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Celebrating 10

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APRIL 2019: Japan’s international broadcaster, NHK WORLD-JAPAN, is celebrating 10 years since its relaunch as a 24-hour English channel. Department head, Keiichi Imamura, talks about a decade at the forefront of the country’s international information initiatives. 

It’s about a month after NHK WORLD-JAPAN’s 10th anniversary and the Grand Sumo March tournament is airing live from Osaka, with commentary in English by Murray Johnson and John Gunning. A few clicks away on the broadcaster’s newly revamped online platform, there’s coverage of memorial services for victims of the 11 March 2011 earthquake, which killed more than 15,000 people. Meanwhile, the culture/lifestyle/entertainment streams show everything from pint-sized furniture for pets by artisans in Okawa to Japanese pop group Band-Maid. 

Elsewhere on NHK WORLD-JAPAN’s English-language linear channel and expanding online/streaming platforms are the quest for the ultimate wasabi, a look at Samurai films, the evolution of Kawaii culture with Japanese-speaking Norwegian comedian, Mr Yabatan, and an exclusive four-part documentary about legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. 

Amid the wealth of content, ranging from clips to full-episode dramas, there are also in-depth features, such as the focus on India, which tracks India’s links to Japan in multiple ways, from the 8th-Century Buddhist monk Bodhisena, who performed the eye-painting ceremony on the giant bronze statute at the Todai-ji Temple in Nara, to a day in the life of a modern Sumo stable with Indian fashionista Ritika Zakaria, who lives and works in Japan.

Underpinning all this are a few core principles that Keiichi Imamura, Head of NHK WORLD Department, says are non-negotiable, both in looking back over the first decade and planning for the next.

“We need to continue to provide accurate and impartial information, not only for Asian audiences, but for audiences all over the world,” he says, adding: “We need to provide various perspectives in order to enhance mutual understanding among countries, between Japan and other countries”. 

Imamura, who took the job about 18 months ago, talks about promoting freedom and democracy, and about NHK WORLD-JAPAN striving “to be a broadcaster that provides information that helps people think about the world and helps widen their horizons.” 

This is achieved with a mix of news, current affairs and documentaries, including NHK WORLD-JAPAN’s original programming targetting global audiences. 

In November last year, for example, the channel broadcast The Pianist from Syria in its NHK WORLD PRIME slot. The programme is the story of Syrian refugee, Aeham Ahmad, who last year performed in Hiroshima where he played on a piano that survived the atomic bomb in 1945; “They both shared the experience of making music despite enduring the suffering of war”, according to the programme notes. To capture the whole story, the NHK WORLD-JAPAN crew followed Ahmad around his adopted home in Germany for almost a year.

Adding an Asian perspective to the global news agenda is a key motivator for the team. “We think it is very important to have a perspective that is different to that of Western broadcasters,” Imamura says. 

“We want to make use of that perspective to present opinions or ideas on global challenges such as rising inequality or the spread of nationalism from all different angles,” he adds.

Building up and maintaining trust is a big issue and has been since day one. “We aim to be the most trusted choice,” the network’s mission statement declares. This is one of three commitments NHK WORLD-JAPAN has set in stone. The other two are to broaden perspectives and reveal the real Japan and Asia, with all its cultural diversity, traditions and innovations.

At a fundamental level, the mission is evergreen, well able to absorb local and global changes that have occurred since the first 24-hour English-language signal went up in February 2009, Imamura says. 

For instance, Japan is preparing for an influx of visitors for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games; about 40 million visitors are expected during the Olympics. Tourist numbers are way up, as are the numbers of foreigners working in Japan. This means NHK WORLD-JAPAN’s original mission needs to stretch to offer accurate and precise information – ranging from basic language skills to emergency information – to tourists as well as foreign workers in Japan. 

Appealing to visitors in Japan is part of NHK WORLD-JAPAN’s extended tagline: “Widening Horizons”. It speaks to Asia’s position at the centre of economic growth, as well as to NHK WORLD-JAPAN’s broader horizons, to Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

There’s something of a domestic agenda too. Back at home, at broadcast HQ in Tokyo, NHK WORLD-JAPAN works closely with NHK’s domestic teams, translating relevant programmes back and forth. Among these is CYCLE AROUND JAPAN, which was translated from the original English for NHK WORLD-JAPAN to Japanese and broadcast in regional services across Japan.

NHK WORLD-JAPAN’s “biggest and greatest turning point” over the past 10 years remains the reporting of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011, Imamura says. NHK was the only broadcaster to transmit aerial footage filmed from helicopters of the tsunami sweeping in, and has stuck with the story ever since, from the rebuilding efforts to the plan for decommissioning the Fukushima nuclear plant. 

The second turning point was enhanced news coverage and news reporting. In 2015, NHK WORLD-JAPAN fundamentally reworked its programming and launched two new flagship shows – NEWSROOM TOKYO, which runs at 8pm Mondays to Fridays, and debate show GLOBAL AGENDA, which focuses on major political, social and economic issues such as the trade war between the U.S. and China, global warming and Europe’s migrant crisis. 

The third milestone in the last decade is online/streaming expansion, including a sweeping site revamp in January this year and the launch of the Chinese web streaming service, plus, with the increased ability to reach audiences everywhere, an explosion of language options. 

The new online service includes on-demand video upgrades and navigation improvements, plus an interactive map of Japan that allows viewers to choose content by region. Coming soon is a wider selection of Japanese-language educational videos designed to enhance communication between visitors and locals as well as at work. Imamura talks about rising foreign employment in Japan, and the need not only for language skills, but for insights into local customs and habits. 

 The online platform has about 1,000 programmes available on demand for free, along with audio services in 18 languages. Seven of these – including Bahasa Indonesia and Vietnamese – are supplemented with social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. In May this year, NHK WORLD-JAPAN plans to add Turkish to its online languages, bringing the total number of languages to 19. 

Since 2016, Sumo wrestling – another NHK WORLD-JAPAN highlight over the past decade – has been a programming tentpole, raised higher in 2018 when the decision was made to start live broadcast on Sundays. Today, Imamura says, viewers log in from everywhere, including the U.S., the U.K., France, India and Japan too. “That is a very significant breakthrough for our service,” Imamura says. 

Although the service launched with digital/streaming/online capability, tech advances continue to add, for NHK WORLD-JAPAN along with everyone else, unprecedented levels of transparency.

Imamura says that while digital distribution “extended our reach around the world significantly”, a second effect is “that we are able to grasp immediately how many people are viewing our content via the internet and which country they are in”. The data is used for creating new programmes and/or for marketing. “It’s a great driving force for us to enhance our quality of our content,” Imamura says. 

In Asia particularly, online viewing is shifting to smartphones. For some titles, particularly those designed for younger viewers and social platforms, viewing is 70% on smartphones. “We are creating more short clips of about a minute long with these smartphone viewers in mind,” Imamura says. Big screen viewers are, of course, still a key part of the mix, with an ongoing focus on long-form programming for traditional display. 

The decision on format and length depends on the story. “We want to think about how to create new programmes by considering which content is easier to see on what device and how the content is viewed. So it depends on the content,” Imamura says. 

No conversation about Japan is complete these days without mention of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The opportunity to ride the world’s attention on activities on its home turf is not lost on NHK WORLD-JAPAN. “This is also a very important occasion for us to show how Tokyo and other cities in Japan will change for 2020 and after,” Imamura says. He’s not only talking about the impact of new venues and infrastructure, but also about new systems with wide-ranging implications, like 5G, which rolls out in 2020 in cities across Japan. 

If the possibilities are endless, the focus is summed up quite simply. “We are going to show how Japan and Japanese society may be changed. For 2020, in 2020 and after 2020,” Imamura says.  

Published in April 2019 in ContentAsia print+online magazine for APOS 2019