I know very well that my grandma and my mother will tune in again, “says Hashiyasume Atsuko.” But this time, unfortunately, I can’t take part, I’ll be on stage myself! “And her bandmate Momoko Gumi Company confesses:” For years we always wanted to be there! “As members of the punk band BiSH, the young women are actually rebellious and unimpressed. But what lies ahead now brings stage fright:” It will be our first time. Of course we’re excited! “
For the six singers from BiSH and 37 other stars from the Japanese show business, the accolade is imminent on New Year’s Eve. Then they appear at “Kouhaku uta gassen”, which can be translated with the rather unspectacular title: “Singing competition between red and white”. But when such an invitation comes, tradition trumps coolness for all artists in the country – whether rappers, punk musicians or classical performers. Being there at this event also means that business has gone well over the past year.
Almost all of Japan will watch the year-end event. Probably no TV show can look back on a longer unbroken history than “Kouhaku uta gassen”, which has been broadcast annually since the 1950s and invites all generations to listen and hum in various genres together. In terms of popularity and function, it is similar to that of the “Dinner for One” program in German-speaking countries: Time is killed until the year is finally over.
Hardly any wild parties
The turn of the year in the East Asian country plays out differently than in the West. There are hardly any wild New Year’s Eve parties with a lot of drug use. The norm is a quiet get-together with the family at home. One goes to a shrine of the original Shinto religion to ask the gods with a ritual from giving coins to bowing for a successful next year. In the evening, however, most families are in front of the television: from 7.15 p.m. until just before midnight, “Kouhaku” is played for four and a half hours.
The pandemic is now a great opportunity for the program. As in all countries where the Internet has spread and media consumption has diversified, TV stations have to fight for audience ratings. Public broadcasters in particular are under pressure to justify the way in which they do this with their fee-financed program. NHK, the Japanese publicly owned channel, broadcast the highly controversial Tokyo Olympics in the summer and had freed up plenty of airtime for it.
In addition, the popularity of long-time favorites such as “Kouhaku” has recently declined. In the first pandemic year of 2020, however, the quasi-lockdown that had also seized Japan forced even the young to watch TV again. So there is now hope of regaining this group of spectators who were believed to be lost. This is another reason why popular groups such as BiSH are invited to this year’s show, who in turn look forward to the older audience – in order to gain new listeners there too.
Men or women?
In any case, there seems to be more talk about the program again since the pandemic. You tear your mouths over the list of celebrities taking part, which permanent guests were no longer invited and are now apparently out, which songs will be sung and who will win in the end. The men or the women? Because the show, which was broadcast for the first time in the post-war period, is always also a battle between the sexes.
Divided into a red and a white troupe, a group of women and men from the music industry each perform selected hits, the performance of which is then assessed by a jury and the audience. In a way, the whole event is similar to the Japanese entertainment hit karaoke, where people meet privately to sing with microphones – and where it is decided immediately afterwards how good you have been.
Positive side effects
The surrounding show business is not limited to the TV station NHK. As soon as the field of participants is declared, self-appointed experts and fans discuss who is the favorite in newspapers and on the radio. This year, the red group is likely to have more opportunities, i.e. women. In addition to BiSH, they consist of the hugely popular girl group Sakurazaka46 and Sayuri Ishikawa, an icon of the traditional enka, a kind of Japanese hit.
But the real winner could be the Japanese people. Because even if many music lovers in the country can hardly stand the show, because all possible genres are presented like a medley, the pandemic-induced indirect observation could help prevent the next wave of infections driven by Omikron. That in turn could lead to an early opening of the national borders, whereby tourism would flourish again at some point. And when the number of infections is low, the struggling concert industry can look forward to full arenas again.