Enka 演歌

Written by
Erin M. Ure

Enka (演歌) is a genre of popular Japanese ballads, or kayoukyoku (歌謡曲), that combines Western instruments with Japanese scales, rhythms, vocal techniques, and poetic traditions into melodramatic songs of love, loss, and yearning. Made popular in the postwar years of the Shouwa (昭和時代) period, which lasted from December 25, 1926 to January 7, 1989 during the reign of Emperor Shouwa Hirohito (昭和裕仁), enka has always been considered a “conservative” genre of song. It is frequently contrasted with Japanese pop, rock, and various other forms of popular music trends in Japan, as the “unchanging” genre of enka possess a long-lasting staying power unique within Japan’s fast-paced, ever-evolving world of pop culture. Enka’s target audience seems to be middle-aged or elderly listeners, finding popularity especially in rural areas.Although there are of course, life-long fans of enka, the majority of listeners claim to have turned to the genre only in middle age or as older adults. This changing taste in music seems to be a typical adjustment to aging in Japanese culture, when it’s appropriate and expected to turn from youthful fascination with Euro-American fashions and influences inward toward “Japanese sensibilities.” In fact, many Japanese refer to enka as “the oldies”, considering both its primary audience, as well as its compositional and performance techniques that give even the newest enka song the sound of a ballad from “the good ol’ days”. However, in 1989, about 20% of albums sold in Japan were of enka, and one enka hit consistently figures among the top ten hits of each year.Since the “youth-culture”, or consumers in their teens and twenties comprise the majority of Japan’s booming economy, especially in record sales, it’s apparent that the population of enka fans is actually much larger and more diverse than statistics suggest.

The word enka itself is derived from the Chinese kanji characters en (演), meaning performance or entertainment, and ka (歌), meaning song or poem. Enka is thought to have evolved from political speeches set to song and spread by political activists during the Meiji period (明治時代) (1868-1912) and the Taishou period (大正時代) (1912-1926).In 1874, Japan’s first political party was formed, however, party leaders were not permitted to speak in public.In order to have their thoughts heard by the people, they instead wrote speeches and gave them to hired singers who would go out into the streets to deliver their message through song. The lyrical style of enka seems to have evolved from waka (和歌), styles of Japanese poetry originating from the Heian period (平安時代) (794-1185). Enka lyrics do in fact resemble waka in its poetic features, as both have no concept of rhyme or line, as well as in its aesthetic sensibilities.

Modern enka as Japan recognizes it today is characterized by its highly melodramatic qualities. In the large commercial industry that is Japan’s music business, enka produces tears for sale.In fact, enka is a form of naki bushi (泣き節) (crying songs), songs whose merit actually rests upon eliciting tears. Similar perhaps to American country or western music, to which it is often compared, enka’s overtones paint a nostalgic picture of the more traditional, idealized, or romanticized aspects of Japanese culture and life. Perhaps because of this reason, enka has been regarded as the national music more than any other genre of popular song in Japan. Both within and outside the music industry, the genre has earned a reputation as nihon no uta (日本の歌) (song of Japan), dentou no oto (伝統の音) (the sound of Japanese tradition), and as an expression of nihonjin no kokoro (日本人の心) (The heart/soul of the Japanese). According to both enka’s producers as well as its fans, the emotions in enka are characteristically Japanese. The genre could perhaps best be explained as “a story the Japanese tell about themselves to themselves.”

The most frequently used words in enka lyrics are yume (夢) (dream), kokoro (心) (heart/soul), namida (涙) (tears), sake (酒) (alcohol/sake), onna (女) (woman), and koi (恋) (love). Lyrics are highly gendered, with female lyrics reflecting on themes such as unrequited love, loneliness, and drinking, while lyrics from male-oriented songs tend to focus on themes of enduring hardships, persevering in the face of difficulties, longing for home, and the general gambaru spirit (がんばる) (the act of doing one’s best and hanging on patiently). These vast differences in themes between the sexes reflect Japan’s ideals for men and women. Heroines in Japanese folklore for instance, are often tragic figures who have to endure immense grief, reflecting the mono no aware (物の哀れ) (pathos of things; appreciation of the fleeting nature of beauty) aesthetic that beautiful women, who have an aura of sadness about them, are graceful. A woman in grief, bearing it with patience, is a classic image of Japanese feminine beauty. Consider for instance the poetry of famous female poet, Izumi Shikibu (和泉式部), written in the Heian period:

A man saw[1] me
Then forgotten did I spend my days
Upon my sleeves
The rain[2]-knowing well my fate-
Never ceases falling.

Comparing this waka of ancient Japan with enka lyrics from a famous 1966 Misora Hibari (美空ひばり) song, Kanashii Sake (悲しい酒) (Sad Sake), one can see the similarities in both style and content.

Alone at a bar, I drink sake
Which tastes like tears of parting.
I drink, and long to forget his face, but
When I drink, his visage floats before me in my glass…
I cry with bitterness toward a world
Which keeps me apart from the one I love.

The lyrics often found in enka’s male songs however, celebrate manhood, which is defined by hard work, physical endurance, and reverence to the gods. Performed by husky stars such as Kitajima Saburou (北島三郎), affectionately known by fans as Sabu-chan, these songs feature faster tempos, a more intense rhythmic drive, and simpler vocal style than the typical romantic enka song. The following lyrics are an excerpt from a famous enka favorite, Matsuri (祭り) (Festival), often sung as the grand finale performance in the Japan’s biggest television concert, the Kouhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦) (the annual “Red and White Song Battle” shown every New Year's Eve), which showcases well the masculine side of enka:

These young men, permeated with the smell of the earth
Their hands are treasures…
Burn! The life of a man is one of sweat and tears.
I am living to the fullest.
This is a festival of Japan!

Another common theme among masculine enka songs is a longing for one’s hometown, as can be seen in Boukyou Jonkara (望郷じょんから) (Jonkara Homesickness), originally sung by enka star Takashi Hosokawa (細川たかし).

This is the time of year when the snow begins to blow in Tsugaru, isn’t it?
Is everyone fine there? Is everything all right?
I long for my hometown, where we sang the childhood song – ah! …
So many years have passed since I left there.
Shall I go home? I want to go home.

This yearning for one’s home of the past is the very essence of enka, whose songs and image uniformly reflect a longing for a simpler homeland that has transformed entirely since World War II and continues to reinvent itself daily. Yearning for ones furusato (古里) (hometown) is certainly a characteristic Japanese sentiment found repeatedly throughout Japan’s rich cultural history. Legendary waka poet, Ariwara no Narihira (在原業平) (825-880), is known for reflecting on such nostalgic predisposition in this famous and often-quoted poem:

More and more
Do I yearn for
The Capital I have left
Oh, how I envy incoming
Waves that can return.

Attire further continues enka’s gendered divisions, as female artists are almost always seen in traditional kimono (着物) and the accompanying upswept hair style for performances and publicity shots, while men typically appear in formal Western attire, and occasionally in traditional Japanese garb as well.Interesting enough, women will perform men’s songs in men’s attire, similar to a Mezzo-Soprano singing a “trouser role” in the Western opera tradition, and vice versa. However, it is far more common for women to “cross-dress” than men. Misora Hibari (美空ひばり), the “Queen of Enka”, was an award-winning Japanese enka singer, actress and Ningen Kokuhou (人間国宝) (Living National Treasure). One of the most commercially successful music artists in the world and often regarded as being one of the greatest singers of all time, Misora Hibari was especially known for singing men’s roles. The majority of enka singers are female, and this gap between the sexes only widens with time.

Enka songs are most frequently written in duple meter at a slow to medium tempo, with 4/4 meter predominating.However, 4/4 meter within enka differs from a Western 4/4 in that there is no differentiation of stress among beats within a measure. This “unstressed” meter is found within traditional Japanese music as well, as the relationship between beats is instead one of“front” and “back” (omotema and urama) (主手間と裏間) spaces or beats. This uniform emphasis stems from the Japanese language, which itself is fairly unstressed, in stark contrast to the Romance languages. This difference is further highlighted in vocal music, when it is a crucial objective for a performer to deliver the text artistically, but yet in a way that is still understandable.In most languages, word stress is apparent in song through the use of dynamics, rhythm, and the melodic line. However, the Japanese language is unique in that its alphabet is comprised of consonant-vowel pairs, such as to (と), mo (も), da (だ), chi (ち). Only vowels and the consonant n (ん) stand by themselves. Words are built by grouping these sound clusters together, and each generally receive equal stress, such as in the word tomodachi (ともだち = 友達) which means “friend”.When singing the language, each “letter”, whether they be a consonant-vowel pair like hi (ひ), a singular vowel such as u (う), or the consonant n (ん) receive equal stress and vocal emphasis, meaning that in stark contrast to Western vocal music in which one “sings on the vowels” and “moves through the consonants”, the consonant n (ん) is sung on as an equal sound, and can be held for sustained periods of time.

Enka’s sound finds its roots in one of two pentatonic scales: the yonanuki major and the yonanuki minor. Yonanuki (四七抜き) literally means “without 4 and 7”, as yonanuki major and yonanuki minor are pentatonic scales, major and minor respectively, with no fourth or seventh scale degree.In recent years, a minor pentatonic scale, without the second and sixth scale degrees has also come into use. While these scales do share some characteristics of certain scales found in traditional Japanese music, they are in fact not traditional.In traditional scales, the fourth scale degree is given great importance, as they are based on a tetrachordal structure that spans a perfect fourth.However, in the yonanuki scale, the fourth scale degree is missing entirely. The reason for the popularity of this unique scale comes from the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when after 200+ years of isolation from the rest of the world, Japan underwent a modern transformation through Westernization in attempts to become equal powers with the Western sphere. Music, of course, was not left out of the renaissance, resulting in a change of music theory and education. After comparing Japanese scales with those of the West, the Japanese discovered that the pentatonic scale was common ground between their two cultures and frequently found in Western music, and in conclusion, deemed it superior. The yonanuki scale then became the core of music education, used widely in children’s songs, and gradually found a permanent residence within the Japanese ear.

It only seems natural then that the instruments found within enka are a varied mix of Western instruments along with traditional Japanese instruments, such as the shamisen (三味線), a three-stringed banjo-like instrument; the koto (琴), a long 13-stringed zither and Japan’s national instrument; any number of yokobue, transverse bamboo flutes, such as the shinobue (篠笛); and taiko (太鼓), wide and usually large Japanese drums played with a mallet. Western instruments are responsible for the majority of accompaniment, however, consisting of mainly live orchestra or bands, as well as guitar, piano, and synthesized instrumentation.

An extremely important characteristic of enka is its melismatic vocal style, use of a delayed, wide vibrato, and use of kobushi (小節), an undulating vocal embellishment popular in traditional folk songs. Enka’s vocal style is heavily-influenced by Japan’s traditional vocal music, specifically, minyou (民謡) (folk song). This stylistic technique is just one of the fundamentals of the kata (型) (pattern; form) of the performance, a method which keeps the traditional alive through the practice of patterning, as opposed to reinventing the art into something entirely unique to ones self.In enka, hit songs of the past are preformed and re-preformed again, with each newly-debuted singer working to perfect their individual art in order to recapture the beauty of the original performance or recording. This isn’t seen as performing a “cover” as one would think of it in Western pop music, but is rather comparable to a classical pianist or vocalist working to mater a standard piece of repertoire, such as a Beethoven sonata or a Mozart aria, in which only certain stylistic choices and interpretations are acceptable. This idea is known as kanzen shugi (完全主義) (the beauty of complete perfection) and can be appreciated in many of the traditional Japanese arts, such as chanoyu (茶の湯) (tea ceremony), ikebana (生花) (flower arrangement), the arts of the geisha (芸者), sumou (相撲) (Sumo wrestling), Nō (能) (Noh) and kabuki (歌舞伎) theatre.

In spite of what might appear to be a highly formulaic system alone, in which an artist’s lyrics, music, performance practices, appearance, and staged actions are carefully picked from a history of the genre’s tradition, kata does have its limits.Solely adhering to the patterns taught by an enka teacher will not make one a star, as an individual must possess kosei (個性) (individuality, personality) in order to stand out from the crowd of other enka singers, capture an audience’s attention, and rise to the top of the charts. Enka’s sole purpose is not to preserve the past, like that of the genre natsu-mero (懐メロ) (an abbreviation for natsukashii merodei [懐かしいメロディ], meaning “nostalgic melody”), which strictly consists of rereleased old songs. Enka is surprisingly a genre that is constantly being renewed: each year original songs are composed by essentially assembling together a combination of successful old songs, and fresh-faced singers are introduced into the market. It is the kata that ensures each new piece and performer retain the genre’ s style of nostalgia and vintage charm, yet within this sepia-tinted structure, an artist may push the boundaries ever so slightly to create something new and special. A seasoned artist especially may take liberties in their performances after having perfected the established art and proven him or herself a true enka star.This level of mastery is known as touitsu (統一), in which one goes beyond the pattern or form (kata) and becomes one with it.In this way, enka is very much a traditional art, in that an artist must first kata ni hairu (型に入る) (follow the form), then kata ni jukutatsu (型に熟達) (perfect the form), and finally kata kara nukeru (型から抜ける) (go beyond the form).

Enka presents a world in which the Japanese, whose society is built upon appropriate levels of hedataru (隔たる) (distance) and enryo (遠慮) (restraint), are at their weepiest, their most vulnerable, and according to many, at their most Japanese. A beloved combination of the historical and idealized, traditional and imported, vintage and modern, enka is truly a unique art Japan is proud to call her own.

[1] In this context, “seeing” someone implies sleeping with him/her in a sexual sense.
[2] This is, of course, the abandoned woman's tears.

Selected Bibliography
Craig, Timothy J.Japan Pop!: Inside the World of Japanese Popular Culture.
Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.

Davies, Roger J., and Ikeno, Osamu.The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary
Japanese Culture.Tokyo, Rutland, Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2002.

Maki, Okada, and Gerald Groemer.“Musical Characteristics of Enka.”
Popular Music, Vol.10, No. 3, Japanese Issue (Oct., 1991): 283-303

McAuley, Thomas.2001 Waka For Japan 2001. BBR.
http://www.temcauley.staff.shef.ac.uk/introduction.shtml (accessed November 25,

Suzuki, Nobue.Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan.
Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 2007.

Yano, Christine R.Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular
Song.Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003.

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