When my family watches TV Japan (which is pretty much all the time every day), there are a number of programs that are must-sees for us. One is the old-style comedy program, "Shoten" on Sunday nights, and then there is NHK's "Kayo Concert" which comes out here on our tube on Tuesday nights (although over in Japan, I think it's televised on Mondays).
Then, there is the tentpole for Sunday afternoons. At 1 p.m. here in Toronto, we hear those tubular bells get rung and we know it's time for NHK's "Nodo Jiman" (Proud of my Voice). In Japan, though, it has been running forever from 12:15 p.m. to 1 p.m.
Although I've never watched a single episode of "American Idol" (never got into the reality TV genre), I can't help but make comparisons, the biggest one being the ultimate aim. For "American Idol", it's having the contestants being run through the vocal hoops and getting whittled down (or, if being judged by Simon Cowell, hacked into little toothpicks) until that one champion comes out and gets that contract and perhaps that launch into a new lucrative career.
"Nodo Jiman"is somewhat less ferocious. Since its debut on NHK Radio in 1946 and then its transition onto TV from 1953, it's been about NHK traveling to the various community centres and high school auditoriums all over Japan, and getting the local population out to enjoy 45 minutes of singing on a weekly basis on the largest karaoke stage. Yes, there is competition in that each singer tries to make it through the first refrain so that he/she/they can get that triumphant round of tubular bells and then even earn a prize at the end of the show. Sometimes, if the singer is not having a good day, it'll be some lines and then just that one clang of a bell, but there's nothing malicious in the proceedings. Everyone is just appreciative of getting that 15 seconds in front of the cameras.
I was just reading through the write-up for "Nodo Jiman" on J-Wiki, and the audition process is rather similar to that for getting onto a game show. Probably thousands of postcards come in as applications from which about 250 acts over high school age are chosen. On the Saturday before the Sunday broadcast, those acts are brought to the auditorium where the Sunday show will be broadcast for private auditions. There, the final 20 acts are chosen for the real broadcast the next day.
On broadcast Sunday, with the greeting of those bells, everyone comes marching out to the jaunty theme song, and the emcee (currently Sen Odagiri) quickly launches things off. My parents sometimes criticizes him for being a little too brisk with the singers, especially when they're all pretty nervous. In any case, the NHK band can handle pretty much anything from enka to R&B....in other words, any song that has gotten onto the charts over the last 60-odd years. In a way, it's a bit like the Kohaku Utagassen....some retiree could sing enka classic "Yokohama Tasogare" by Hiroshi Itsuki（五木ひろし） and then a few minutes later, a university co-ed is hitting the high notes to a Misia tune. And to add a bit more to the excitement to amateurs and audience, a couple of guest performers also show up weekly. Basically, if the pros have shown up on "Kayo Concert", there's a good chance that they will show up on "Nodo Jiman", so it would truly be a special show if someone like Yuming（ユーミン） or Kazumasa Oda（小田和正） ever appeared.
I think the wonderful thing about "Nodo Jiman" is that it has been this weekly traveling road show through all of the prefectures, instead of just having it planted at the Shibuya studios. The local audience can get that touch of NHK fame and see a few of their own make it big while the TV audience can also find out some more about that region, whether it be Hokkaido or Kochi or Gunma. And speaking about some making it big, there have been some of those locals who truly did hit the big time. Enka singers such as Itsuki and the legendary Hibari Misora（美空ひばり） had appeared on the show as participants before making their professional debuts. And even one future leader of Morning Musume, Ai Takahashi（高橋愛）, won a prize when the show came to her prefecture of Fukui.
Every March, out of the pool of weekly champions, 15 of them are selected for the "NHK Nodo Jiman Grand Champion Competition", held at the network's Tokyo HQ in Shibuya. Just imagine that one person or duo who becomes the yokozuna after that contest. In karaoke-crazy Japan, it must be like winning the lottery. But even with all of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the steps leading up to that grand competition, I think most people just focus on those three-quarters of an hour each week just to see plain folks like themselves do what they probably like doing whether it's singing in the shower or hitting the mike at the local Shidax. And maybe...just maybe....they may be inspired enough to pick up that pen and send in that postcard.