TOKYO — THE snow was piled high outside a tenant farmer's cabin in northern Japan at the turn of the century. A mother, fighting back tears, put the finishing touches on her seven-year-old daughter's first kimono. The next day the little girl, Oshin, would float down the river on a raft, sold into one year's servitude for rice to feed the family. Scenes like this from the Japanese television serial drama ``Oshin'' have been captivating audiences from Tehran to Bangkok. Japanese newspapers report that the streets of small towns in Iran empty when Oshin comes on the air Saturday night. In Indonesia the time of the broadcast was moved because husbands complained their wives were watching instead of making dinner.
For the most part, Japanese have been more successful at exporting television sets than what goes on them. Japanese culture, as seen through the medium of popular television, has been hard to sell to a global audience more attracted by the fast-paced action of Miami Vice or the high-powered greed of Dallas. Only the rare documentary has made it into foreign living rooms.
So the success of Oshin has been a pleasant surprise, especially for NHK, the semipublic Japan Broadcasting Corporation. Oshin was an broadcasting phenomena in Japan when it first aired, from April 1983 to March 1984, capturing a 63-percent audience rating. The series filled NHK's popular morning drama slot, the 297 episodes, each 15 minutes long, showing every morning (with a noon repeat) from Monday to Saturday.
The drama begins in a remote mountain village in 1901 and follows the travails of the heroine from childhood, through bonded labor, marriage, war, and finally success as a businesswoman in present-day Japan.
The twists and turns of her misfortunes reflect those of the country. Her family loses everything in the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923. World War II takes her eldest son and her husband. Oshin grapples with changing views of family and old age, and relations between parents and children, husbands and wives.
The tale attracted the attention of the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation which bought the first 48 episodes, dubbed them in Chinese, and began broadcast three days a week in September, 1984. The program has since been shown in 18 countries, including China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Belgium, Mexico, and Poland.
The peoples of the developing countries of Asia have taken Oshin to heart with the greatest passion. A Sri Lankan television executive wrote NHK last year, reporting that Oshin was the highest-rated program in the country with the exception of the evening news. They had only bought the first 48 episodes, which end with young Oshin leaving for Tokyo. Could they get the rest, he wrote, because Sri Lankans are ``too eager to see the rest of the story of Oshin who has by now become a household character in our country.''
Through Oshin, less developed nations are seeing a Japan that looks a lot like home. ``They didn't know Japan had such poor beginnings,'' says NHK International's Yoshio Ueno. ``They know only present-day Japan exporting cars, an economic giant. For the first time, they discovered that Japan was the same as their own countries. They feel a familar feeling with Japan.''
Oshin's personal journey, with its ups and downs and struggle for survival, strikes an emotional chord. ``Oshin is a success story of a woman, born in poverty,'' Mr. Ueno says. ``Maybe the viewers think their countries can be like Japan if they make an effort. And they themselves can be successful like Oshin.''
Oshin's saga has had a special appeal to the people of Iran, who started watching her in the midst of the war with Iraq. Some Iranians thought the scenes of Oshin's difficult youth were actually of the Japan of today and, according to NHK, inquired how they could send rice to Japan.
NHK has followed with the export of two other morning dramas, which now run for a half year on Japanese television. Though not matching Oshin's popularity, they have found audiences, again mostly in neighboring Asian nations. A 30-part documentary on the Silk Road, exploring the culture of peoples along that great trade route from China to Rome, is being shown in more than 20 countries. And NHK is now exploring the market for their latest evening serial historical drama, a tale of a great 16th century samurai warrior.
But developing countries do not have much money for foreign programming. And Japanese programs are more expensive because of the cost of converting them for international use. The prices, NHK says, are much higher than American or British programs. Japanese companies or government cultural grants have often subsidized purchase of Oshin and other programs.
With a few exceptions, attempts by NHK and other Japanese networks to sell their serials to Western audiences have been a failure. ``The US is the most difficult market,'' says Masaaki Morita, the Director of NHK International. American stations from the Public Broadcasting Network who have viewed Oshin and other programs have found them too slow-paced and ``too sentimental,'' he says.