Tokyo calling

On the virtual shinkasen
Photos by Michael McDonagh

Michael McDonagh tunes in to the history of Japanese broadcasting at the NHK Museum.

If you' ever fantasized about being a news anchor, you can make your dreams come true at the NHK Museum if only for a fleeting moment. Built on the site of the old Tokyo Broadcasting Station known as JOAK, the museum covers broadcasting in Japan from the launch of the first signals on Mar 22, 1925 to present day. But this history hub is not for buffs alone. A host of general and interactive exhibits provides entertainment for both young and old.

A shaky start
The museum houses some two floors of exhibits, 6000 books, a TV room with an on-request library of old NHK programs, and a High Definition TV theater. The permanent exhibit begins with the "double-button carbon microphone" used in the first radio broadcasts and "a crystal detector six-tube superheterodyne radio receiver" - on top of the range model from the '20s. It may even have picked up the first ever radio program, which featured a mixture of Beethoven and Japanese classical music and a play that attempted to fuse Kabuki and Shakespeare. Farther on, a shaky likeness of a single katakana character flutters on a TV monitor, the first image transmitted in Japan. At the time, it was an extraordinary achievement but now looks rather quaint and distinctly low tech.

"Quick! Let me listen!" A one-on-one radio set

Yesterday's news
A loop of the news footage of the Los Angeles Olympics (1932) replays the success of the Japanese swimmers. An uplifting triumph for the country in mid-depression and already at war with China, it was also grist for the mill of the racial purists. In a similar spirit, the next Olympics, the notorious Berlin games, were relayed live via the radio to a captive audience. The doomed 1940 games slated for Tokyo were canceled, as the action had moved from the playing fields to the battlefields in China-they were moved to Helsinki but canceled again when the Soviet Union invaded.

Also on display is the script of a "Message to Rebel Soldiers," which was read over the radio during the military uprising of Feb 26, 1936 to call the mutineers back to barracks. NHK, as the state mouthpiece during the war years, carried the Tokyo Rose propaganda broadcasts. Also on display is the disk carrying Emperor Hirohito's speech announcing Japan's surrender in 1945. The Aug 15 broadcast marked the first time the Emperor had spoken directly to the people and was transmitted across Asia for the benefit of occupying Japanese troops. The acetate disc had to be smuggled out of the Imperial Palace for fear of attack by die-hard loyalists who wanted to continue fighting. Some soldiers actually gathered on Atago Hill, the site of the museum, hoping to hold out as the shogun's supporters had on Ueno hill three quarters of a century before, with equally disappointing results.

A poster celebrating the start of TV broadcasts

Experimental TV broadcasts resumed after the war and regular programming commenced in 1953. Among the bric-a-brac from this era is a 16mm cine-camera that proved a useful tool for news crews. The American-made device, powered by a spring without an external power source, could be handled in all sorts of locations and conditions.

An example of a TV camera used during the Tokyo Olympics is an important milestone in the growth of NHK. Color transmissions started in 1960. In the same way that the "tennis court romance" of the Crown Prince and Princess stimulated black-and-white TV set sales in 1959, the Tokyo Olympics sparked an enormous surge in purchases of color TVs, creating a huge audience and a corresponding growth in revenues. The windfall was welcomed by NHK. Commercial broadcasting got its start in 1951 in the shape of NTV, and the erosion of NHK's ratings began. Of course, these days the future is somewhat bleaker. The airwaves are chockablock with terrestrial programming as well as the offerings of cable and satellite. Other problems plague this public broadcaster: With TV set ownership at a saturation point and no advertising revenue, NHK can't compete in terms of profits.

Radio days bric-a-brac

Hot spots
Fifteen minutes of fame are yours in the mock studio in the basement. You can join the ranks of NHK's notoriously stone-faced newscasters thanks to the wonders of blue screen technology. Sit at the desk, turn your best side slightly to the lens and read the autocue just off camera. Your image appears on a bank of TV screens and can be printed out at the touch of a button to take away as a souvenir. Somewhat less interesting is the simulated shinkansen ride, complete with passing scenery and a video camera that displays the spectacle on a TV monitor. The limited choice of backdrops includes pulling out of Tokyo station or pulling into Takushiba.

The most popular interactive display is the sound effects corner. Ironically, this least high-tech exhibit is the most fun. Turning a wooden wheel covered in canvas produces a whistling wind, a box of adzuki beans rolled back and forth approximates the sound of waves, a couple of coconuts really do sound like horse's hooves, and a bag of flour inside a pillow case creates the scrunching of footsteps in the snow. It's amazing what a little know-how, a bit of imagination and a shot of electricity can do.

While this tribute to Japan's terrestrial broadcasting giant may not be as commanding or quirky as other museums in Tokyo, it's the perfect way to while away a few hours on a rainy day or a sweltering August afternoon.

Getting there
NHK Broadcast Museum 2-1-1 Atago, Minato-ku (tel: 03-5400-6900).
Nearest stn: Kamiyacho (Hibiya line) Onarimon (Mita line), Toranomon (Ginza line), or JR Shimbashi.
Admission: Free.
Open: 9:30am-4:30pm, closed Mon (except National Holidays) and Dec 25.  

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