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'Don't sleep through life': Sharp-tongued character makes NHK quiz show a hit

The half-costume, half-CG character Chiko-chan, left, stands next to her cohost Takashi Okamura on the NHK program "Don't Sleep through Life!" (Image via the NHK website)

The character Chiko-chan, a half-CG, half-costume 5-year-old girl who scolds adults for not knowing the answers to simple but perplexing questions about life, is attracting flocks of viewers to the NHK variety quiz program "Chiko-chan ni shikarareru!" (Chiko-chan will scold you), titled "Don't Sleep through Life!" in English.

"Why do you wave when you say goodbye to someone?" "What does the sepia in sepia colors mean?" When the adults on the program get stumped by these everyday questions, Chiko-chan scolds them in a loud voice, "Don't sleep through life!" But what is the secret behind the charm of the character with a sharp tongue that has viewers writing letters and emails that they wish she would scold them too?

Chiko-chan made her debut during a three-part special last year. It was so wildly popular that "Don't Sleep through Life!" became a regular program in April 2018. Since then, viewership has been on the upswing, and a super-sized special aired on Aug. 17. Program supervisor Mitsuru Mizutaka said of the show's success, "In addition to older viewers, it's also popular with young people, so it appears to have wide appeal across three generations."

The brains behind the variety show belong to Junya Komatsu, who formerly helped bring many Fuji Television Network Inc. variety programs to the screen and who is currently under subsidiary Kyodo Television Co. The concept for the show, "a 5-year-old girl" and the phrase, "Don't sleep through life!" were his ideas. From that, the character of Chiko-chan, a combination of a padded mascot costume of a girl proportioned to be two and a half heads tall, and an expressive face realized by computer graphics, was born.

Usually, no one wants to be scolded or yelled at. In a modern society where looking down on others itself has become looked down upon, why do viewers want to have Chiko-chan scold them?

"When you get to be a certain age, there are fewer opportunities for you to be scolded by someone," explained a 49-year-old woman in management in the city of Shizuoka in central Japan. She has 16 employees working under her. "Just being scolded by Chiko-chan is in itself new and refreshing." A 59-year-old government worker in the northeastern city of Fukushima commented, "These days, if you really let loose on someone, it can easily be called power harassment. But when I hear Chiko-chan's catch phrase, I feel like I can really scold my children or subordinates."

Meanwhile, children see themselves in the character of Chiko-chan.

"I make my mom angry with me every day, so when Chiko-chan scolds adults, I feel better," said a 9-year-old fourth grader from Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo. "I always thought that adults knew everything, so it's funny when that isn't the case," she added.

According to the show's producers, there have not been many complaints about Chiko-chan's "harsh words" either -- quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, the show receives feedback such as "If it's Chiko-chan, then I don't feel like she would hurt another person," or "It makes me feel tolerant."

A 54-year-old Japanese woman who enjoys the show from her home in Arizona in the United States ventured, "Perhaps Japanese people want the sharp tongue of Chiko-chan because it's difficult to reveal their honest feelings in Japan. If it were a real person saying something like that, it would be uncomfortable, but because it's Chiko-chan, they probably feel refreshed."

Sociologist Shoichi Ota points to Chiko-chan's voice -- that of comedian Yuichi Kimura channeled through a voice changer. "(Chiko-chan's) existence occupies a universal place between an older man and a 5-year-old girl that is neither adult nor child," Ota posits. "If she were played by a real child, then people would be annoyed."

Ota sees Chiko-chan's unique character as similar to the role played by popular cross-dressing commentator and TV personality Matsuko Deluxe. "Matsuko is a spokesperson for a changing era who can talk about his frank opinions from the standpoint of not fitting into the established categories of man or woman. Chiko-chan is the entertainment version, and people must gain a sense of relief and freshness from her sharp tongue and universal commentary."

"Don't Sleep through Life!" airs every Friday on NHK's main channel at 7:57 p.m., and is rerun the following Saturday morning at 8:15 a.m.

(Japanese original by Ayako Oguni, General Digital News Center)

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