Enka: A Japanese Music Genre Worth Listening To

Music is a form of art that most people can relate to. It has many genres and can be produced in various ways using several kinds of instruments. It can affect the feelings and the mood of a person depending on the beat, rhythm, or lyrics of the music or song. Thousands of people have gathered together in almost all parts of the world just to watch and hear artists perform. This just goes to show just how powerful music can be. The most well-known genres around the world include pop, rock, alternative rock, metal, and R&B to name a few.

Japan, in general, has artists that produce the aforementioned genres and music and so much more. The country also has its own kinds of a genre that are special and specific only to the Land of the Sun although many people from abroad also are already aware of the genres. One of the many genres unique to Japan is Enka.

The Musical Style of the Enka Genre

While some people may not have heard of this genre, Enka is actually one of the popular music genres in Japan. While pop and rock genres have their own rhythm and beat to follow, the musical style of the Enka genre actually resembles that of the traditional Japanese music. On the other hand, the Enka genre has already been developed through the years. The modernized style of enka is known as modern Enka. Modern Enka originated from the context of post-war expressions of contemporary nationalism in Japan and arose as nihonjinron. However, the vocalism of modern Enka still retains its more traditional musical style in comparison to ryukoka music, which was quite well-known during the pre-war years.

Today, modern Enka is considered as a kind of sentimental ballad music, as was developed during the period post-war. A number of the first singers of modern Enka include Michiya Mihashi, Hachiro Kasuga, and Hideo Murata. The actual restoration of Enka in its modern form is believed to date back to the year 1969. It was when Keiko Fuji made her debut to the public. As for the most well-known male singer of the Enka genre, it would probably be Kiyoshi Hikawa.

The mainstream scale of the modern Enka genre is known as Yonanuki Tan-Onkai, which translates to "Minor Scale without Four and Seven (re and sol)." It is also a revised version of Yonanuki Chō-Onkai, which translates to "Major Scale without Four and Seven (Fa and Ti)." The former version originated from an older Japanese scale known as the Ryo Scale or Ryo Onkai in Japanese. Among the oldest Japanese songs that were believed to have utilized this was “Kojo no Tsuki” by Rentaro Taki, which was also known as “school song” or shoka in Japanese, during the Meiji period. On the other hand, a song of B minor, “Kojo no Tsuki” did not utilize the seventh-scale degree.

As it was also based on the pentatonic scale, this form of music also resembles the style of the blues. Lyrics of songs in the Enka genre typically consists of themes surrounding love, loneliness, loss, hardships in life, and perseverance in times of difficulties. Sometimes, lyrics of Enka songs may also include themes that revolve around suicide or death. Even though Enka is considered a genre of kayokyoku, many people see the Enka genre to be more emotional and expressive in its own form.

A style of melisma is also typically incorporated by some archetypal singers of the enka genre. This style is comprised of the artists singing a single syllable of text while moving between various notes consecutively. Known as kobushi, this form of melisma happens when the pitch of the voice of the one singing would fluctuate in an irregular pattern within a single scale degree. This style can be compared to vibrato, which vibrates in a standard cycle. Though this technique of kobushi is not limited only to Enka genre since it can also be heard in the Italian track entitled “Santa Lucia,” it is a distinct character that is special to the Enka genre.

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One notable music composer of the Enka genre would be Masao Koga. When Koga was composing music back in the late 1930s to the early 1940s, the style had a resemblance to the Buddhist shomyo-chanting. However, his compositions of the Enka genre back then seem to be different from the modern Enka genre of today. This may be due to the difference in the singing styles of the post-war singers and the kobushi of the musical note of the composer. Nonetheless, Koga was considered to be among the pioneers of the Enka genre.

The Enka genre is important not just because of how its musical style affects the many Enka fans of Japan. Rather, this genre signifies the traditional, idealized, and romanticized part of the tradition, culture, and attitudes of the Japanese people. Singers of the Enka genre are typically female although there are also male Enka singers. Female Enka singers usually perform wearing an evening dress or a kimono while male Enka singers wear either a formal dress or a traditional Japanese attire.

The melodies of the Enka genre have the fundamentals of harmonies from the West. Furthermore, instruments used for the melodies of the Enka genre are generally electronic. Examples of this include synthesizers and electric lead guitars with a number of distortion. On the other hand, the Enka genre also utilizes traditional Japanese instruments like the shamisen and the shakuhachi.

How Enka Started and Developed in Japan

Enka was known as political songs back in the 19th century. During the Meiji period from the year 1868 to the year 1912, Enka was also known as Soshi Enka, which is quite different from modern Enka. Singers along the street that sang songs from the Enka genre were known as Enka-shi. Though it is not official, many people believed that the first Enka song was entitled “Dynamite bushi.” Enka songs at the time also include “Oppekepe Bushi” by Otojiro Kawakami.

During the Taisho period from the year 1912 to the year 1926, the street singers of Enka started to use and incorporate the violin into the production of their melodies. These songs were then known as violin Enka. A well-known Enka-shi during the Taisho period was Toshio Sakurai. Sakurai served as the mentor of another Enka singer by the name of Haruo Oka.

On the onset of the Showa period in the late 1920s, ryukoka became the genre of the generation. Record companies began producing this style of music and ryukoka began to replace the street performers or Enka-shi of Japan. It was also during this time that another instrument, a guitar, was incorporated into the musical style of Enka. These were known as nagashi. In the year 1939, Haruo Oka debuted with the song “Kokkyō no Haru,” which translates to “Spring at the Border.” This song was considered an enka song though the term itself was not that common in the post-war years.

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The birth of modern enka was believed to be in the year 1955 when Kasuga recorded a song entitled “Wakare no Ippon-sugi,” which translates to “Farewell One Cedar,” by singer Toru Funamura. This song was considered by many to be a true Enka song. On the other hand, many found it ironic that the song was actually also influenced by the rhythm of tango music. This was due to Funamura’s idea that tango had some semblance to the Enka genre in its local color. The song was later on also covered by various singers such as Hideo Murata, Hibari Misora, Takashi Hosokawa, Michiya Mihashi, Keiko Fuji, Saburo Kitajima, and Hiroshi Itsuki.

Come the post-war period, the popularity of rokyoku, also known as naniwa-bushi, plummeted. This can be attributed to the speaking lengths of the songs being too long for the listeners. As for Enka, its popularity grew though it was seen as only a shortened version of rokyoku. This may be because many singers of the enka genre were formerly rokyoku singers who found the themes of Enka to be similar to rokyoku; hence, it was easy for these singer to transition to the Enka genre. Some of these singers include Haruo Minami and Hideo Murata.

One rokyoku singer known for having a great influence on the Enka genre would be none other than Kumoemon Tochuken. One of Tochuken’s students had Murata as his pupil. Minami made his debut under Teichiku Records in the year 1957 while Murata made his debut under Nippon Columbia in the following year. The song entitled “Jinsei Gekijo” composed by Masao Koga was also covered by Murata. Haruo Minami, on the other hand, was famous for wearing a kimono, which was not a common style for male singers at the time.

It was in the early 1960s that Elvis Presley influenced rockabilly all over the world. Kyu Sakamoto, coming from Japanese rockabilly, gained popularity in the Japanese music industry. On the other hand, several Japanese music critics frowned upon rockabilly. Instead, they nodded on the Enka song entitled “Osho” composed by Toru Funamura and sang by Hideo Murata in the year 1961. They described the song as “pure Japanese style.” This Enka song was a single that sold millions in Japan. It was a great commercial success for the Enka genre at the time.

Various Singers in the Enka Genre

By 朝日新聞社 (『アサヒグラフ』 1953年4月29日号) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From then on, various singers of the Enka genre emerged. Examples of these include young Yukio Hashi in the year 1960, Saburō Kitajima in the year 1962 and Harumi Miyako in the year 1964. Young Sachiko Kobayashi made her first debut with the single entitled "Usotsuki Kamome,” which translates to “Liar Common Gull,” only at the age of 10 in the year 1964.

As for the most famous and beloved enka performer of all time, it would probably be Hibari Misora. Having lived from the year 1937 to the year 1989, she was known as the “Queen of Showa” and the “Queen of Enka” during her time. One of Misora’s most famous songs is entitled “Yawara.” Composed by Masao Koga, this song won the Grand Prix Award at the Japan Record Awards in the year 1965.

As for another pioneer in the genre of Enka, another notable name would be Mina Aoe. With the single entitled “Kōkotsu no Blues,” which literally translates to "Ecstasy Blues," Mina Aoe became the pioneer of the “Enka-blues” genre in the year 1966. One other Enka singer who made his debut in the year 1966 would be Shinichi Mori with the song entitled “Onna no Tameiki,” which literally translates to "Woman's Sigh." One of his songs entitled "Minatomachi Blues," which literally translates to "Port Town Blues,” was at the top of the Japanese Oricon single charts for five consecutive weeks. It also sold more than one million copies.

Three years later, another Enka star emerged by the name of Keiko Fuji. With her single entitled "Shinjuku no Onna,” which literally translates to “Woman in Shinjuku,” she made her debut at the age of 18. It was Keiko Fuji who was the catalyst for the revival of the term “Enka,” which was no longer used during the post-war period, thanks to her performance. Other famous Enka singers include Ayako Fuji and Yuko Nakazawa.

Singing Lyrics of Songs from the Enka Genre Around the World

The Enka genre was popular not only on the border of Japan but in other countries as well. Once a colony of Japan, music in Taiwan is also strongly influenced by the Enka genre. Hence, it should not be a wonder that there are various Japanese Enka melodies that were covered by several Taiwanese Hokkien songs that were formed into Taiwanese sentimental ballads.

There are also Enka singers that are not of Japanese descent. The first one would be Sarbjit Singh Chadha who hails from India. Another non-Japanese Enka singer would be Yolanda Tasico, who is the first Filipino Enka singer. The popularity of Enka has also reached the United States wherein there are a number of Enka orchestras and performers such as the San Jose Chidori Band. This just goes to show how the beauty of the Enka genre is not just for the Japanese people but for anyone who enjoys the sentimental melody of the Enka genre.