Double wipe action!
You've probably joked with your friends about that absurd little picture in the corner of the screen during Japanese TV variety shows. You know, the one filled up with some mug of some celebrity whose name you don't know but whose face you're sure you've seen on just about every TV show ever?

That little picture has a name, and it's called the ワイプ ("wipe").

Even in my initial encounters with the "wipe," I felt a bit insulted. It feels like a subtle dissmissal by directors, all but saying aloud that TV viewers are so unintelligent that they'd be otherwise unable to divine the correct emotional response to the actual goings-on of the show: "Oh, the celebrities laughed when the kid fell off his bicycle. I should therefore laugh, too!" Thank heaven that wipe was there, or else you might not have known the correct thing to do.

But, I thought, that's absurd. Surely there's another reason for the wipe?

That's when I started looking into it. My first stop was the Wikipedia article for Japanese variety shows:
Wipe: An increasingly common production method on television shows which alternate between recorded videos and commentary from performers on set. Along the edge (usually the top-right or bottom-right corner) of the recorded video, the faces of the performers are displayed as they also watch the video. From this technique the reactions of the performers can be synchronized with viewers' reactions. Thus, it has the advantage of clearly indicating the "punchline" of a video to viewers. Also, even performers unskilled in speech can, with their interesting facial expressions or other reactions like clapping, create laughing points for viewers.
Come on. Really? Even Wikipedia's gonna tell us that the wipe is only there to cue brain-dead viewers their vicarious merriment and tears? And apparently to make fun of less popular talents, too? That's depressing, even for content flagged as "requiring a reference" on a community-edited encyclopedia project.

Other sites and posters online agree with this as the reason for the wipe's ubiquity across modern Japanese television. One TV blogger says outright, "The wipe tells viewers, 'It's time for you to react like this, OK?'" (As a bonus he notes that Japanese TV editors have not only laugh tracks on hand but also "Ohhhhh!" and "Eeeeeeh?!" tracks to dub in to shows at their discretion.)

I was beginning to despair in my search, until I stumbled across one guy who seemed to be moving in a more logical direction. And following that line of thought brought me to Yahoo! Chiebukuro. Who would have thought "Yahoo! Answers Japan" would yield the most level-headed, economically-minded explanation yet?
(OK. Clearly our Q&A series guy would have.)
Here is perhaps the Holy Grail of wipe explanations:The wipe creates one more hook to capture viewers who are flipping through channels. If Viewer A sees his favorite talent in the corner of the screen and thinks, "Oh, it's that guy. I like him. Maybe he'll say something funny today," then maybe he'll continue watching the program, regardless of whether he was interested in the main content or not. For competitive prime-time slots, just an extra 0.1% viewer rate in the Tokyo area means another 40,000 people are watching. Networks will use any tactic they can muster to draw in more viewers. In that way, the wipe is just a marketing tool. 
Well done. That sits a lot better with me than "conformist Japanese wouldn't know what to do without a constant emotion guide," occasional case though that may be.

Anyway, I can understand now why the wipe exists. But that doesn't mean any of us have to like it. In my searching I was relieved to find that some Japanese people even hate the thing, and some of them passionately.

As for me? I guess I've come around a bit since I started writing this article, because this video showed me that the wipe can generate far more laughter than I ever expected:

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