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WIT Life #18: Kohaku 2008 Revealed

WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Interpreter/Translator/Writer Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken, 2000-03).  Recently she’s been watching the news in Japanese and sharing some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.


Two weeks after the fact, but yesterday I finally had the chance to watch the NHK New Year’s

Eve music show Kohaku Uta Gassen aka Kohaku. This literally translates into "Red and White Song Battle," referring to the fact that the genders split up into teams with women on red and men on white, and battle it out in the

musical arena to see which sex takes honors for the year. The performers are a mix of contemporary pop stars and old-time enka singers (many with lavish costumes!), so there is a little of something for everyone. In addition to the interesting commentary provided by the host and hostess (representatives of their respective teams), several surprise guests drop by with acts of their own.

Each side present 26 songs during this four-hour spectacle, and this year 13 performers made it to Kohaku for the first time. For many singers, this is the pinnacle of their careers. The songs are judged by a 10-person panel of actors, athletes and other famous figures who offer their insight between songs. However, the ultimate decision of which team comes out on top is made by the live audience as well as viewers at home via their keitais. An interesting first entry was that of Jero, a Pittsburgh native whose grandmother was Japanese. When he was growing up, she introduced enka to him and

he grew to love it. Jero hadn't planned on becoming a musician and had actually graduated university as a computer engineer, but a chance runner-up victory in a karaoke contest led JVC Music to scout him. He is considered to be the first black enka singer and made a stellar Kohaku debut with the classic "Umiyuki," dedicating the performance to his grandmother who had passed away three years ago. He had made a promise to her that he would someday be on this show, and the t-shirt he wore emblazoned with her image was his way of sharing the experience with her. His mother was also in the audience shedding a few tears as her son sang, lending an extra emotionality to his performance.

In a reflection of the tough economic times, a joint performance between the groups Shuchishin (male) and Pabo (female) encouraged "sugoi" Japan to "ganbare" and its salarymen to "fight." The lyrics also paid tribute to Japan's inventions of instant ramen, can coffee and karaoke, encouraging listeners to never give up and restore pride in the nation. This brought back memories of the Morning Musume 1999 monster hit "Love Machine," which celebrated shacho and appealed to the world with Japan's strength. At Kohaku, the hope for 2009 was to increase recognition of the "Japan brand," and later on in the show the acronym of MIJ (Made in Japan) was referred to by popular SMAP member Kimutaku.

After the conclusion of this array of dazzling performances, the vote was in. For the fourth year in a row, white won with an overwhelming lead of 205,530 votes to red's 112,000. Next year will mark Kohaku's 60th anniversary so look forward to an even more amazing show to commemorate this milestone!

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