Feature - Back Numbers

Just What is Enka, Anyway? (2005.01.22)

There comes a time when any student of Japanese popular music is confronted by the crucial question: just what is enka, anyway? And why do Japanese people over a certain age who'e had more than a couple of drinks like it so much?

Enka traces its origins to the early years of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Japan opened its doors to the outside world after some 250 years of self-imposed isolation, beginning its rapid transformation into a modern industrial society. As part of the Meiji Era's reforms, political parties were allowed but politicians were forbidden to make speeches in public. To get around this, they wrote songs, sending singers out to sing their veiled messages (which helps to explain the Chinese characters used to write "enka", which literally mean "performance song").

Many people see enka as uniquely and quintessentially Japanese, citing the influence on the genre of waka, a traditional form of poetry. Others argue that its roots are in Korean folk music. It's clear, however, that enka is a relatively modern musical form, as it is defined by the way in which melodies are based on the Japanese pentatonic scale and sung in a slow vibrato (kobushi), set against a Western instrumental backing. A typical enka arrangement features lush, poignant strings, a soaring melody played on guitar, and a Japanese instrument such as a KOTO or shamisen to add a dramatic, traditional touch.

The biggest enka star of all time was undoubtedly the much-loved Hibari Misora, who died in 1989. Among male singers, Saburo Kitajima, now nearly 70 and still going strong, is probably the best-known. Female enka singers far outnumber male singers, although male singers tend to have longer careers.

Although enka has been called "Japanese blues," "Japanese country" is probably a more accurate comparison, given enka's reoccurring themes of hometowns, lost loves, drinking and "gaman" (perseverance). Enka is a deeply conservative musical style - evergreen standards are endlessly recycled, often in new versions that differ only slightly from the original. The aesthetic of enka requires that less-experienced singers - including casual karaoke crooners - must sing the standards as faithfully to the original version as possible. Only veteran singers of some rank are felt to have earned the right to add a new flourish to a standard song. Even when singing foreign standards such as "My Way," "Yesterday," "Tennessee Waltz" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads," all of which have enka-friendly themes, karaoke singers usually try to match the original.

Foreigners are often ask to sing these standards, and the idea is not just to enjoy the foreigner's singing, but also to analyze the native speaker's vocal style in order to pick up some stylistic tips. Non-Japanese, however, don't usually sing enka, due to the language barrier as well as the genre's highly stylized singing style.

Many young Japanese wouldn't be caught dead singing enka, since it's seen as unsophisticated and old-fashioned - which is exactly what true enka aficionados like about it. However, many who wouldn't dream of singing enka when they're in their early 20s warm to it later in life. It used to be that this happened once people hit 30, but nowadays the trend is for people to become converts once they're past 40.

In terms of the music industry, enka operates in its own way and at its own pace. Unlike J-pop hits, enka songs don't zoom up and down the charts within the span of a few weeks, and stars are rarely made overnight. The usual pattern is for a hot song to slowly emerge, gain further exposure through live performances and radio broadcasts (typically at night, in order to target truck drivers and other night owls), and then be covered by other artists. Karaoke also plays an important role in promoting enka songs.

Once a song is established as a bona fide hit, it usually stays in the charts for quite a while - and in the hearts of fans for decades. Just a hit or two can sustain an enka singer's career for a long time. Some enka singers pay their dues for years before they finally score a hit, which is appreciated that much more, as perseverance is a much-valued trait in Japan, especially in the tradition-minded world of enka. Crying in vain, suffering long and hard and in silence are among the most common themes in enka, especially for women. For male singers, toughness, tenacity, and honor above all else are the most common themes. Both sexes yearn for the "old days," when life was supposedly simpler and more beautiful.

One recent enka star is Itsuro Oizumi, who had a huge hit in 1999 called "Mago (Grandchild)." When not tending his cherry orchards in northern Japan's Yamagata Prefecture, Oizumi spent his time singing. He sang at various amateur singing events, and later started a karaoke school. Oizumi first sang "Mago," which he composed, at his karaoke school, and then released it as a single, which eventually sold more than 2 million copies. It's unusual for enka performers to write their own material - enka tunes are usually written by professional songwriters.

Clothes are a crucial part of the enka aesthetic. Women usually wear kimono, or sometimes an evening dress, while men wear either suits or traditional Japanese garb. Qualities expected in an enka star are good, but not too glamorous, looks and - especially for women - a kind of restrained poise, emoting either frailty or inner strength as required. Male enka singers tend to display more in the way of individual character in both their looks and style.

Like their audiences, enka singers tend to be well on the nether side of 40. But some companies have recently had modest success in promoting younger singers such as Kiyoshi Hikawa to reach the under-30 market.

Sales of enka CDs and tapes comprise less than 5% of total recorded-music sales in Japan. The industry continues to support the genre, however, because there are still occasional blockbuster enka hits and also because enka is closely linked to karaoke and the concert business. Major Japanese labels don't release much enka, and the genre has gradually become the preserve of older record companies such as Crown, King, Teichiku and Tokuma. Some record stores don't even bother stocking enka, or only have a small section for it. Stores specializing in enka, such as Yorodo, in Tokyo's funkily retro Asakusa district, are few and far between.

For many people, especially non-Japanese, enka is an acquired taste. But there's obviously something captivating about the ritualistic and sentimental nature of the music that appeals to lovers of the genre.

Who knows? As the postwar baby-boom generation moves into middle age and beyond, we may even be in for an enka renaissance.

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Originally submitted by: Keith Cahoon | See Edit History | Edit Article