Happy New Year 2021!
Japan's "Red and White" Song Contest:
A Grand New Year's Eve Tradition

In today’s newsletter, I’m excited to share with you traditional Japanese New Year’s customs. Many of the widely held traditions celebrated today started in the Edo period (1603-1868), including the act of starting extensive preparations for the New Year in December. Taken together with traditions born throughout the Showa era (1926-1989), I’ve found thirteen key New Year traditions. It wasn’t until the Showa era that a number of these gained tractions with the general population. Some of these relate to specific foods to be enjoyed during New Year celebrations or about what sort of decorations to put up at your home to properly welcome the upcoming year. However, today I’d like to focus on the “Red and White Song Contest,” one of those traditions that achieved widespread popularity during the Showa era.

 

The Red and White Song Contest has been broadcast by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) on New Year’s Eve every year since 1951 (the 26th year of the Showa era) longest running programs on the air today. Men and women are split into two color coded groups, with women in the red and men in the white. The entertainers tend to be some of the popular music stars of the past year, and to this day, it is a very popular program with Japanese people. It is a grandiose, large scale production that brings high spirits into the homes of its viewers. The program is familiarly known by the shortened nickname “Red and White” (“Kōhaku” in Japanese).

There are two moderators for the event, a woman for the red team and a man for the white team. Each October, these moderators are chosen from amongst the popular actors and “talent” stars across the year’s NHK drama and other programs. It’s always exciting to see who is awarded the privilege of being a moderator for Kōhaku!

 

Singers competing in this year-end gala are selected each November and are announced with great fanfare. There are to be about 20 to 30 soloists/groups in each of the two (red and white) teams. All strive to be singers worthy of appearing on a program such as this. For many, it’s seen as an act of patriotism even. It’s also just generally an honor to be on the show. 

 

Singers who released a hit song in the current year have a high probability of being selected for Kōhaku, but it is not singers that are chosen (in December) to do the judging. Instead, the judges tend to be current entertainment celebrities or well known figures from the sports or media worlds. It’s a reliably interesting set of folks that are chosen.

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Kōhaku was broadcast as usual this year from 19:30 to 23:45 on December 31st. Families, as usual, gathered in their living rooms and watched the show together as a New Year’s Eve activity. It has been a custom since the Showa era, they also ate “Toshikoshi soba” noodles while watching the show. Toshikoshi soba, eaten in the hope for good fortune, first took root in Japanese culture in Osaka during the Edo period. More specifically, the noodles symbolize the cutting off of any bad in the current year so it does not persist into the next.

 

Back on the Red and White show, the end of the evening crowns a winner of the contest. The scoring method has changed over the years, in no small part due to the rise of the internet. Back in the old days, audience members would raise either a red or white traditional Japanese fan, and members of the Wild Bird Society of Japan would count them. Next, the guest judges would put red or white balls into a ballot box, with the Red and White moderators administering and counting them all up. It’s all very much the performance. Now that the internet has become part of our lives, viewers also participate in the judging online from wherever they might be.

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In recent years, the number of young people who celebrate New Year’s Eve by going out instead of staying home with family has increased, and the intergenerational relevancy of Red and White has somewhat suffered as a result. However, with Covid-19 squashing youth party plans, this year most likely many more people enjoyed Red and White together with their families.

 

This new year, like every other new year, brings the promise of all good things. I am eager to move forward with this fresh start, and the good news about a vaccine could not have come at a better time. Please take care of yourself during this season and always do please enthusiastically welcome in the new year with me. I thank you for your continued support and look forward to our continuing relationship in 2021.

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