Explorations in Japanese Culture

Trans-America Ultra Quiz! (アメリカ横断ウルトラクイズ)

The Japanese are a people who have taken the “no pain, no gain” mentality and made it an integral part of their culture. This sense of exchange pervades so many different areas of Japanese society, but none is as humorous or as entertaining as the Japanese game show. The show that started the idea of harsh punishment for big reward was Trans-America Ultra Quiz. A show that gave people a chance at traveling abroad to America, but only after they went through a series of challenges and quizes that resulted in punishing eliminations.

A New Kind of Quiz Show

The Japanese love to travel and America has always been viewed as a glamourous destination, but travel abroad was once a luxury that only a few were able to enjoy. Trans-America Ultra Quiz offered a few lucky contestants a free, all expenses paid trip to New York. When the show began in 1977 it was a big departure from the typical quiz show of the time for three big reasons. First, the show was not bound to a studio. The contestants spent most of their time outside and in foreign locations doing physical challenges and answering questions. Second, the contestants show did not begin and end in the period of  a single time slot. The competition and elimination process continued over a period of weeks as the numbers continued to dwindle. Finally, it was one of the first shows to focus not only on the winners, but also the losers, who were often shamed with punishment. When the show first aired, it hosted 404 contestants in Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium and was aired in two 1.5 hr blocks. As the show grew in popularity, it aired in 5 blocks and in 1991 it attracted 28,523 initial contestants. During the shows sixteen years, only 31 people ever actually made it to New York.

Getting to New York

The show began with all the contestants gathering together in a stadium where they are asked to answer true and false questions. This continues until a few dozen are left and the over seas journey can commence. Contestants were flown around the world to Europe, Hawaii and South America until finally reaching their New York destination. The first stop on the trip was Guam, but before even getting not he plane, contestants had to fight for their seat in a game of “Rock-Paper-Scissors.” This is perhaps the simplest of the eliminations, as all they had to do was board a train and head home after losing. Any failed contestants that passed this point had to endure a punishment game. Sometimes this punishment was instant, other times it was a bit more drawn out.

Once they arrived in Guam the contestants were asked another true or false question and ran through a curtain that reflected their choice. The right answer landed them gently onto a mat, but the wrong answer landed them into a pool of mud. As the show progressed challenges and punishments became more elaborate. I saw one where questions were dropped from an airplane in the dessert, and contestants had to run around and find them and then bring them back to be answered. All the while avoiding cacti and thorns. In a Hawaiian challenge, contestants were awoken at 2 am and were asked questions until dawn. The loser has to paint a 1km long line on a airport tarmac during a hot Hawaiian afternoon. One of the most dangerous that I have read about took place in Mexico, when a losing female contestant was placed in a ring with a bull! After she escaped without injury, but full of tears it was discovered that the producers had “intended” for it to only be a calf, but that someone has screwed up…

Gone, But Not Forgotten

Only in Japan could such a show succeed, but success did not last forever for Trans-America Ultra Quiz. While the show enjoyed widespread popularity during the 80s, during the early 90s ratings began to drop. The show started and thrived at a time when the young were unable to afford the expense of traveling abroad, but after the golden years of the 80s the new youth was far more wealthy and were able to travel abroad regularly without having to be tortured to do so! Combined with the rising cost of filming the show, it was definitely near the end. The last straw however came when the long time emcee left the show after 15 years and resulted in the show’s cancelation.

Even though the show was cancelled in 1992, its influence continued with the creation of many other shows in the gaman genre. One popular example is TV Champion which challenged people in a variety of different competitions from sushi swallowing, spicy food eating and sweatiest body. For the sweat competition, the contestants were put in sweat suits and forced to gorge themselves on spicy food. Their sweat was collected an measured at the bottom of the raised platforms. Some contestants were even sent overseas to take on local challengers in these competitions.

Trans-Japan Ultra Quiz

I have to say, that given then chance to travel to Japan, I would absolutely take part in the show. I mean, it sounds like a lot of fun to be honest and at the very least you get to do some traveling if you can make it to the first stop. Would you ever want to compete in such a show to travel abroad? If not Japan, where would you want to go?

You can see a good series of YouTube videos here.

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This entry was posted on April 6, 2012 by in Popular Culture and tagged , , .

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