 70 and 110 minutes per episode but it also has a 16-episode run. From the perspective of stations overseas, Japanese series finish too quickly to easily run in syndication.

Western series also have long runs. The American series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, about detectives investigating crimes against women and children, has a season of 22 episodes of about 45 minutes each, and has been running for 24 years. It is a scale completely different from Japan’s.

The Unwelcome Legacy of an Age of Growth

Japan’s television series have been running on the kūru system since the 1980s for a variety of reasons. The first is that private broadcasters were worried about the risk of a poorly chosen series. If household viewing numbers fall off in the early stages, then it is best to drop a program quickly. If a station is committed to a six-month or full-year run, that will amount to serious damage, while dropping a program after three months means getting off much more lightly.

The pursuit of profits on the part of private broadcasters was also an influence. Stations grew steadily during the 1990s, and it was an advantage to be able to renegotiate sponsorship contracts quickly because of the ease of selling commercial time. They could earn more advertising fees through shorter series rotation times, but that has left an unwelcome legacy of difficult exports.

NHK’s asadora serials have season lengths that lend themselves to export. Each episode is only 15 minutes, but Oshin, which ran from 1983 to 1984 with 297 episodes, was syndicated in 75 countries and territories. The story of the title character’s growth through hardship resonated particularly well in developing countries in Asia and Africa, but it also sold in wealthier nations like the United States and Canada. It was a landmark program that achieved 52.6% viewership in Japan and was a popular hit overseas, as well.

At 156 episodes, the 2013 asadora Ama-chan (Little Diver), which was another domestic hit, went out to 13 foreign markets, including Indonesia and the Philippines. With the title character Amano Aki seeking to become a pop idol from her rural home in Iwate Prefecture, it depicted a particularly Japanese phenomenon, but her positive attitude and clear understanding of right and wrong broke through that barrier.

At the same time, Japan’s foremost scriptwriter Sakamoto Yūji—who won the 2023 Best Screenplay award at Cannes for Monster—sold his 2010 series Mother in the fierce TV market of Turkey through remake rights. Syndication was difficult because the series originally finished with only 11 episodes. The Turkish version expanded that to 85, and with that high number, this went on to run in over 40 countries.

The original version of Mother also sold in South Korea, France, and Spain, but only in the remake format. There is little doubt that if it had not been so short, it could have sold more in syndication.

Budgets Bigger Overseas

There is another reason for the difficulty in selling Japanese television overseas: the gap in quality caused by the vast difference in production budgets. Right now, the budget for a one-hour series broadcast during Japan’s prime time period of 7:00 to 11:00 pm is around ¥30 million to ¥40 million per episode. Compare that with the 2004 American series Lost, which had a per-episode budget of $4.5 million, (roughly ¥675 million at current rates). Other American dramas are in a similar range. That’s a whole order of magnitude more than Japan.

This explains why American dramas can cast big-name international stars and have such polished scripts, as well as elaborate filming and carefully crafted aesthetics.

In part, American production companies can offer such overwhelming production budgets because they expect to generate ongoing revenue from overseas syndication and paid streaming services like Netflix.

Korean dramas have also been able to expand their markets through overseas syndication and paid streaming, so their per-episode production budgets also exceed ¥100 million. Korean production budgets up through the 1990s were also low, and their reputation for quality was not that high. However, the high episode numbers were a strength that allowed for more resales. Along with government support, that has helped energize the industry.

One way in which the Korean government supports the television industry is the Gender Equality Media Award, established in 1999, which has encouraged an increase in love stories with an awareness of gender issues and overall diversity in television series. This has boosted popularity among female viewers.

In 2009, the South Korean government also established the Korea Creative Content Agency. It has set up branches in nations like the United States and the United Arab Emirates to sell content including television series. Japan has no such government agency.

Japan’s television industry talk has recently been dominated by the TBS series Vivant, which ran from July to September 2023. It tells the story of a conflict between a Japan Self-Defense Forces secret unit called Beppan and an international terrorist organization. Its production budget was high, and each of its 10 episodes cost roughly ¥100 million to make. This was only possible with cooperation from Japan’s largest paid streaming service U-Next, in which TBS has an equity stake. Relying on broadcast sponsor fees would never allow for such an expensive production.

Vivant’s large production budget meant that it could afford to hire major stars like Sakai Masato, Yakusho Kōji, and Abe Hiroshi. It was also able to film on location in Mongolia for two and a half months and managed to keep computer graphics to a minimum in favor of practical effects to preserve a sense of realism, all because of the generous budget.

At last October’s Mipcom in Cannes, the world’s largest television content marketplace, Vivant received the buyer’s award for Japanese Drama 2023 as chosen by attending program purchasers. After high praise from buyers, it is likely to soon be sold into syndication overseas, and that is thanks to the production budget.

Series Exports Determine Broadcasters’ Futures

The reason behind Japan’s TV series export woes is not that the nation has less talented directors, screenwriters, or other creators. We can see that in Kawai Hayato, one of the directors of the hit Netflix series The Naked Director, about Japan’s golden age of adult videos, who also works in network television. He is currently the head director of Tax Solver on NTV.

Japanese TV alumni are involved in two other 2023 hit Netflix series. Sanctuary, a series about the world of sumō, is based on a script by Kanazawa Tomoki, who was one of the scriptwriters for 2020’s hit Hanzawa Naoki series. Masumoto Jun, who helped make television programs for Fuji TV until 2019, was in charge of planning, production, and scripts for The Days, a series about the first seven days after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster.

If it is possible to clear the issues of episode numbers, production budgets, and the excessive focus on younger viewers to meet the wishes of sponsors, then Japan’s television should not have any trouble breaking out overseas. The fundraising issue will be difficult to address through in-house paid streaming services like TV Asahi’s Telasa or Fuji’s FOD due to small subscriber numbers, but Japanese broadcasters in general must be making inroads toward partnerships with foreign streaming companies.

Domestic demand for television series has reached its peak. While some believe that TVer, a free service that streams programming from a pool of private broadcasters, is a possible salvation, the revenue for individual stations only comes to a few percent of that for broadcast ad sales. Given that it offers no real change from the traditional advertising model, it cannot conceivably become the foundation of a new revenue stream. The success or failure of program exports will have a major influence on the future of Japan’s broadcasters.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A sign showing off Japanese series at world-leading content marketplace Mipcom. Mother, at the left, is one of the few success stories for Japanese programming abroad. Taken in April 2018 in Cannes, France. © AFP/Jiji.)