More than three decades after “Sesame Street” was first broadcast in Japan in 1971, the program will for the first time involve Japanese directors and artists in a bid to reach the show’s intended audience: children.

Private broadcaster TV Tokyo said Monday it will air a new version of “Sesame Street,” coproduced by U.S. and Japanese staff, around October. Public broadcaster NHK will terminate the U.S. version of the show April 4.

By targeting Japanese preschool children, the new show could unearth a multibillion-yen market, through apparel, stationery, toys, software and foods featuring Sesame Street’s cute, furry muppets, executives of sponsor companies said.

The new venture represents a three-year effort by program distributor Sesame Workshop to make its efforts at promoting cultural diversity understood in Japan.

“It is not up to us after all to impose a curriculum on a country with a rich culture and educational system,” Gary Knell, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, told a joint news conference of sponsors and TV Tokyo officials in Tokyo.

NHK had refused to consider coproduction, saying the significance and popularity of “Sesame Street” comes precisely from displaying U.S. culture and in its role in promoting English-language education.

“It’s the complete opposite of the rest of the world,” Knell told The Japan Times later in the day. “Everyone else is saying, ‘Take away American imperialism,’ and here, people were saying they want it imposed on them.” But the show wasn’t designed to teach English as a foreign language, he said.

NHK has issued English-language texts featuring Sesame Street characters to serve as EFL materials.

But NHK’s addition of Japanese narration to the show did not capture the interest of the 4- to 6-year-olds who are supposed to benefit most from the show, he said. “Ratings were slipping, and we didn’t want to see our presence here just disappear,” Knell said. “Children have a lot of clutter thrown at them, and we have to provide something that will really engage the kids.”

The new show will feature muppets unique to Japan and address themes it believes relevant to Japanese children, such as diversity and the use of imagination. Five to six minutes of the 30-minute show will focus on basic English-language skills.

“Sesame Street” is coproduced with local staff in 23 of the 120 countries where it is aired.

Sesame Workshop, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, has 700 licensees, representing $1.2 billion in business worldwide. A portion of proceeds are invested back into research and children’s education services.


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