Photo/Illutration A scene from the 2018 “NHK Kohaku Utagassen” show (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Some academics and members of LGBT advocacy groups are voicing concerns that the public broadcaster’s year-end variety show is divisive and makes sexual minorities feel excluded.

Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) produces and airs “NHK Kohaku Utagassen” (literally, Red and White song battle), an annual New Year’s Eve TV entertainment special.

The show uses a battle-of-the-bands format, in which a red team--mostly female musicians--and a white team--mostly male musicians--compete for votes from the audience and a panel of celebrity judges.

Noritaka Moriyama, 39, an associate professor at Waseda University who specializes in LGBT issues, said the fact that a show with a national reputation groups performers by male-female gender categories serves to reinforce binary thinking about gender and “possibly results in encouraging human rights violations against non-binary people and others.”

Sue Shinozaki, 36, who is non-binary, said this kind of categorization is hurtful to those who do not identify as either gender role.

“When (the performers) are simply divided into male and female, I feel like I am being shut out.”

The TV show has had a long run as an annual tradition for many as a way of ringing in the new year. It started in 1945 and was renamed to its current title in 1951.

Shoichi Ota, 61, a sociologist who has written a book on the show, said the red-versus-white grouping “started with a way of thinking about democratic equality between men and women.”

According to a producer of the show, NHK allocates the performers to each team. Unless NHK is informed directly, staff do not confirm the willingness of the performers to participate in a particular team.

But the social norm of dividing gender into only two categories, called “gender dualism,” is increasingly falling under scrutiny for excluding people who do not fit into traditional definitions of gender.

The entertainment business around the world is slowly changing to address that.

Starting this year, the Berlin International Film Festival made its acting awards gender neutral. The Brit Awards will also scrap gendered categories next year.

Hiroto Shimizu, 36, runs an organization called Japan LGBT association. Shimizu is transgender--he was born female but identifies as male--and takes issue with the way the New Year’s Eve TV show enforces binary gender roles.

“Since my childhood I have vaguely wondered why the (performers) are divided into two, male and female, and I don’t like it,” Shimizu said.

Not everyone thinks the show is too conservative by having teams face off based on their gender.

Ataru Nakamura, 36, a singer and songwriter who is a transgender with a female identity, performed in the Kohaku show in 2007 as a member of the red team.

“I didn’t care much about which team I was in,” Nakamura said. “But I was hurt that my costume was red and blended with white and it was emphasized that I was ‘mixed in.’”

“Whatever is applied to me, I have thought that music can overcome it,” Nakamura said. “I don’t think that (the show) strongly presents a binary system by separating (the performers) into red and white.”

But Moriyama said there are many people who have difficulty disclosing that they are LGBT.

“There must have been performers who did not want to be identified as a male or female singer but had to accept it,” Moriyama said.

Hikaru Utada, who participated in the show as a member of the red team in 2016, said on social media this year that “over the past few years, I have learned that I fall into non-binary.”

However, it is extremely rare in Japan for people to disclose their gender identity like this.

Go Ichiboji, 46, a chief producer of the show this year, told The Asahi Shimbun that the producers have discussed in the past few years whether to change the show’s format of dividing performers into two groups based on gender.

Ichiboji said staff discussed alternative plans, such as dividing performers by their hometowns.

But a survey conducted by NHK found that more people prefer the existing format, so the show’s staff decided to use the same format.

“We don’t think this is the absolute answer,” Ichiboji said, adding that the show is “in a process of evolution.”

The show this year will get rid of the title given to a master of ceremonies of each team.

The three hosts will just be called MCs, rather than a red team MC or a white team MC.

The producers opted against a logo with a clear border between red and white. Instead, its color gradually changes from red to white.

(This article was written by Ryo Jozuka, Chiho Yashiro and Rika Yuminaga.)