50 Years of NHK Television

NHK Special

The heir to N-Toku's priceless 1,378-program legacy, NHK Special set out with a new mandate to break the bounds of formulaic programming. As Japan moved from Showa to the new Heisei era, on the international scene the Cold War was drawing to a close.

Recording the start of an amazing fin-de-siècle

Previous page
Right pageNext page

From N-Toku to N-Spe
The frequency of N-Toku programs gradually increased from once a week in 1976-77 to twice weekly from 1978-83 and finally three times a week from 1984. As time passed, some people began to feel that the N-Toku approach to programming had become too rigid. After much discussion, in 1989 NHK Tokushu changed its name to NHK Special and adopted a radically new policy: the fixed programming slot would be cut to once a week on Sunday, and other documentaries would be produced flexibly in response to circumstances.
Just as these changes took effect, a series of dramatic events unfolded. The Tiananmen Square Incident and fall of the Berlin Wall gripped the world's attention. In Japan, headlines were dominated by the Recruit Scandal, the new consumption tax and the death of a well-loved entertainer, Misora Hibari.
The newly created NHK Special, nicknamed N-Spe, first hit the airwaves with a three-night series called Can Politics Be Reformed? The Impact of the Recruit Scandal. Other series running for three to six consecutive evenings soon followed: Questioning Nuclear Power, The Hibari Era, Questioning Politics, The Nuclear Age. All told, N-Spe broadcast 165 programs in 1989, which remains the most prolific programming year in the history of either N-Toku or N-Spe.

The century's turbulent end
As the 90's began, the pace of events grew more charged both in Japan and abroad. On January 17, 1991, the Gulf War began and N-Spe responded quickly. Three days later on January 20, N-Spe presented The Gulf War, and a week later, on January 26, followed up with Gulf War Document: The First 10 Days. During the course of a two-week period leading up to and beyond the end of the war on February 28, six more specials followed which considered the impact the war and its outcome would have on the world.
In December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the world order based on the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cold War rivalry started to undergo a radical transformation. By February 1992, N-Spe had already run four programs on this theme, and it continued to broadcast many more programs on the dynamic changes unfolding in the international political arena.


At home, a series of natural disasters rocked Japan. On June 3, 1991, a lethal pyroclastic flow billowed down from the erupting Fugen peak of Mt. Unzen. This was followed on July 12, 1993, by a terrifying tsunami that swept over a residential area on the island of Okujiri. Then on January 17, 1995 the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake struck the Kobe area. N-Spe covered the earthquake with broadcasts of Direct Hit from Below on January 20 and Victims of the Great Hanshin Earthquake: The First 20 Days on February 5. In the 10 months from February 17 to November of 1995, N-Spe ran a 10-part series on reconstruction and ways to build a disaster-resistant city.
In 1995, a series of incidents perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult led to the program Aum Shinrikyo: Rise of the Vile Kingdom, which was shown on April 16 after the cult's facilities were investigated. Viewers found the subject compelling, and the rating of 33.1% remains a record for N-Spe presentations. NHK Special produced a further three programs on Aum.

New realms
N-Spe has ventured into worlds that were previously thought to be beyond the reach of television. The Universe Within: The Human Body used state-of-the-art computer graphics to visualize the drama of life in a micro-realm that not even the best microscopes could observe. Planet of Life offered a stimulating description of the wonders of evolution in a series going back to earth's earliest days. Planet of Ocean cast light on the murkiest depths of the sea, while A Galactic Odyssey and other programs about outer space took viewers on a spectacular trip through the cosmos. Einstein employed the latest digital technology to explore new frontiers for television, depicting the human mind and workings of the brain.

A Galactic Odyssey
A Galactic Odyssey

Major Programs of NHK Special 1989-95

Previous page
Right pageNext page