'SpongeBob' making a splash in Japan

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TOKYO -- Buck-toothed and with eyes just a little too alert, SpongeBob was expected to fail in the Japanese market, where cute is the ultimate chic.

But the reaction after "SpongeBob SquarePants" made its debut on the national broadcaster's satellite channel in late 2005 encouraged NHK to take the sponge into the mainstream.

Since July 1, the show has been airing on the corporation's educational channel, and, while NHK and Viacom say it is too early for viewing figures to be available, the response has been encouraging.

The show can now be seen for free in all of Japan's 48.2 million households, meaning that is on the air in 172 markets and 24 languages. And it's not young children that are driving Bob's popularity.

"He's most popular among teenagers instead of younger kids, and that's because he's such a cute character," said Chiori Nakashima, a spokeswoman for Viacom International Japan's Nickelodeon TV. Nickelodeon has 2 million subscribers in Japan.

Bob was very busy across Japan in May, Nakashima said, promoting his "SquarePants" series with appearances at Toyota Motor showrooms and at an event for children at NHK's studios in Tokyo.

A mobile site went live July 2, with teenagers once again accounting for the majority of those accessing the site. SpongeBob stickers, key rings, mobile phone straps and other paraphernalia are becoming fashionable accessories for Japanese youths.

"I first saw 'SpongeBob' in October 2004, and my first impression was 'What's this? It's not very cute,' but I could see the eccentricity of the show as soon as I saw the video," NHK producer Keisuke Tsuchihashi said.

"We first aired the series in the autumn of 2005 on our satellite channel, and I didn't think I we would get much response from viewers, but on the contrary we received quite a few e-mails and phone calls asking for a rerun," he said. "We aired it again and received a similar response."

"SpongeBob" airs every Sunday at 5:25 p.m. in Japanese and with the original English on the sub-channel. NHK and Viacom expect the show to prove as popular here as elsewhere, while Nickelodeon is hoping that the interest will attract more viewers to its other characters and programs.
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