New Year’s Eve party, anyone? Nah, put your feet up and enjoy a Japanese tradition on the TV


Sport, sex, thrills: It was back in 1945 that radio producer Tsumoru Kondo declared that these were the three essential ingredients for successful entertainment. He called them the “three S’s,” even though they were two S’s and a T. The producer obviously knew more about entertainment than he did about English. With this three-part recipe he cooked up a radio show that in 1953 spawned a television program that 56 years later is still one of the most popular in Japan: “Kohaku Uta Gassen” (“Red and White Song Battle”).

Broadcast live by NHK for up to four hours each New Year’s Eve, “Kohaku,” as it is generally known, routinely tops Japan’s annual ratings rankings, having achieved an average of 40.2 percent over the last decade.

Like the radio program that preceded it, the television version of “Kohaku” is essentially a music show. That’s where the “thrill” in Kondo’s formula comes in. Around 50 singers or bands — generally the most popular of the year — take turns belting out one of their best-loved numbers.

The “sex” element would probably be called “gender balance” nowadays. Half of the 50 performers are women and the other half are men. And all of this is held together by the third S: “sport.” Kondo wasn’t talking Olympics-type sport; he meant sport in the sense of competition. The female artists are grouped into the “Red” team; the men the “White.” Judges and preregistered members of the public vote on which group performed better over the evening and one is declared the winner.

The three-part formula makes for compelling viewing, with each element complementing the next. But the chief producer of this year’s 60th edition, 43-year-old NHK staffer Keisuke Inoue, says the real key to ”Kohaku” ‘s success lies in its timing.

“The program is a perfect fit for the New Year period,” he said. “In Japan, New Year has always been a time for staying at home with the family, and ‘Kohaku’ is perfect for that.”

Indeed, one of the program’s defining characteristics is that it does not limit itself to a single musical genre. Singers of enka (old-style Japanese ballads), such as the 51-year old Sayuri Ishikawa, perform on the same stage as J-poppers such as Exile.

” ‘Kohaku’ is probably the only program in Japan that combines such diverse music, and hence it appeals to everyone from grandpa to the grandkids,” Inoue says.

The producer adds quickly that if you tried to do something like “Kohaku” every week then people would get bored. “Everyone knows it’s just a once-a-year thing, so they are happy to sit through a variety of music.”

Still, much effort goes into keeping everyone’s attention. A minute or two of chitchat between the program’s MCs (this year, actress/celebrity Yukie Nakama and SMAP leader Masahiro Nakai) precedes each performance, thus heightening viewers’ emotional investment. Last year, Ishikawa managed to pull heartstrings both old and young with her enka ballad “Amagi Goe” — but only after the MC reminded viewers that this had been one of baseball star Ichiro’s “at-bat” tunes, to be played when he stepped up to the plate.

Musicians are selected for “Kohaku” primarily on the basis of their popularity during the year. Inoue explained that he and his staff examine data from music-charts compilers Oricon and Soundscan Japan. NHK also conducts its own opinion poll.

“We survey 5,000 people aged over 7 years about who they want to see at ‘Kohaku,’ ” he explained.

Yet, despite such appeals to objectivity, the announcement each November of the year’s lineup is invariably greeted with a frenzy of commentary from tabloids and bloggers.

This year, the big story was that Johnny’s Jimusho, the talent agency responsible for boy bands such as SMAP, had managed to get four of their charges on the roster: SMAP, Tokio, Arashi and new-comers NYC Boys.

One article in Web magazine Nikkan Cyzo last month asserted that Johnny’s usually only gets two spots and quoted a “tabloid journalist” who speculated that Johnny’s used Arashi as leverage to get NYC Boys on the program.

When asked about the kerfuffle, Inoue rolled his eyes and laughed. “There have never been any number of ‘spots’ for each agency,” he said. “The reason Johnny’s got four this year is simple. SMAP are Japan’s biggest superstars, Tokio’s members are all over television. Arashi are the biggest selling band of the year — this is their first time on ‘Kohaku,’ but they were an obvious choice. And, NYC Boys’ debut single sold over 300,000 copies. For newcomers, that’s phenomenal.”

Also the subject of speculation is whether any performers will dedicate songs to the host of entertainment personalities who passed away this year. The late actor and comedian Hisaya Morishige has been mentioned, as has rock ‘n’ roll legend Kiyoshiro Imawano, who died in May at age 58.

“Personally, Imawano was one of my favorite musicians,” Inoue admitted. “He was the only Japanese rocker who I really liked.”

Ironically, Imawano never appeared on “Kohaku.” “He had an anarchic streak,” said Inoue. “NHK were probably worried about what he’d say live on air.”

Still, Inoue is now weighing options regarding a “Kohaku” tribute to the man who was known as Japan’s King of Rock.

If it happens, a first-time, albeit posthumous, “appearance” by the unpredictable Imawano on the mainstream “Kohaku” will likely be viewed with some cynicism — particularly among the growing number of commentators who believe that despite its continued high ratings, NHK’s “Kohaku” is a relic of a bygone era. Last year, the second part of “Kohaku” (which is held, after a five minute news break, from 9 p.m. to 11:45 p.m.) averaged ratings of 42.1 percent in the Kanto region — enough for it to claim the year’s top spot ahead of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, which averaged 37.3 percent.

While a significant achievement, 42.1 percent represents a precipitous fall from “Kohaku” ‘s 1990s ratings, which hovered around the 50 percent mark, and even more so from 1963, when the program hit a peak of 81.4 percent.

The argument against “Kohaku” is that which is leveled at television in general: that the Internet is leading to greater diversification of interests, and the idea that a large percentage of the population will sit around and watch the same program is a thing of the past.

The drop in ratings, it is also suggested, is leaving NHK vulnerable to excessive and harmful manipulation by the likes of Johnny’s. Every year now there is a chorus of bloggers who suggest — as one named “pulse00″ did late last month — that “they should make this the last year for ‘Kohaku.’ “

Still, far from conceding defeat, Inoue believes that knee-jerk attempts to transform “Kohaku” for the contemporary era are unwarranted.

“Change will occur naturally,” he said, adding that the next two years will see many small adjustments.

Asked for examples, he offered just one from the past: “Thirty years ago there was a segment in ‘Kohaku’ where all the female participants were put in leotards and made to dance a cancan,” he said. “At the time people thought it was the highlight.”

Needless to say, the leotards were soon discarded and the “Kohaku” bandwagon powered on regardless.

Inoue also acknowledged that the full switch to digital terrestrial broadcasts in 2011 will allow NHK to further enhance the interactive aspects of the program — making it easier for them to accept real-time votes from a greater number of viewers, for example.

But the producer believes there is something more important that will assure the continued success of “Kohaku” in the foreseeable future.

“I think people have a fundamental need to enjoy entertainment in groups,” he said. “As long as the Japanese keep coming together on New Year’s Eve, there will always be a market for ‘Kohaku.’ “

“Kohaku Uta Gassen” airs from 7:15 p.m. till 11:45 p.m. on Dec. 31 on NHK-G. There is a five-minute news break from 8:55 p.m.