This week: the rise and demise of radio in Japan, covering everything from the birth of NHK to the origin of sports broadcasting. Tune in and have a listen!
Featured image: Building a radio from a kit in the 1920s. (Image source)
A small AM tube radio produced in Japan in the 1960s. (Image source)
People participate in radio calisthenics in Yamato City, Kanagawa Prefecture. (Image source)
Kerim Yasar, Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868-1945
At 9:30 AM on March 22, 1925, for the very first time in Japanese history, a brand new technology was trialed. From a broadcasting station in Shibaura at the library of the state-run school Tokyo Koutou Kougei Gakkou (or Tokyo Higher Polytechnical School–now a part of Chiba University), words rang out on the airwaves for the very first time.
Supposedly, the very first broadcast in Japanese history was, “a, a, kikoemasuka?” or roughly, “hey, hey, can you hear me?” One assumes that there had been grander plans in place for what to say during such a historic occasion–but hey, you play the hand you’re dealt, right?
Regardless of the content, the nature of the broadcast–from the Tokyo Hosokyoku, or Tokyo Broadcasting Station, eventually folded into NHK–was historic enough in its own right, both for the technological frontier being crossed and because of the speed with which the new technology had been adopted.
Radio as an idea had moved pretty quickly from the realm of the theoretical into practicality. In the late 1880s, the German inventor Heinrich Rudolf Hertz had first discovered what were called Hertzian waves at the time– “radio waves” as terminology would take a few more decades to catch on–and had demonstrated how to transmit said waves from one place to another. By the 1890s, there was already active speculation around the ability to use these waves to create a type of wireless telegraph, and in 1901, the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi was the first to successfully transmit a message over radio (from Cornwall in England to Newfoundland in Canada).
Commercial radio would take a while to set up–the first applications for the new technology were for shipping, as well as military use. The Netherlands was the first country with a regular radio station, set up in 1919; in August of 1920, the first American radio station, set up by the Detroit News, began broadcasting. And of course, five years later Japan had its first radio station.
And that’s a pretty swift adoption compared to phones, telegraphs, and even the phonograph–all of which took decades to become commercially viable in Japan once they were established elsewhere. But then again, Japan was already a very different place than it had been just two decades earlier. For one thing, Japan in 1925 was far more industrialized and commercialized than it had been just a few decades earlier. World War I in particular had been huge for Japan’s economy–like the United States, Japan took very few losses in the conflict and did great out of selling supplies to its allies. The money this brought in radically revamped the Japanese economy. That economic growth also helped push along Japan’s urbanization–particularly important given the limited range of the earliest radio broadcasts.
Finally, radio had one big advantage in Japan by 1925–the standardization of language. By that point, schooling had been compulsory for over half a century, and a part of that schooling was instruction in standard Japanese (based on Tokyo dialect) rather than whatever the local dialect happened to be.
And all that helps explain, I think why radio found an audience so quickly in Japan–but in part, of course, it also found an audience because there were some fairly powerful interest groups interested in finding it one. The Teishinshou, or Ministry of Communications, was one such–its bureaucrats saw the potential of the new medium for helping control the national conversation along lines that fit the government’s desires.
They were joined by some of the most powerful existing media forces in the country–newspaper companies behind major dailies like Mainichi Shinbun and Asahi Shinbun, which saw radio as a potential extension of their existing media power, and of course as a way to so something central to their business: sell more ads.
Indeed, in a certain sense the history of radio and all entertainment media is the history of ad sales with some entertainment designed to get you to listen to the ads attached. Which feels, I suppose, like a natural place to plug the ad-free feed on Patreon, right?
Thing was, while the Communications Ministry and these private businesses had a shared concern in terms of getting people to tune in, they also had very different ideas about where things would go from there. For example, by 1923, it was clear that commercial radio was coming to Japan, and so the Communication Ministry began to set up regulations for applying for a broadcasting license. The hope for Communications minister Fujimura Yoshiro was to pick one broadcaster per major city, starting in the three largest cities by population–Tokyo, of course, followed by Osaka and Nagoya.
However, over 100 different groups applied for broadcasting licenses in each of those three cities. This actually ended up substantially delaying the whole process; Fujimura’s compromise was to propose that the most prominent license applicants share control of the broadcast in their cities (essentially setting up a joint venture between them), and while that went well in Tokyo and Nagoya, in Osaka the parties involved apparently really did not get along. The whole licensing process ground to a halt until late 1924 as a result.
Still, things did go forward, making Japan something of a rarity–alongside the United States, it is one of very few countries where the earliest radio stations were controlled privately rather than by government ventures.
Still, the Communications Ministry was never really happy with that arrangement–it was always worried about the power of radio to influence the national conversation, and about the idea that private entities would have control of that power. Even with government oversight, the autocratic bureaucrats of the ministry were not happy about the limits on their power the arrangement represented–not to mention handing control of radio over to private entities who were in it for the crass objective of making money.
And so, the jostling for power continued; in late 1924, just a few months ahead of that first radio broadcast, the Ministry forced through a regulation requiring radio broadcasters to be non-profit entities, leading to many of the previously interested parties on the commercial side dropping out.
The Tokyo Housoukyoku (station callsign JOAK), responsible for that very first broadcast, was set up in November, 1924; Nagoya’s broadcast station (JOCK) set up shop in January, 1925, and Osaka’s, JOBK, in February.
Still, concerns about limits on their authority led the bureaucrats of the Communications Ministry to push almost immediately for even more extension of their power. Specifically, by the autumn of 1925, the new communication minister Inukai Tsuyoshi–future PM and assassination victim for his attempts to push back against the military–floated the idea of forcibly incorporating the three non-for profit broadcasting stations into a single national agency. He was the one who suggested the name Nippon Housoukai, or Japan Broadcasting Agency–NHK for short.
This was not without controversy, to put it mildly; the stations agreed to the idea in principle but were hesitant about how much control over their broadcast would end up in government hands, and particularly about a mandate to replace all their executives with communication ministry bureaucrats. When the final vote on consolidation among the stations was taken–it narrowly passed–riot police were actually on hand in case the debate got too heated, though that ended up not being necessary.
On August 20, 1926, JOAK, JOCK, and JOBK were consolidated into NHK, and radio became a truly national form of mass communication.
Indeed, the first big story they covered was a deeply national one: the illness and death of the Taisho Emperor. Looking back on the coverage, things come off, frankly, as kind of ghoulish–the broadcast updates, almost hourly, described the health of a dying man in clinical and kind of invasive terms. Updates were given on his bloodpressure, body temperature, circulation, and other things that seem more appropriate for a clinical study than a head of state.
Still, people were interested in the story–indeed, the death of monarchs remains a potent story, as all the coverage around the passing of Queen Elizabeth just last year indicates pretty clearly. And NHK was the place to go to get coverage–both making it popular and cementing its claim as the voice, so to speak, of the Japanese nation.
The popularity of the broadcasts in turn helped convince bureaucrats and others of the value of radio–clearly, this was a medium that could really help shape a political narrative around the country, even more so than newspapers could. The Teishinshou really began to pour money into NHK to expand its broadcasting reach, with a goal–achieved, as it turned out–of getting broadcasts into every major city by November 6, 1928, the day of the coronation of the new Showa Emperor Hirohito.
The hope was that a radio network would get people invested in the emperor, who was after all the ultimate symbol of the state. And once again, it worked: people tuned in for the broadcasts surrounding the coronation ceremonies.
Thus, from its inception radio was very deeply intertwined with the goals of the imperial state in Japan. It was also popular; people were willing, for example, to pay the high electric bills associated with the device given the expensive nature of Japanese electricity at the time–probably because radio, after all, is more “immediate”, and can be used for news, entertainment, and even some other more outlandish things–where phonographs, as we discussed last week, are a bit more limited.
Speaking of other uses, I’d be remiss not to mention one other feature of early radio which became, in its own way, as iconically Japanese as the imperial throne: rajio taisou.
If you’ve never heard of this before, that phrase just means “radio exercises.” These days, of course, such things have been rendered obsolete by the advent of the YouTube workout videos with which so many became familiar in the heady days of COVID lockdowns–and honestly, in a lot of ways, rajio taisou served a similar function.
Basically, these are just simple calisthenic workout routines done following the calls of an announcer, usually with some extremely earnest and, if I am being honest, slightly dorky music played alongside.
The programs originated in the United States, with the Metropolitan Life Insurance company of New York taking the lead broadcasting them from what’s now the MetLife tower in Manhattan starting in April, 1926.
It was those broadcasts that drew the attention of a pair of Teishinshou bureaucrats, Inokuma Teiji and Shindo Seiichi. Inokuma was dispatched to the US on a research tour in 1923, and was in New York in 1924 when MetLife employees were developing the program for the first time. Shindo Seiichi went three years later, after the broadcasts had started, to see them in action and think about whether NHK could adopt them as well.
His view was that NHK could benefit greatly from adopting the program, and he wrote precisely that in an article for an internal Teishinsho publication. That article, in turn, was apparently pretty convincing, because by the next year NHK was running rajio taiso for the very first time–alongside the enthronement of Hirohito, it was one of the big early “draws” of radio in Japan.
The goals of the program were, on their face, pretty innocuous. After all, they were and are just calisthenics–simple exercises designed to be doable by anyone to build up a light sweat, even the young, sickly, or old. And then there’s the music–I can’t stress enough how goofy it is.
But, rather weirdly for the content, the program did always have a bizarrely social Darwinistic undertone to it–much of the rationale for rajio taisou within the Teishinshou revolved around the idea of building up the physical strength of the Japanese nation for a dog-eat-dog competition against the imperial powers of the West. To win that competition, the thinking was, the people of the nation needed to be healthy–and thus encouraged to exercise. Doing dorky variations of the jumping jack in a park was, I suppose, the first step on the road to conquest.
There is also something to the idea that rajio taiso itself is a bit authoritarian in form–after all, a literal requirement of the program is to have people move in sync with each other to the command of a single voice. And it certainly is true that there’s something to the idea of obedience instilled by rote–everyone from North Korean soldiers to Zen monks to Confucian ritualists have clued in to the idea that if you make someone do something in sync with others for long enough, they begin to internalize it in a way that pure language can’t really match.
What I’m getting at here is that I can sort of see why, after WWII, US occupation authorities actually banned rajio taisou as a militaristic practice that was dangerous to democratic values. I don’t know that I fully buy in to the argument that the practice itself is inherently authoritarian, which you do see advanced in some academic fields–that would seem to imply that anyone giving instructions to a group is inherently authoritarian, which might technically be true but is really conflating two different meanings of the word authoritarian anyway.
But that’s an unnecessary philosophical tangent–and at any rate, as anyone who had to sit through old instructional VHS tapes from Japan can tell you, rajio taiso was brought back by NHK almost immediately after the end of the Occupation, albeit with much more of a focus on personal health benefits and cringy music.
The other area where radio took off was, of course, sports broadcasting–the birth, so to speak, of modern team fandoms when it became possible to follow a team even when you couldn’t go to games yourself.
As a bit of a quick aside, the very origin of sports broadcasting in Japan is somewhat controversial. If you look online today, you’ll probably find that the first sports broadcast in Japanese history took place on August 13, 1927 from the Hankyuu Koushien Stadium in Kobe–which was home to that year’s national middle school baseball championships, broadcast live by the local NHK station JOBK.
But actually, that’s not technically true. The first sports broadcast in the Japanese Empire took place just seven weeks or so earlier, on June 18, 1927. An NHK substation, JODK, carried a live broadcast of a sumo tournament held in the city of Keijo–and if you’ve never heard of Keijo, that’s because nobody uses that Japanese-style name anymore for the city of Seoul.
It’s not like people forgot this happened–some of NHK’s own histories mention the broadcast, albeit in footnotes rather than the main text. The omission likely has more to do with embarrassment over the imperial past than anything else.
Anyway: sports broadcasting was another area where the potential of radio was immediate and obvious. After all, sports are fundamentally about narrative–the story of the game, the story of the season, of a player’s career arc, and so on.
On the other hand, when you really sit down and think about it, there are some pretty important structural hurdles to live play by play that need to be cleared before it becomes…well, anything you’d want to listen to. And here’s where we have to take a brief foray into the wonderful world of the earliest sports radio commentators in Japan.
For a start, these pioneers did not have an easy job, because the regulations of the Teishinshou gave it wide-ranging censorship power over anying broadcast in Japan–every single broadcast had to be pre-approved. Which was easy enough to do with scripted or pre-recorded shows, but the thing about sports is that they’re, well, live.
JOBK, the station responsible for the Kobe-based baseball broadcast, had to negotiate a deal where a Teishinshou bureaucrat was literally standing by next to the broadcast, with authority to shut it down immediately if anything “inappropriate” was said.
This approach was codified into law in 1930; any live broadcast had to have a “monitor” on hand in this way. I haven’t found many firsthand accounts of this, or indeed any record of the emergency cutoff actually being used, but one imagines it made for a somewhat tense working relationship.
Beyond censorship, there was one other major issue. Live commentary is an actual skillset that takes a lot of work–if you ever want to see how hard it is, mute a sports game and try to explain what is happening in an interesting way in real time. Trust me, as someone who has tried to get a lot of my friends into hockey, it’s harder than it looks.
And the thing was, there was nobody in Japan with that skillset in 1927, because live commentary didn’t exist! Which brings us to the story of Uotani Tadashi, the first recorded sports broadcaster in Japanese history (as, so far as I know, the commentators for that sumo match in Seoul are not known). Uotani had grown up playing baseball, but in his day there wasn’t really a way to go pro after school and so he’d gone into banking instead–until NHK offered him a gig, looking to potentially build up a stable of baseball commentators for its bold new venture into radio.
Still, the whole thing kind of came together at the last minute; Uotani did not even know he was slated to cover the game until a few weeks in advance, and had to practice by going to the earlier elimination rounds and doing fake play by play to get comfortable with the process. He also picked the brain of an Asahi Shinbun reporter who had just come back from the United States and listened to some radio commentary of Major League Baseball games there.
How did it go? Well, the broadcast itself was not reported, but a listener transcribed the broadcast in shorthand and submitted the transcription to the Asahi Shinbun. And it’s…frankly not great. Uotani’s commentary essentially focused on two things; shouting “sora”, (something like “look here!”) whenever the ball was hit, and describing the direction in which the ball went when it was hit. Not exactly scintillating stuff, unfortunately.
Still, from what I’ve seen Uotani was probably one of the better earlier broadcasters out there. For example, ten days after the game he broadcast, Tokyo-based JOAK carried a match at Meiji Jingu stadium between the first and third higher schools. To cover the match, JOAK selected Matsuuchi Norizo, a financial news announcer with absolutely zero knowledge of or experience with baseball.
Which is fine, totally fine, because alongside him would be the Meiji period novelist Kume Masao, a self-professed diehard baseball fan who would write ideas for things Matsuuchi could say using his combined baseball and fancy writing knowledge.
As you might imagine if you think about this for longer than literally one second, the whole thing was an absolute trainwreck. For starters, baseball is not the fastest sport, but when things happen they happen quick–far quicker than even the best writer can create material for on the fly.
And Kume apparently wasn’t much help at all anyway, because he was a fan of the first higher school and they apparently lost the game quite badly–Kume was so distraught that he was basically silent and unmoving the whole game.
JOAK broke the duo up after only one game, and the whole debacle set off a somewhat fiery debate in the sport sections of local papers, with various listeners (including the novelist and playwright Kikuchi Kan, a fairly prominent literary figure himself who I guess did not like Kume much) essentially accusing Matsuuchi of being a hack and Kume of being a fake baseball fan (apparently he’d misused the phrase “double header” during the broadcast).
Kume would leave baseball behind, but have a moderately successful literary career until his death in 1952. Matsuuchi Norizo, however, would actually stick with it and become something of a famous tastemaker for play-by-play style.
And, rather unsurprisingly, that’s because he had a good eye for narrative. His broadcasts would lag a bit behind the action of the game, but he’d spend a lot of time talking about the psychology of a pitching duel between a pitcher and batter, or the shifts outfielders were making to take into account the way certain players liked to hit.
Basically, he made a story out of what was happening–and this was so popular that he actually had a side hustle re-recording his commentary for record players a day or two after a game (since live recording was not really possible given the sound quality of the age).
Lest you think I am exaggerating Matsuuchi’s influence, the contemporary fan magazine “beesubooru” literally described him as, “the baseball world’s benefactor, one who has popularized the game all across Japan.”
Of course, sports is more than just baseball, and in the 1930s two other big sporting events captured the public imagination: the 1932 Olympics held in Los Angeles, and the 1936 ones held in Berlin.
NHK, by this point a bit more experienced with live broadcasting, had commentary teams on hand for both events–though they had to revamp their plans for 1932 in the middle of the action. Originally, NHK had a deal with the American company NBC to use their studios for live broadcasts back to Japan, but then the International Olympic Committee decided in its infinite wisdom to ban live broadcasts of the games for fear they would cut into ticket sales.
Just remember, everyone, that the IOC is a very legitimate institution that is definitely not just in it for the money!
So instead, NHK reporters had to jot down notes and run to a local NBC affiliate, there to record a faked version of the lived broadcast to send back to Japan.
Despite this somewhat slapdash approach, people tuned in. Partially, this was driven by the growing adoption of radio itself–those holdouts who had not bought in for the occasion of Hirohito’s coronation often did during the Manchurian Incident in 1931, trying to follow the fast pace of events around the army’s illegal invasion of northeastern China. Partially, people tuned in because the Olympics are, of course, a national competition–and nationalist feeling, stoked by war propaganda, was at a high pitch.
For example, here are the broadcast notes taken by the broadcaster Shimaura Seiji after Japan swept all top spots in the 100m backstroke. “First place Japan. Second Place Japan. Third place Japan. The day that Japan has long yearned for has finally arrived. Now, thanks to our three heroes…we can feel overwhelming pride at the sight of three Japanese flags fluttering high as the Kimigayo anthem plays in the background…Let us join in our friends’ cheer, for now Japan has conquered the entire world.”
In retrospect, given future events that last line may not have been the best call.
1936 didn’t come together much better; the three-man broadcast team sent to Berlin almost missed one of the most hotly anticipated moments of the whole dang competition: the womens’ 200m breaststroke. Maehata Hideko, one of Japan’s best swimmers, had narrowly missed out on becoming the first Japanese woman to win a gold medal at the 1932 Olympics; she’d lost to the Australian Clare Dennis by .1 seconds. Ever since, she’d been training obsessively, and there was a lot of excitement around her squaring off against Germany’s Martha Denenger for a shot at the gold.
And NHK almost missed the broadcast, first because their transmitter broke down and they had to both get a new one and (since the new transmitter was set to a different frequency) telegraph the new frequency back to Tokyo with about 2 hours to spare.
Then, the broadcast itself was almost cut off because of time zone issues. The race was set for 3:40 PM Berlin time but delayed until 4, which coincidentally is around midnight Japan time–when the Teishinshou had a mandatory broadcast cutoff so that people would not spend all night glued to their radios. If you look at the opening of the transmission, announcer Kasai Sansei starts by saying, “please don’t turn off the switch…it’s already time, but just wait.” You might think, just looking at it, that he’s asking tired Japanese listeners not to switch off their radios because of how late it is–he’s actually pleading with the Ministry not to cut off the transmission for violating Japanese law–which, in the end, they did not.
The rest of the transcript is not, frankly, scintillating. Within the final few seconds of the race, Kasai repeats some variation of “Maehata ganbare” (go Maehata!) 16 times, and when she did finally edge out the victory, he repeated some variation of “Maehata wins” 19 consecutive times.
So clearly a very exciting moment, but not what I would call incisive sports commentary. But then again, that’s not really the point–or the reason people listen to sports broadcasts, is it? If you want to take your time and analyze things, the box scores in the paper–or, these days, a youtube highlight reel or film breakdown–is probably better. Live broadcasts are all about being, well, live–the immediacy of “being there”, in a certain sense, and watching the narrative of the game unfold through the eyes of a skilled and knowledgeable observer. That’s the draw, in the end.
The other big broadcast items for the early years of NHK, however, was far from immediate. Back in 1925, when Tokyo’s JOAK station was in its infancy, the station ordered a poll of listeners to get a sense of what they wanted to listen to. NHK followed up with a nationwide poll seven years later.
The results of the two are fairly consistent and interesting to compare. The 1925 survey gets pretty granular in terms of performance genres (seriously by my count there were 29 different options, ranging from traditional Japanese faire to jazz music), while the 1932 is a bit more sanely organized and had far fewer options. In both cases, however, one of the top performers was naniwabushi.
Now, we actually talked about naniwabushi a bit last week, because it was also a major driver of phonograph sales. The genre is often compared to blues or jazz–there are two performers, a singer who tells a story melodically while partially improvising, and a shamisen player who helps keep time and interjects every so often with little snippets of their own. The stories told are often pretty melodramatic–for example, the tale of the revenge of the 47 ronin was a popular choice, with all of its wistful discussion of duty, honor, and the demands thereof. And also a heaping helping of gory violence to keep things exciting.
Naniwabushi had actually fallen off somewhat in popularity from the 1910s, when it was one of the early drivers of the popularity of the phonograph–competition from movies had cut into its market presence, so to speak. But the 1930s was a period of revival for the genre, driven by the increasing militarism of the 1930s. The gory melodrama of naniwabushi played well in an increasingly nationalistic atmosphere where official propaganda stressed honor and sacrifice for the nation, and naniwabushi would continue to dominate the airwaves–especially constant tellings and retellings of the 47 Ronin–until 1945.
The other dominant medium of the time was the radio drama, a truly fascinating form because–thanks to the advent of television–it emerged, became incredibly popular, and then basically disappeared all within the span of just a few decades.
The first such dramas were broadcast in Tokyo in 1925–what exactly you’d call the first radio drama is actually a subject of some debate around definitions, because it depends on whether or not the drama has to have been made specifically for radio in the first place. Honestly, for our purposes it doesn’t really matter–what matters is that NHK leadership quickly decided that the form was lucrative and worth going all in on.
In its early years, NHK was having a hard time retaining subscribers–the only way the service turned a profit, because it didn’t allow advertising–as its leadership tried to figure out what exactly people actually wanted to listen to in the first place. Radio plays quickly emerged as one potential moneymaker–the 2nd head of NHK, Yabe Kenjiro, developed a program that commissioned famous writers to produce radio plays for 500 yen each, a pretty enticing fee (enough to buy a small house) which would peel off big names from publishing contracts. More importantly for NHK, the big name writers had star power that served as advertising, and outside of the scripts production was fairly cheap–just voice actors who you could practically grab off the street and some basic sound effects, uusing sound designers who mostly had cut their chops on the world of the stage before coming over to radio.
Very few of these radio plays, unfortunately, withstand the test of time; the few that were genuinely popular have been adapted to other media in the subsequent decades, but most existed as a sort of broadcast filler–the 1920s and 30s equivalent of the generic studio sitcom. In point of fact, the most lasting legacy of this radio play structure was creating the infrastructure that NHK television would be able to take advantage of starting in the 1950s–writers rooms, sound designers, experienced producers used to working on tight schedules, that sort of thing.
For both radio drama and naniwabushi, the draw of the genre–like sports, in a lot of ways–was the sense of immediacy, of being immersed in a story or a performance. And you can see how the novelty of that would be exciting, and also how the advent of television would supercede and in many ways sweep it away as time went on.
Indeed, it’s interesting as a bit of symbolism that radio in many ways inaugurated the transition from pre- to post-war Japan, because it was of course on the radio that the people of Japan heard directly from their emperor for the very first time–though sound quality issues combined with archaic courtly speech meant many could not understand what was being said.
It was pretty clear from context, of course, that the emperor was announcing Japan’s defeat and surrender in World War II.
There too, radio provided a sense of immediacy–that was part of the power of using the Emperor’s own voice, of course, so that there could be no question of the legitimacy of the decision since it was as if he was telling you himself.
Radio would not disappear after World War II, of course–it hasn’t here either, and the fact that you’re listening to a podcast right now suggests some lingering interest in the audio medium. But, particularly once Japan’s economic miracle really got going in the 1960s and standards of living began to dramatically improve, the cultural writing was on the wall–today, in point of fact, I’d argue that more folks are familiar with NHK as a TV network than a radio one. The heyday of Japanese radio, and global radio, came to an end–one more victim of the cycle of technological progress.