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Kohaku Photographs courtesy of Marty Friedman

Big in Japan


The Coolest Music Competition in the World

"Kōhaku will blow your mind."

FOR those of you who don’t know Kōhaku, I’d like to introduce you to one of the coolest institutions of music not only in Japan but in the world. The closest comparison might be the Eurovision Song Contest, but that would be doing Kōhaku a disservice. Kōhaku is an annual New Year’s music “competition” between male and female artists. There’s no prize and the competition part is really just in good fun to give the viewers a rooting interest. The 66th annual Kōhaku was broadcast live from NHK Hall in Tokyo. What’s so cool about it? Well, it’s one act after another in rapid succession with little talk in between and no long-winded thank you speeches. Each artist’s set is unique and even more extravagant than the previous one, which seems inconceivable for over 50 acts on a live TV broadcast. Only with Japan’s superhuman work ethic, unwavering discipline and accurate-to-the-second planning could such a mammoth of a show be pulled off year after year.

Another major charm of the show is that it’s genre-less and so every possible kind of artist is represented. Pop singers, rock and visual kei bands, enka singers and idols – they’re all on the same bill regardless of age or style. A new act with only one hit single out can wind up collaborating with a 40-year veteran superstar. There are no borderlines of style or genre, so the whole show feels like one massive celebration of Japanese music.

And what a rich music scene there is to celebrate in Japan! This time, Kōhaku has legendary enka singers Sayuri Ishikawa and Sachiko Kobayashi, along with ultra-cute idols like Nogizaka46 and AKB48, as well as the heavy metal visual kei pioneers X Japan. Then you get the intelligent and eclectic pop of Ringo Shiina, the uplifting Ikimono-gakari, and the always colorful digital pop of Perfume. The remaining 40-plus artists are equally as unique and fun.

Kōhaku was a huge inspiration for me as a music fan and a musician. There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world. I’ve played it twice myself, once with Ami Suzuki and once with Sayuri Ishikawa. Even though I’ve played the NHK Hall countless other times, there is a different electricity in the place for Kōhaku. It buzzes with frantic but organized activity. It is a rare and awesome sight to see a place packed with every top artist and upcoming artist in the business all at the same time, all preparing for Japan’s biggest show of the year. Even if you are only slightly interested in Japanese music, Kōhaku will blow your mind. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #278 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.

Written By:

Marty Friedman
After reaching legendary status as a guitarist racking up over 13 million albums sold with Megadeth, Cacophony and solo with a dozen albums, Marty Friedman stunned the heavy metal community by leaving his home country of the USA to make his musical contribution to the growing J-pop scene in Tokyo. He soon went on to appear in chart-topping songs with count- less artists in Japan, and to play Tokyo Dome and Budokan several times. Again doing the unexpected, he has also written two bestselling books in Japanese, acted in major motion pictures, done TV commercial campaigns for Coca- Cola and Sumitomo Bank, as well as over 600 television shows, hosting and guesting on every possible kind of program from comedy, political, cooking, music, education and everything in between. Marty Friedman’s latest album “Tokyo Jukebox 3” came out in 2020.


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