The Comedy Landscape in 2020 Japan – The Seventh Owarai Generation and the Great Corona Pause

The “New” Generation of Comedians appearing on Ametalk

As pretty much any returning reader to this blog knows, I am an “owarai geinin” in Japan. Why don’t I just call myself a comedian? Because the more and more time I spend in the Japanese entertainment industry, the more I’ve come to understand that comedians and geinin are two completely different categories of roles/people entirely.

With the novel coronavirus pretty much putting everything on hold everywhere in the world, now is the perfect time to take of stock of how the Japanese entertainment world has changed or shifted over the last couple of years.

As the virus ravaged most of the other countries around the world, Japan went into a voluntary shutdown and state of emergency around the end of March, partially spurred by the death of huge comedy star Shimura Ken (covered in short on this episode of Japanese History Junk Food) from the virus. This move shut down drama productions, forced ubiquitous on-location shoots to be cancelled, and led to the implementation of social distancing measures in studios around the country. Theaters across the country shut down, putting companies like Yoshimoto, with its dozen or so theaters across the nation, further into dire straights.

And yet, despite this crush of different factors, the Japanese geinokai has seemingly survived (for now) and largely on the back of old standbys (shows where studio guests watch cute clips from the internet, talk shows hosted by the old guard of Sanma and Downtown, “special” re-airings of old scripted dramas of years past) and a “brand new” generation of stars hitting the airwaves.

Since my last major blog about Japanese comedy here (and as we’ve discussed occasionally on the Small in Japan podcast), the Japanese comedy realm had been undergoing a bit of a “renewal” even before the deadly virus began to leave its mark on the world, propelled by the emergence of a so-called “Seventh Generation” of comedians making waves in traditional media and, somewhat increasingly, online.

Who is the Seventh Generation, you ask? In pure Japanese media fashion, there is no clear answer. In the case of some of the older members of the generation, they’ve been doing the comedy thing just as long as some of the previous “generations” of comedians have. Company-wise, each of the major comedy agencies just so happens to conveniently have had a member of their company hit it big as this new wave of comedians has become a thing (read into that statement what you will).

So what makes these guys “new”, then?

I honestly don’t know. Over the last year, but especially in the face of COVID-19 limiting face-to-face interaction, Yoshimoto in particular has been pushing all of its comedians (ranging from big name mainstreamers to no-name youngsters) to start accumulating a YouTube presence, sometimes- no, most times, regardless of whether or not they have anything to say or not, leading to hundreds and hundreds of the same three or four “comedic” videos. These “Youtuber Geinin” have, as a result, sort of fallen under the Seventh Generation umbrella within the greater Yoshimoto infrastructure.

Japanese Wikipedia (super official source, I know) refers to three different criteria for a comedian to be listed as a Seventh Generation member:
1) They were born in the Heisei Era (after 1989)
2) They are in their 20s or early 30s in 2020
3) They are a “digital native” born after 1987.

Each of these criteria has their obvious exception, however, and everyone I ask who is in a position to know such things can’t really tell me either. In other words, this is just another case of Japan being Japan and of the TV networks and old agencies working up one last burst of publicity spin magic as the world continues to fall down around their ears.

Next: Who are the Seventh Generation?

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