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(I never thought I would ask one of these questions and even considered if it was off topic but this is a very distinct feature of the language as it is really used. Is it due to some characteristic of the language I don't know?)

I am to referring the condensed sentences/phrases that appear in the corner of the screen or as very concise versions of the what the newsreader is saying not the 字幕 that can be switched on and off or the "ticker-tape" style on BBC or CNN, which is always about a different subject. See link below for examples.

I have not noticed this elsewhere in the world and wonder, does it date back to a time before 字幕 for the hard of hearing became very standard (25 years ago?) or could it even be because people may not recognise the "chinese words" in the reporting unless they can see the characters (which would be good to know because I have the same problem!). The visual nature of the characters certainly lends itself better to subtitles than say roman alphabet.

Link:
https://www.google.co.jp/search?q=テロップ&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=yZ8zU4_nD8fIlAXT6ICYBQ&sqi=2&ved=0CDUQsAQ&biw=1280&bih=929

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maybe it's for deaf-friendliness –  Flaw Mar 24 at 12:05
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One professor of mine once suggested (sort of in agreement with you) that this was because Sino-Japanese words (which are used a lot more in newsreader speech than in ordinary speech) have a much higher degree of homophony than 大和言葉, and that the subtitles were present to help to disambiguate the resulting homophones. –  senshin Mar 24 at 12:26
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I always thought it was partly to support literacy as well. I guess there's no single reason (although there might be a single official reason). –  Earthliŋ Mar 24 at 14:06
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In 1992, TV comedy show 電波少年 began to use 字幕 heavily, and the program earned high audience rating. After that many other TV programs mimic the way - using too much 字幕. –  noel_lapin Mar 26 at 11:41
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the subtitles used in 電波少年 are telops(テロップ) which are for decorative purposes and not for subtitling. Come to think of it that kind of heavy telop using is not seen in Western TV, probably not what the OP was asking for but is an interesting question. –  Saifis Mar 27 at 2:38

1 Answer 1

As evidenced by this question on oshiete, Japanese people don't really know either. The asker doesn't understand why there are subtitles being placed on screen, even for when someone like the Prime Minister is saying something in clear Japanese. The answerers agree, that they don't understand why, and put forward their best guesses.

Here, too, is a long-term resident gaijin asking why subtitles appear without having turned on closed captioning. The highest-rated guess is that producers do it to keep people watching. The rest of Japanese television (commercials, variety shows) are so frenetic and covered with decoration that such an effect, however modest, can hold interest for longer.

While I'm sure it helps for differentiating homophones, or understanding someone with a unique accent/dialect, I think it caught on as a general attention-catching technique, so even someone speaking perfectly clear Japanese will have their words transcribed on screen.

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