The idea for an epic meeting of popular singers came as early as December 1945, less than 6 months after the end of the Second World War, when a "Red-and-White Song Competition"was held on New Year's Eve on radio. However, the very first Kohaku occurred on January 3, 1951, again as a radio program lasting one hour with 7 singers each on the Red and White teams. But from the 4th Kohaku onwards, the show was shifted to its now-traditional New Year's Eve slot and became the very first televised version of the event. The show was expanded to 90 minutes from 9:15 to 10:45, and the teams had expanded its numbers to 17 singers each. In terms of venue, according to Wikipedia, from 1959 to 1973, the Kohaku had been held at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre before moving to its permanent location at NHK Hall in Shibuya, Tokyo.
Basically, that will be the extent of my telling of the history of the show since Wikipedia and J-Wiki already have accounts of the Kohaku including links to the relevant sites. However, I will provide a direct link to NHK's nifty history of the event right here.
By the way, the above video is for the 1969 (No. 20) Kohaku with Mieko Hirota （弘田三枝子）singing "Ningyo no Ie"(人形の家....Dollhouse).
Toronto first got the Kohaku in January 1982. That was the 32nd show, and I guess it's true when they say "You always remember your first one", because I've always considered the 1981 version my personal favourite. With Seiko Matsuda's sophomore entry of "Natsu no Tobira", Hitomi Ishikawa's "Machibuse" and Akira Terao's "Ruby no Yubiwa", that particular show just seemed to be filled with all the reasons that got me into Japanese music in the first place. Those three I've mentioned, by the way, have their own entries...just press '1981'in the Labels sidebar. The other highlight is all of the young aidoru performing Quincy Jones' disco hit "Ai no Corrida". It got me to purchase the single at my local record store.
That 1981 show was a milestone for me. Our family was just glued to the TV for those few hours. We even gladly sacrificed "Hockey Night In Canada" to catch this. Mind you, we were saddled with the Toronto Maple Leafs even back then. As much as I loved the 32nd Kohaku, the highest ratings ever for the program was for the 14th Kohaku in 1963 when 80% of the viewing public was watching it.
NHK's jewel in the crown can no longer hit those 80% ratings anymore. In fact, it had its lowest ratings at 30% for its 55th airing in 2004. There are just simply too many other options for people to take advantage of nowadays such as travel or parties or other concerts. And I have to admit that I haven't really followed the show all that religiously since the late 80s. From experience, it has become that aural and visual wallpaper in a Japanese household. While the parents and kids are busy prepping in the kitchen for all that o-sechi ryori and toshikoshi soba, anyone else who has nothing better to do may end up just watching the program while swallowing down some of those oranges. And with the bigger budgets and glossier effects of music shows nowadays along with the Internet, the Kohaku just doesn't come off as being all that much of must-see TV.
Still, even with my parents' griping about the "sad state of Japanese music" whenever they see the Kohaku on TV Japan these days, they still put it on and tape the show for my brother. Plus for a pop culture buff like me, I still need to find out who was popular for the year. And now that I'm living back in Canada, the Kohaku will continue to provide that...provided that TV Japan can continue to afford the licensing fees.