Many Japanese families were split up during World War II — men sent to the front-lines, women and children evacuated to the countryside, workers shipped to factories far from home. In the chaos that followed surrender, it was difficult for people to reunite with loved ones. For years, even decades, they lived with uncertainty. Was he dead? Were they killed in the bombing raids? Did she remarry, thinking I was dead?

In the immediate postwar years, NHK radio announcers read messages over the air from people who were looking for relatives. It became a ritual, and the idea gradually morphed into TV shows where individuals would appear and ask for help in looking for family members they had lost touch with for reasons that didn’t always have to do with the war. What had once been a public service turned into sentimental entertainment.

Nihon TV launched a quiz show in 1975 called “Sore wa Himitsu Desu” (It’s a Secret) that included a segment where guests solicited help in finding people. It was hosted by Katsura Kokinji, who earned the nickname Crying Kokinji because of how easily he wept when families were reunited. The segment was so popular that when the show ended in 1987 it moved to Nihon TV’s morning wide show “Look Look.”

From 1994 to 2001, comedian Shinsuke Shimada hosted a show called “Ahh, Bara-iro no Chinsei (Ahh, Rose-colored Unique Lives),” which was dedicated to such searches. By this point, the search was less important than the payoff, which involved everyone crying uncontrollably, the more criers the better: The program featured celebrities whose sales point was their ability to weep at the drop of a hat.

The most famous of these was Kazuo Tokumitsu, a veteran announcer who can cry buckets. Tokumitsu has found his life’s calling on “Tokumitsu Kazuo no Kando Saikai (Kazuo Tokumitsu’s Moving Reunions)” (TBS, Thursday, 6:55 p.m.), which is the ultimate manifestation of this kind of aitai (I want to see him/her/them) entertainment.

The show clarifies an idea that has always been implied in this sort of program; namely, that the person being sought may not want to be found. Searches end any of three ways: a tearful reunion in the studio, a trail that dries up, or a found individual who elects not to meet the person looking for him.

Tokumitsu takes this last possibility into consideration by having a panel of seven celebrities vote on whether or not the guest’s search deserves to be carried out. If the majority of the panel votes against the proposed meeting, then the search will not proceed. It’s an absurd condition because the searches are implemented by the show’s staff and can take weeks, and by the time they tape the studio portion the search has already been carried out. There is a “first judgment” that’s usually split, but the “final judgment” always favors the searcher, usually unanimously.

About half the cases follow the classic child-looking-for-male-parent scenario. Even today, fathers will “evaporate” owing to debt or drink, and in Japan divorce often means a complete break with the father. Since child support isn’t strictly enforced and visitation rights are practically unheard of, a child may never see his or her father again.

On a recent installment, a 32-year-old woman was looking for her dad, who left when she was only a year old. In the dramatization, we learned that the woman’s mother basically kicked him out because of womanizing and debts. This cliche was fortified when the daughter eventually became a juvenile delinquent, but the hackneyed quality of the presentation doesn’t make the stories any less poignant.

The celebrities are chosen as much for their candor as for their ability to cry on camera. Some were concerned about the woman’s mother, who didn’t know her daughter was appearing on the show. What would she think about her reuniting with her father? In the end, the father was tracked down but refused to meet his daughter, stating in a letter that he is remarried with two sons. He has to think of their feelings first.

Another fixture of this sort of show is the child of mixed parentage, in particular U.S. military men and Japanese women. One program featured a 23-year-old woman looking for her American father, a sailor who had a brief affair with her mother before going back to the United States. Four panelists first objected to the search, saying that since the father hadn’t contacted the daughter yet, it probably meant he didn’t want to meet her, but in every case I’ve ever seen where an American father is found, he is invariably excited about meeting his child. “This is Japanese TV,” said writer Yuzuki Muroi, one of the regulars. “He doesn’t have to worry about anybody finding out.” And the payoff is always better than it is with Japanese relations. Sobbing is multiply effective when it’s accompanied by good old American hugging and kissing.

Theoretically, Japan’s economic stability would mean that broken families should be less common now than they were 40 years ago, but Tokumitsu’s show has no problem finding seekers of lost loved ones. We can probably expect a boom in this kind of programming in another decade when an estimated 10,000 illegitimate Filipino children of Japanese men enter adulthood and come to Japan looking for their dads.

Nevertheless, some of the show’s quests are less deserving of tears than others. Once, a 21-year-old bar hostess came on the show looking for a boyfriend she broke up with when she was 19. There wasn’t much drama involved, even when the guy showed up — he still didn’t want to get back with her. Time may heal all wounds, but two years isn’t much time. Still, the panel was unanimous in giving the search a try. “I just wanted to see what he looked like,” said Muroi.