Despite having lived in Japan for almost a decade now, I’ve never actually spent New Year’s in the country. I’ve always returned to my parent’s home in California in late December, not coming back to Tokyo until the holidays and special sales were well over.
But this year, that’s changing. I’m staying in Tokyo, giving me the chance to experience all the activities I’ve been missing out on over the last 10 years. Turns out most of those revolve around relaxing at home. But I’ll finally get to tune in to a special TV program I’ve always wanted to see: NHK’s Kohaku Uta Gassen.
There’s nothing quite like Kohaku on New Year’s Eve in the United States. Nearly every major channel has a special countdown show airing up until midnight, and they include musical guests. But landing on one of those programs doesn’t signify much. In fact, a lot of the people on stage are seen as washed-up, which makes everything feel a little cheap.
The closest event in America in terms of viewership would probably be the annual Grammy Awards, the top music award show. Being invited to do a song or two during the broadcast is seen as a big nod from the music industry. But the number of people watching has never been as strong as for Kohaku.
Kohaku has long showcased Japan’s best talent. It’s also featured a wide variety of enka singers and international acts, most notably a handful of Korean pop outfits in recent years. In 2018, the only Korean act is the popular K-pop girl group Twice, playing for the second time.
While people still clamor to see who gets on Kohaku, fewer viewers are actually tuning into the year-end bonanza. Ratings for the show have been decreasing significantly, with some of the latest editions of Kohaku scoring the lowest numbers in its history.
Some blame a lack of variety in terms of musical guests on the dip. But I think it has more to do with the array of options. Twenty years ago, many were stuck at home with family, and Kohaku was one of the half-dozen or so shows they could watch. But today, there are all kinds of TV channels to flip to, not to mention the entirety of the internet. And younger folks might just prefer to go out with friends.
But NHK will get at least one excited viewer this year: me. Finally getting to check it out in real time will be a blast, and now I think I’ll get the beats of Kohaku. Maybe I’ll even tune in again at the end of 2019. I’ll see how airfare to California looks first, though. (Patrick St. Michel)