We are Back at last and we are talking about the strange mix of Japanese folk and pop that is called Enka ! ! !
Enka is a type of popular Japanese music that is based loosely on traditional Japanese music. It usually uses a scale called Yonanuki Tan-Onkai which is a type of minor scale used in Japanese folk music. The themes in Enka songs are usually about a romantic view of rural Japan, lost lovers, and drinking sake alone in a bar while it is raining outside. Women usually perform wearing Kimonos and the guys usually wear formal western or Japanese clothes to add to the traditional flavour. So I hope no one is allergic to cheese and you and have your handkerchiefs ready ! ! !
I will admit to being out of my comfort zone here. I am aware of Enka, of course, “Japanese Blues” I call it but it’s such a “words based” genre that it’s hard to really get into it. It’s worth it though. Actually “Blues” is not quite the right word. The more I find out about Japanese culture and attitudes ( and the same applies, I think, to China to a degree) the more I am convinced that there is a strong “romantic” feeling underlying a lot of art, music and literature. “Romantic” in the 18th C sense, a kind of deliberate embracing of slight melancholy and longing. Anyway here are some tracks that, we hope, illustrate why Enka is, proverbially, “Big in Japan”.
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Pairubu – Dèng Lìjūn (Teresa Teng) – Michizure (Life Partner)
This one is a substitute, brought in to replace one that couldn’t play but that’s no reflection on the song. It was difficult to choose only three anyway. There’s such a beautiful melody here and Ms Teng’s voice is lovely. For her life to be cut short, as it was, was tragic.
Teresa Teng was a Taiwanese singer that was popular all over Asia and had a huge following in Japan. She recorded in Japanese and Mandarin as well as Indonesian, Korean and Malaysian. She sang mostly Taiwanese folk based ballads and Japanese Enka. I have always really liked her as she has such an honest delivery and she can sing the sometimes rather too dramatic and sentimental Enka tracks with a sincerity that is really very touching. Sadly she died when she was only 42 from asthma which she had suffered from since childhood. I totally love this simple romantic song of a girl telling a guy he is her soul mate and life partner.
Sakura – Aiko Moaruyama – Oboro Zukiyo No Joshuji (Hazy Moon On The State Road)
Oh dear, we have everything in this track – sake of course, a lonely girl deserted by the guy she loves and moonlight reflecting on the wet surface of the road leading to her home village . . . ( I suppose it will soon start raining again ! ! ! ) Aiko Maoriyama is a young Enka singer who started singing professionally in 2004 and released her first album in 2005. She frequently uses a very traditional vocal technique called kobushi. This is like a type of vibrato where the voice fluctuates over one syllable of word being sung and you can here it in this track quite often. She is very popular with the older gentlemen fans of Enka as she is very traditional in style but young and super cute ! ! !
Very “traditional” sounding , I think. I do like this kind of stuff, it couldn’t really be from anywhere else other than Japan. Almost Arabic sounding in parts, that wobbly vocal can be heard from Turkey through to Taiwan. Very nice. Like a movie made of sound.
Pairubu – Fuji Keiko – Shinjuku no Onna (Shinjuku Woman)
Romantic night club style I would call this. More “Western” in style but still totally Japanese. I really like this one too. It’s very “urban” and very “70s”. I can imagine it being recorded in a slightly sleazy, smokey , club with hard faced Yakuza nodding sadly as they cradle their pints of sake.
Keiko Fuji became an Enka singer in 1970 but retired in 1979 when she got married. This is an interesting track and has a blues feel to it in places. The scale used in Enka is similar to the pentatonic blues scale and so this is a mixture that works well and creates the atmosphere of late night in an entertainment district. Shinjuku is a business and entertainment district of Tokyo and is the home to Kabukichou which is Tokyo’s notorious red light district, and Kagurazaka (also known as Little Paris) which is the former Geisha district of Tokyo. The song is about a “good time girl” discovering that love and true happiness is not to be found in the bright lights of Shinjuku. I really like this one. It really captures the style of the 1970 decade Enka and it is shame she ended her career so soon.
Sakura – Joji Yamamoto – Michinoku hitori tabi (Travelling Alone)
What is it with guys ? ? ? Their stupid pride gets in the way of everyone’s happiness ! ! ! In Enka songs guys can be defeated but they are never losers as they always have their stupid pride ! ! ! They will never just pick up the phone or get on the bus and go and see the girl ! ! ! In this song the guy is going of on a journey, we do not know why or where and he is leaving the girl he loves but even though he wants to stay and be with her he will go anyway as that is what a man must do ! ! ! This is a classic Enka song and theme and many people have made versions of it, but I really like this one. It is the original version from 1980 and I think still the best ! ! !
While I, obviously, don’t agree with Sakura’s interpretation ( what is it with girls, always wanting to cling on to you when you have important stuff to do *) Very moody, another “smokey nightclub” number, I think. I can sense outbreaks of lachrymosity over this one.
* Yes, going to the football or seeing another girl are “important” and anyway nothing happened and we’re only friends….honest….
Now this is truly lovely. As Sakura says it’s one of the best known Enka tracks and you can, I hope you will hear why. I don’t care if the singer was a comedian or that he likes to dress as an insect ( we all have our little quirks) he nails this beautiful song perfectly.
WOW Mr P ! ! ! You have picked a true classic of the genre and actually this is the best selling Enka single of all time. It was number one for 16 consecutive weeks in 1972 and was in the charts for a total of 84 weeks. It is a simple but sad story of a man who encounters a woman crying and he tells her story of how she devoted herself to her guy and sacrificed everything for him but of course he left her. Actually Shiro Miya started his career leading a comic band called the Super Boys and then formed the Pinkara Trio with his brother as a comic act and they became Enka super stars by mistake actually. Sadly his brother and the other members of the band have all passed away but Shiro Miya is still a very funny guy famous for his moustache and appearing in TV commercials dressed as an insect. It is lovely song from a lovely guy ! ! !
Sakura – Kazuko Matsumura – Kaette Koiyo (Come Back Love)
Kazuko Matsumura is from Sapporo in Hokaido and trained as a traditional shiminsen player (a three string traditional instrument something like a western banjo) but at 16 years old in 1979 she decided to become an Enka singer and has been a popular and successful singer ever since. Normally this song is sung by a guy, but I like this version very much. It is the story of a girl who leaves her childhood sweet heart in the countryside and goes to Tokyo. Of course she promises to return but . . . . So the poor guy waits by the mountain where they parted for her to come home but she never does. This version of the song changes it so the girl is imagining the guy waiting and so she is feeling bad about it . . . . . .but hey ! ! ! She is never going back to that one horse town so get it over it ! ! !
Ah ! The old “poor bumpkin left pining for lover who has legged it to the big city and is having a whale of a time” song. A classic scenario. Love the plunky banjo thing on this , very Japanese, which it would be, of course. Almost “Spaghetti Western” in feel at times ( “Ramen Eastern ?” ). Nice.
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We hope you have enjoyed the post and that we managed to give you an insight into the sentimental and romantic side to the Japanese character. Enka is more than anything meant to be fun and enjoyed and the simple stories and melodies make it a firm favourite in every Karaoke bar from Sapporo to Hiroshima. It is uniquely Japanese popular music genre and one that is actually having a return to popularity these days with younger singers coming to the genre with a fresh apporach. We hoped you liked it ! ! !
So, there you go ! Hope you’re not sobbing too much. Lucky for us we don’t understand the words ! I get the feeling that there’s almost a liking for being “sad” in these songs. That delicious aching that comes from knowing you can’t have something that you want*
Sayonaree for now.
* In my case this is usually the last doughnut or chocolate bar.