An introduction to Japan's New Year's Eve Show: Kohaku Uta Gassen

Kohaku Uta Gassen 紅白歌合戦, NHK’s annual new years' singing competition show. It is a singing show, where it is the red team versus the white team. The white team is for men and the red is for women.

An introduction to Japan's New Year's Eve Show: Kohaku Uta Gassen

Here in Japan, people are preparing for the New Year, the most important holiday in Japan. While there are many traditions (Osechi Ryori, visiting a shrine, cleaning, etc.), there is a special tradition I would like to share.

Tradition may not be the best word, as it is a more recent compared with the history of Japan, but I would like to share with you Kohaku Uta Gassen 紅白歌合戦, NHK’s annual new years' singing competition show.

Kohaku Uta Gassen 紅白歌合戦 73nd theme This year's theme is "Love & Peace"

Kohaku Uta Gassen 紅白歌合戦

It is a singing show, where it is the red team versus the white team. The white team is for men and the red is for women.

Let’s break down the kanji:

紅: Red 白: White 歌: Singing 合戦: Contest/battle

The singers range from the brand new artists and bands of the year, to way WAY back from decades ago. There have been singers who have been on the show for over 50 years. To give you an idea, my mother in her early 50’s says “I listened to her when I was a teenager!” so some of these singers have been there for a while.

The performance is run similarly to a normal singing competition, where each team takes turns going, the middle has a “half time” special performance, and then capped off by voting for the winner.

Who are the performers?

To give you an idea, here are some of the notable performers from the red team this year (2023): Nogizaka 46, Perfume, YOASOBI, Perfume and Ishikawa Sayuri (her 46th time on the show.) And from the white team: Fukuyama Masaharu, Mrs. Green Apple, Yo Oozumi, and Yuzu.

Other notable singers from the past include, AKB48, Baby Metal, Hey Say JUMP, SMAP, Southern All Stars, and Utada Hikaru.

In addition, PIKOTARO sang and performed the song “Pen Pineapple Apple Pen” in 2016 (if any of you remember the song.) What a scene.

Pikotaro singing PPAP at Kohaku Pikotaro signing at Kohaku

In recent years, viewership and popularity has been dropping, so there has been pressure to increase the audience, resulting in a push for performers to be more popular among younger generations.

How are the performers selected?

Currently, NHK have 3 criteria they use to select performers: “This year’s activity”, “Popularity/Public approval”, and “Alliance with the broadcasting of the show” (「今年の活躍」「世論の支持」「番組の企画・演出」) (I realize this is not the best translation.)

To evaluate these three criteria, 5 metrics are used:

  1. Results from a nationwide survey conducted by NHK on 5,000 people ages 7 and above
  2. The number of singers performed by the contenstand in the preliminary rounds of NHK Nodo Jiman (NHK Amateur Singing Contest)
  3. Sales of CDs, cassettes, and DVDs
  4. Surveys on karaoke and wired communication services (I do not understand what this means)
  5. Survey on how many downloads from the internet (including cell phones)

Some history on Kohaku

After WWII ended, Japan wanted to create a singing competition for the new “era” if you will. And thus Kohaku was born in 1951. It was originally on the radio and, in 1953, started to be broadcasted on TV.

The show is run by NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation/ Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai), the government-owned public broadcasting service.

Voting in Kohaku Uta Gassen Voting in Kohaku

After 73 years, the red team has won 33 times and the white team has won 40 times. So not very even, with a bias towards men. The winning team is chosen through voting by the audience, TV audience, and the hosts of the show. So, it is by popular vote, and Japan seems to like the guys more than the girls.

Viewership and competitors?

While Kohaku is still wildly popular, it is not always the most viewed TV show on New Years Eve. Some popular alternatives include, “Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!!”, (a comedy variety show ダウンタウンのガキの使いやあらへんで!!), and Johnny's Countdown Live (an idol talent agency count down show ジャニーズカウントダウンライブ).

Kouhaku Utagassen 2023 milet Man with a mission milet x MAN WITH A MISSION at 2023 Kouhaku

Any fun New Year’s traditions?

In the past, I watched this with my family. My mother, who is Japanese, specifically enjoys the show. Watching it in America means that we are watching the rebroadcast and therefore, a taped show. What does a middle aged mother do when she sees younger performers she doesn't know? Fast forwards. And so, this year, my family will enjoy Kohaku as we always do, skipping over new performers, with protest on the sidelines when I have someone I want to watch.

If you have the chance and want to get a taste of Japanese music, I highly recommend the show. Is it as engaging as the new K-Pop groups? Not exactly, but I will say it is pretty entertaining and fun for the whole family.

Unsolicited Recommendation #17

Want to celebrate New Year's with a little bit of Japanese style? Another (more traditional) tradition is Toshikosi soba (年越し蕎麦.) You may be familiar with Soba noodles which is exactly what this dish is. Toshikoshi Soba gained popularity in the 1800's, but has said to have been around since the Edo Period (1603 – 1868.)

On New Year's Eve Japanese people will have a bowl Toshikosi Soba, or "Year Crossing" Soba. Like many other cultures, Japanese people like to start the new year with a fresh start.

So why Soba?

Soba, "...became popular for the new year for several reasons, one being that soba noodles are made of buckwheat, a grain which is particularly known for its resilience to severe weather and often represents strength in Japanese culture. Soba noodles are also often associated with wellbeing, as the long strands signify longevity, and consuming them has been thought to bring good health for the next year." -Kaki Okumura

Nishin Soba toshikoshi soba in black bowl Nishin Soba

How to enjoy Toshikoshi soba

While Soba can be enjoyed with tempura, nagaimo, or other toppings, this is a simple dish. There is no rule to how one can enjoy Toshikoshi Soba, but it is typically served warm, in a fish based broth, with a few green onions. It can be a nice contrast to other heavy foods that you may feast on during New Year's celebrations.

Need a recipe? I recommend Just One Cook Book's recipe.

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