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Finishing Off the Year with an Annual Song Battle

December 28, 1998
the Black Biscuits and the Pocket Biscuits
These two trios, the Black Biscuits (left) and the Pocket Biscuits, will perform together for the year-end show. (Jiji Press)

New Year's Eve is a busy day in Japan, with various preparations to wind down one year's business and welcome another year afresh. But for many people the highlight of the day may be sitting down after finishing all these affairs and watching Kohaku Uta Gassen (Red-and-White Song Festival), a program where musicians who were successful that year--of all different ages and from various genres--come together to engage in a song battle between a men's team and women's team. Traditionally broadcast in the evening when most families are relaxing at home, this annual show, in its forty-ninth year, steadily earns viewer ratings of over 50%.

Superstar Namie Amuro's Comeback
Stories relating to Kohaku Uta Gassen, broadcast live on NHK (Japan Broadcasting Association), start popping up in the media from around the end of autumn. The first concern is which artists are named to appear in the show and which are not. In all, 25 singers and groups are chosen for each team--women in the red team, men in the white team. There are three criteria for selection: their success during that year, their popularity, and their compatibility with that year's plans for the show.

The hottest topic of the 1998 show is superstar Namie Amuro's participation. Still in her early twenties, she is Japan's best-selling singer of the 1990s and is looked up to as a fashion guru by many women of her generation. Amuro had been hiding away from the public for a year while she got married and gave birth to a child; her appearance in Kohaku marks her comeback. After the participants were announced, Amuro commented, "I was able to learn a lot this year while taking time off as a sort of recharging period. I will do my best to show everyone the 'new Namie Amuro.'"

A Prestigious Event for Participants
Other musicians whose selection called much media attention included Morning Musume (Girls) and a special band made up of the Black Biscuits and Pocket Biscuits--two trios consisting of two male comedians and a female vocalist--both of which were born as spinoffs of television shows. Vivian Hsu, Taiwanese vocalist for the Black Biscuits, happily commented that "Kohaku is popular in other Asian countries as well, and I'm very honored to be performing on it."

Hsu is not the only person who feels honored for being chosen. Kohaku Uta Gassen boasts half a century of extremely high viewer ratings and thus holds a special meaning for most participants. One young singer who will be on it for the first time says, "I never thought I'd be able to be on such a prestigious show. I'm sure my parents are proud, too." It is no small matter even for singers who have participated for many years; one such singer admits that "every year, when selection time comes around, my stomach starts aching from anxiety."

Not Only the Singers Gather Attention
Public interest also gathers annually on the two emcees who will lead each team. There has been a tendency in recent years to choose younger people for these roles; the 1998 pair is the youngest in Kohaku history, both being 26 years old. Heading the white (men's) team will be Masahiro Nakai, a member of the popular male group SMAP, while the red (women's) team will be led by NHK's own female announcer Junko Kubo. Both are highly popular figures, so their selection has been just as much the talk of the town as that of the musicians.

The producer of Kohaku Uta Gassen says that he hopes to make the 1998 show "fun for everyone, young and old." He and his staff are planning interim events between songs that include letters to fathers, a song to thank mothers, and cheering from professional athletes.

As usual, about half of Japan's TV-watching population is expected to tune into the 1998 show. In its forty-ninth year on the air, Kohaku Uta Gassen will remain an extremely popular way to "sing out" the old year and ring in the new.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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