Enka 演歌

Enka 演歌 is a popular kind of Japanese sentimental singing using elaborate ornamentation and melodramatic vibrato. I notice that if I ask Japanese people if they like enka, they either say Yes! or they laugh. Its nostalgic qualities, variously maudlin or clap-along, make it the karaoke style of choice for the best middle-aged after-parties. Its origins and influences are probably mixed: minyo (Japanese traditional folk song), Korea, China have all been cited. It even sounds a bit like Portuguese fado (Portuguese influence in Japan is huge due to historical sea trade) and certainly plays a similar social role. It was popular throughout the Showa period (1925- 89) though it has morphed during that time - gradually acquiring orchestral backing and glamour post-war - but retained Japanese instrumentation and an intense and celebrated old-Japaneseness. It is supposed to have its roots in earlier 'disguised political' street-song of the Meiji period (1868-1910) which was also called enka. To distinguish the Meiji and Showa forms the latter is sometimes called Kayoukyoku 歌謡曲 which means 'ballad music', but it refers only to the 'pop' part of the enka spectrum and mainly distinguishes the older style crooning from the more youthful 'J-pops'.
Kitajima Saburo 北島三郎 (1936- ) was a wandering entertainer ( nagashi ) before he became the most popular male enka singer. Due to parts of his movie portfolio he is a favorite singer of the yakuza. He also appears on the Red and White Show on TV at New Year - the Japanese equivalent of the Andy Stewart or Jools Holland New Year Shows. The most famous female enka singer is the amazing Misora Hibari 美空 ひばり(1937-1989) whose last song, Kawa no Nagare no yo- ni 川の流れのように (Like a river flows) was voted the best Japanese song of all time in an NHK poll in 1997. No doubt the voting reflects the immense pleasure to be had giving it your all in karaoke - it's a full-flighter! The Misora Hibari Kan memorial museum in Arashiyama, in which her records, films, costumes and dressing rooms were on display, closed down in 2006 - the exhibits transferred to the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Sumida. She was a child film star (see Tokyo Kid) and is known as the queen of enka and an icon of the post-war reconstruction. Here is Misora Hibari singing Yawara (dressed as a bloke). She also recorded a Japanese/English version of la vie en rose and a macaronic L.O.V.E. among her 1,200 records.
New enka singers are still emerging. Hikawa Kiyoshi is perhaps the best known of the younger ones. Here is Kiyoshi pitched against Kitajima Saburo in a TV show.

Violin enka バイオリン演歌 In 2005 there was an article in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper about a violin-enka-singer (fiddle-singer) in a Tokyo park. I went in search of him but on the day I went it was raining so no music. A year later I couldn't find him. His name was Ken? Morita 森田銀月, and he wore Meiji-era clothes - flat cap, kimono and hakama. I'll dig out the article and fill in the details. PS Just found his picture on a website (click parag title).
Other violin enka links:
Yousan02 violin day
Tanosiki violin enka
Teidaisei Yumeji 帝大生ゆめじ


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this very informative post! I'm working with the lyrics to 川の流れ for my Japanese lessons and had never heard of 演歌. This was a very helpful read.

FJG said...

Thanks for your comment. While Hibari san sings 演歌 (enka), 川の流れ might be classed at Kayokou, which is a more modern genre. Let me check and get back to you. When you have finished translating do you want to post your version of 川の流れ at http://lookingathouses.blogspot.com/2008/04/kawa-no-nagare-no-you-ni.html