Enka as Supergenre

In the liner notes for Umezu Kazutoki‘s new album, Umezu Kazutoki plays the ENKA (『梅津和時、演歌を吹く』), Harada Kazunori (via translator Cathy Fishman) describes enka as a genre “roughly corresponding to American blues and country music, French chanson, and Italian canzone.” I don’t know much about chanson or canzone, but the comparison to blues and country is fruitful. Let’s consider:

  • Unlike blues, enka is resource-intensive and top-down. Blues is a niche genre, but the startup costs for a blues musician are so low — a Robert Johnson record and a cheap guitar — that its grass-roots audience and performer base is almost self-sustaining. To sing enka like a pro, you need wind and string arrangements, percussion, backup singers, a saxophone and a guitar trading licks, and maybe a biwa for the intro. No doubt many people are blown away by great enka tunes in their youth and dream of growing up to sing them, but taking it beyond the shower stall and learning to front an enka ensemble involves serious logistical issues. And that’s just the vocalists: how many kids hear the instrumental breaks in Tsugaru kaikyō fuyu-geshiki and run out to buy a secondhand oboe?
  • No, the only way to start performing enka seriously is with the backing of the industry that packages and promotes it for mass consumption. It was Big Entertainment that shaped enka into the television-age genre it remains today, and Big Entertainment is still the sole source of legitimacy for an enka artist. There is no indie enka, and there are no three-man enka bands practicing in the drummer’s garage after school.

  • Unlike country music, enka has a one-dimensional listener base. Country has demographc biases, but its listener base is multigenerational and therefore self-reproducing.

    Enka’s demographic is “old people.” Hikawa Kiyoshi is not their fantasy boyfriend; he is their fantasy son, perhaps even grandson. It’s possible that this is because its lyrical content is more mature and subtle. It seems more likely to me, though, that it’s because the current enka listener base is exactly the listener base it had thirty years ago, and that it will eventually be replaced by a cohort of boomers kicking it to SuperDVD compilations of Kaguya-hime‘s greatest hits.

These comparisons are not meant to disparage enka as a genre. My point is simply that enka’s current situation seems unlikely to continue into the future. There are only so many Jeros out there to revitalize enka for a season or two. Enka will either have to evolve — dinosaur-like, into smaller and nimbler forms — or go the way of kabuki and become a “traditional art,” formally renouncing its ties to popular tastes in exchange for a guaranteed museum gig.

Umezu’s new album is not so much an example of the former as an argument against the latter. It is difficult to imagine that enka melodies played by virtuoso solo instrumentalists will emerge as a new genre. What Umezu does achieve, however, is a solid demonstration of how fresh a good enka tune can sound when liberated from the orchestras and sequins. (Unlike many solo sax albums, Plays the ENKA isn’t even that far out — the only tune that gets seriously deconstructed is Yume wa yoru hiraku.)

Umezu doesn’t rely entirely on Johann Mattheson’s “edlen Einfalt, Klarheit und Deutlichkeit” of pure melody to retain listener interest: timbre is foregrounded more often than not. His last solo album, Show the Frog, was by his own admission, a combined celebration and exploration of the bass clarinet alone, but on Plays the ENKA he switches between four different kinds of reed, getting a different character out of each. There’s even a credible hojok impression on the clarinet for the Korean folk tune “Paennorae” (ペンノレ/뱃노래).

Which brings me to my final point. “Paennorae” is an obscure yet very popular standard in Japan, but it was popularized by what today we would call “folk” rather than enka singers. I suspect that Umezu seeks to blur this distinction in favor of a more inclusive supergenre of which enka is just the most representative, perhaps because the most Japanese, strain.

When the album closes with a subdued take on “Ringo no uta,” another tune that doesn’t really fit the modern concept of enka, it feels like more than just a tribute to the first pop hit after World War II. It feels like a redrawing of borders to stake a new claim on the cultural landscape: Here Begins the Great Postwar Japanese Songbook.

March 2, 2009

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

27 Responses

  1. Wilford Says:

    One point about enka that does confuse me; why does it still have the same demographic appeal? Sure, the baby boomers that grew up on ereki boom and GS that fueled the demographic sea change of 1970 (the point when enka became less important to mainstream pop, though it would linger on music shows for many years after) are now at retirement age. Yet, enka still persists as a “old people” genre of reasonable size. Wouldn’t it have faded to fringes like Montovani and Percy Faith records did in the US?

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    A side note:

    You know, I think the number of people who are really into GS right now is actually pretty small. You could even make the case that GS records back in the ’60s did not have the impact that rock did for America at the same time. Especially because Japanese of that era could buy The Beatles and The Monkees instead of The Tigers, so today you have less people nostalgic about ereki and GS records of the time than you do probably about Ventures and Beatles records.

    More on point:

    The music business started as an “enka business” to a certain degree. (Which is also why mob influence is still strong.) A lot of the agencies that produce idols now have direct lineage to those that produced enka.

    I am sure Christine Yano could give you a better explanation, but I think the power of the industry and the need to placate the “godfathers” has made those inside the industry have to pay enka way more respect that it deserves in terms of sales (1%, no?) Also, enka represents “Japanese music” for most of the population, which means that NHK’s Kouhaku has to be one-half enka despite the fact that no one buys enka.

  3. connor Says:

    First and foremost, thanks for the links. That Ishikawa Sayuri thing was dope.

    Here is a question: do Japanese rap producers sample this stuff and make new records out of it? If not, why not? Rap sampling hasn’t exactly engendered a boom of 70s soul record sales, but it certainly has a way of creating royalties, especially if your song ends up in the hands of somebody like West-sama.

    I am guessing that the Japanese music industry is possibly not so progressive when it comes to sampling/reuse, but might they be persuaded otherwise when presented with a concrete opportunity to milk revenue out of their back catalogues, provided that sales of the new stuff are slow enough?

    I guess I’m assuming that nobody is sampling this right now. Am I wrong? Does anybody know?

    * Another reason I can think of that nobody is doing this is that maybe Japanese rappers specifically ask for their instrumentals to be as weak as possible so they look good by comparison. They certainly seem to be happy with Pharrell’s D game if those Teriyaki Boyz records are any indication.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    I think that music is all about legitimacy and Western-produced music is more “legitimate” in Western-based genres. In other words, sampling Japanese records for a Western genre like hip hop seems kind of lame. This has at least been the standard for a long time.

    There has been more interest in sampling Japanese tracks now (Kato Miliyah’s Sweet 19 Blues rip off, for example), but I think this is not seen as “cool” by gatekeepers. But since the public doesn’T give a shit about gatekeeper tastes, I can see enka hip hop sampling in our near future.

  5. Peter Says:

    Sounds like an interesting album, although I will say emphatically that Ringo no Uta is not enka at all. That proves that there is a fine line between enka and other popular ‘kayo-kyoku’ like “Koukou-sannennsei” or even “Nada sou-sou”.

    Matt, I like your assessment that the industry is part of what makes enka enka. Even Portuguese fado, which has the same “cry in your beer” quality as enka, can be boiled down to voice/guitar arrangements without losing its essence. I can imagine enka singers (who have some of the best pipes among professional singers in Japan) could do unplugged versions of their tunes to help add a dimension to the genre. Maybe they have already thought of this and I didn’t notice. I would buy an acoustic album by Yoshi Ikuzo any day.

  6. Jeff Lippold Says:

    OK, so if Hikawa Kiyoshi is an enka enthusiast’s fantasy son, Jero is their fantasy exchange student who spends a memorable summer with them learning the ways of the land.

    I actually get it now. Thanks for that.

  7. Daniel Says:

    Even Portuguese fado, which has the same “cry in your beer” quality as enka, can be boiled down to voice/guitar arrangements without losing its essence.

    Isn’t the enka croon really the central aspect of the music? Despite the dramatic backdrop it usually gets, at the heart it’s really that nasal wavering. I’ve heard it with a simple guitar and it sounded pretty good. (The guy went on to sing From Russia With Love a cappela. Rock.)

    No doubt many people are blown away by great enka tunes in their youth and dream of growing up to sing them, but taking it beyond the shower stall and learning to front an enka ensemble involves serious logistical issues.

    You mean like going to the karaoke place over and over?

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    I am reading a book right now about pre-war youth delinquents, and the sōshi bad guys used to go around singing enka apparently. So it can be done sans-orchestra.

  9. M-Bone Says:

    Sorry for the hijack, but this bit, just ripped from Yahoo.co.jp’s front page, shows just how easily another Japanese medium can be repackaged to meet the theme of the day.

    Of course, Enka just does not have the thematic variety to allow for a similar brand of resurrection.

    この国は、この社会は きっとまだ変われる



  10. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Enka obviously didn’t start out so overorchestrated, but I’d argue that by now the enka vocal style is all but symbiotic with the instrumental sturm und drang that rages behind it. I bet you could indeed get an awesome album out of a talented acoustic guitarist and a resourceful enka singer, but it would stick out like a sore thumb on the enka charts right now.

    Analogy: Dwight Yoakam’s dwightyoakamacoustic.net album was a critical favorite, but I got the feeling at the time that a lot of folks were uncomfortable with calling it “country.” And it didn’t change the genre much–most bands still have the same old sound, complete with pedal steel, and that’s still what fans prefer. (Remember when Shania Twain released that album in “rock” and “country” versions? Orchestration matters.)

  11. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > There is no indie enka

    That may be true in Japan, but it is not so for the Brazilian Japanese colony. Enka is one of our main karaoke styles, featured in practically every karaoke competition and ethnic festival. If one wants to sing enka, one doesn’t go to the industry (there isn’t one anyway) — one goes to a local enka “group”, which works the same way as a kendō group, ikebana group, or min’yō group − all of which should be present in any Brazilian city with a sizeable Japanese presence.

    It is still old people’s music though, save for a few young weeaboos like me — like blues, they say in order to understand enka you must have lived enough to suffer.

  12. Ryan Says:

    I enjoyed that version of “Ringo no Uta.” Seemed a bit faster than the usual karaoke version. Something’s different in the orchestration, too.

    But I must say, my favorite version of “Ringo no Uta” has to be this:


  13. JJ Says:

    > Jero is their fantasy exchange student…

    With all his “doing it for his obasan in America” talk, I get the impression he’s more like that fantasy nephew/grandson from that sister who left Japan in pursuit of some dream. The fantasy successful exchange student seems more like an expat dream.

    > I think that music is all about legitimacy and Western-produced music is more “legitimate” in Western-based genres… I can see enka hip hop sampling in our near future

    Perhaps if Rza sampled more enka, I can see that happening. But it will all be over shadowed with the sampling Indian music, which already has had success in hip-hop and will probably grow with the success of Slumdog Millionaire.

  14. megan Says:

    I enjoyed the Youtube links you posted. I don’t really see the links to country music, unless you are talking about the country music that is not also pop music (and i don’t know much about that).

    @ Ryan

    That’s a nice video. I like his voice.

    I have to say, when I saw “Ringo no Uta,” the first thing I thought of was this:


  15. W. David MARX Says:

    It goes without saying that Shiina Ringo is very aware of what she was doing with that song title. Her outfit during the first performance was very Pinky & Killers.

  16. Ryan Says:

    Why thank you, Megan.
    I’ll have to let Stefano know you liked his voice. He happens to be Japan’s most narcissistic ryūgakusei (check out: http://www.stefanolodola.com/), so I’m sure he’ll be thrilled.

  17. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Not quite sure what you mean, Megan — the analogies weren’t convincing?

    It goes without saying that Shiina Ringo is very aware of what she was doing with that song title.

    Man, I should hope so. Even Morning Musume have paid tribute to that song.

    Re: Sampling enka: Probably the biggest obstacle to this, meta-issues aside, is that enka is so seldom funky.

  18. Peter Says:

    I don’t know why enka adheres so much to the glitzy arrangements. The syncopated orchestral hits definitely can’t be duplicated with a simple acoustic back band, but there’s got to be something more to it. Japanese are no strangers to innovative arrangement (almost every Western song used in a Japanese commercial has been a cover, with many by Japanese artists).

    One hint may be the marriage of enka with karaoke. Enka singles are sold with the expressed purpose to be practiced karaoke, and back when cassettes existed, the B side was usually the karaoke version, with the range of the song, etc. I know that other song singles outside of Enka are sold like this, but when your demographic is older people, the more accompaniment, the better.

    So, whereas a performer may be able to pull off a simple arrangement in a concert, the same arrangement may not be worth trying to sell as a recording.

  19. Connor Says:

    Matt- Hot beats could be made out of that Fuyu-Geshiki thing. I could make a hot beat out of that. Are you payin’? Have we got ourselves a bet?

    Who will rap over it? You? Marxy? Lord willing, Patrick Macias? NeoJ doesn’t have an official site song yet.

  20. megan Says:

    @ Matt

    I should probably apologize. I know extremely little about what enka is, so that’s probably why I missed the connection.

    I feel a bit embarrassed posting among those who seem to be experts on Japan related things…

  21. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Hey, no need to apologize… Disagreeing’s what comments are for.

    Connor: You mean like MC Frontalot’s song for Penny Arcade? Maybe we can get Stefano on board.

  22. W. David MARX Says:

    I think blues has a distinctive spirit of rebellion and defiance — even if it’s sublimated and laid-back. I don’t think enka has this. If anything, enka goes with that stereotypical Japanese spirit that “strength” means joy in suffering, not complaining or contemplating exodus and freedom from pain.

  23. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    I think the word “joy” never applies to enka, not even when next to “in suffering”. IMHO enka is about pain, period. It speaks resignation rather than strength; mono no aware and all that.

    Enka may not be identical to blues but they meet at the same smoky bar and drink Jack Daniel’s together.

  24. David T. Says:

    Quote”There has been more interest in sampling Japanese tracks now (Kato Miliyah’s Sweet 19 Blues rip off, for example), but I think this is not seen as “cool” by gatekeepers. But since the public doesn’T give a shit about gatekeeper tastes, I can see enka hip hop sampling in our near future.”quote

    It already happened. It was a pretty good attempt too, too bad it flopped big time. Only made the top 50. Whereas something as poser as DS455’s Still belong in the street (What street!?) clocked in at oricon’s top 20.

    Well, it’s not exactly hiphop. There was a R&B style cover of Misora Hibari’s
    川の流れのように awhile back in 2003.
    It was performed by a girl who goes by the stage name “Tsubaki”.
    An artist who was formerly R&B/Hiphop, but has since went pop. Since she failed as an R&B artist.
    Which is kinda comical imo, because she’s practically one of the only Japanese R&B singers I’ve ever heard who actually sang with soul.
    (Most J-R&B singers usually just try to imitate American music rather than singing with their own style & voice.)

    I personally feel that Tsubaki’s cover did a good job of modernizing Enka.
    Or at the least I find this cover to be far more preferable than Jero’s wackass attempts at B-boyism. (Just because he’s Black doesn’t mean that he needs to dance. Especially when he doesn’t dance that good to begin with.)
    Unfortunately for her, this attempt at modernization of Enka wasn’t met with welcome hands.

    I was the first one to upload this music video to youtube. As it seems that nobody knew about this cover until I uploaded it last September.
    (That guy I linked to seemed to have nabbed that vid from one of my suspended accounts.)
    I remember getting into a huge argument with diehard Misora Hibari fans in my comment section, because practically everybody was disgusted at the singer’s R&B style vocals. (Despite the fact that the whole point of the song was that it’s supposed to be an R&B cover to begin with.)

    What I don’t understand is how come nobody ever gets mad at that kawa no nagare no yoni Trance cover that was on Detective Conan awhile back? Which was piss poor horrible might I add.
    (I think it was Detective Conan. It was one of those cartoons.)
    At least that Tsubaki chick did something that was actually listenable, and most of all it had soul.
    Which is something that is embarrassingly lacking from most of Japan’s R&B/Hiphop music.

  25. David T. Says:

    One peculiarity I’ve noticed about J-urban style music is that most popular artists in Japan are usually mediocre club radio style pop acts such as the likes of Double or that Hi-D guy.
    Basically only the artists who try way too hard to act or look Black happen to be the only J-R&B artists who actually sell records.

    Whereas real soul artists such as Shiina Junpei (Shiina Ringo’s bro.) or Tsubaki usally just flop. Most likely due to them not trying hard enough to come off as Black.

    Damn it, I think I should’ve just said that the only popular R&B styles artists in Japan all happen to be posers. (Save for ACO, & UA who’s not exactly R&B, but her style of music can definitely be classified as soul.)

    My bad about the rant, and going off topic for a bit. I just get irritated when I think of how badly people in Japan misunderstand the genre of Soul music.
    I’ve seen plenty of artists in Japan who are skilled at the craft, but never
    gain any recognition due to not looking or sounding wannabe “American” enough.

    They don’t seem to get that the artists with the most soul are not the best imitators. Rather they are often the ones who are just being their selves.

  26. Stefano Lodola Says:

    Hello from “Japan’s most narcissistic ryūgakusei” (Ryan, 16).

    Thank you so much Megan (14).
    Let me also dissociate from Ryan. I just happened to be in that video.