Enka (Japanese Ballad) (演歌)

Enka, or 演歌, is one of the categories of Japanese popular music, which is considered to represent entertaining songs based on feeling and pathos that are unique to Japanese people. Because of different singing styles of each singer and the tendency of lyrics, enka is also written as '艶歌' or '怨歌,' which are pronounced the same as 演歌.


Enka songs usually use the pentatonic scale that has been played in traditional Japanese folk songs. The scale is also called "yona nuki" scale, meaning the scale omitting yon (meaning four in Japanese) and nana (meaning seven in Japanese), because the pentatonic scale uses five notes by removing fourth and seventh notes from the Western scale of seven notes and using the fifth and sixth notes of the Western scale as the fourth and fifth notes respectively. Masao KOGA (古賀正男, but later renamed 古賀政男) established this scale in "Koga Melodies," and since then the scale has been peculiar to the enka music. At first, the Koga Melodies became very popular, sung with a technique called crooning based on the strict interpretation of the vocal technique of Ichiro FUJIYAMA (vocalist Takeo MASUNAGA), an orthodox classical singer who graduated from the Tokyo University of the Arts. Later on, however, the Melodies increasingly became the expression of techniques of Japanese music, and appearance of Hibari MISORA in the 1960s elevated Koga to a position of enka master. Enka singers sang the Koga Melodies in their own ways with vibrato, exerting their individuality.

One of the characteristics of enka vocal style is that a distinctive technique called 'kobushi' (a warble) is heavily used. In addition, enka songs are almost never sung without deep and skillful 'vibrato' employed (e.g., in the case of the sound lasting for over two bars, vibrato is started at the second bar). These two characteristics can be said to be indispensable for the enka music, but they are often confused with each other, although they are essentially different techniques.

Enka singers (especially female singers) usually wear Japanese kimonos when singing, placing importance on keeping the Japanese look and feel.

Many of the lyrics describe heartbreaking love and tragic love between a man and a woman, centering on the often-used phrases such as 'sea, sake, tears, women, rain, north country, snow, and parting.'
The examples include 'Kanashii Sake' (Sorrowful Sake) by Hibari MISORA, 'Osaka Shigure' (Autumn Shower in Osaka) by Harumi MIYAKO, 'Sazanka no Yado' (Inn of Camellia Sasanqua) by Eisaku OKAWA, and 'Yuki Guni' (Snow Country) by Ikuzo YOSHI.

Typical enka songs having those features are sometimes called 'doenka' (quintessential enka).

There is also a genre named 'mood songs' that is specific to affection between a man and a woman and has more urban atmosphere than enka.

Even with the characteristics described above, however, it is difficult to clearly distinguish the enka from other genres (such as kayo kyoku - Japanese popular songs with ballads). For example, Yosuke YAMASHITA, a jazz pianist, is said to have said "enka and idol songs sound just the same," meaning "the two genres cannot be distinguished in terms of music theory."

Enka songs cover other themes than the painful affection between a man and a woman as follows:
Stories of happy married couples: 'Meoto Shunju' (Married Couple in Spring and Autumn) by Hideo MURATA, 'Meoto Bune' (The Boat of Husband and Wife) by Yuko MIKASA, 'Nirinso' (Soft Windflower) by Miyuki KAWANAKA, etc.

Stories of mothers: 'Ganpeki no Haha Ryukoka' (A Hit Song about Mother at the Pier) by Akiko KIKUCHI and Yuriko FUTABA, 'Hanamachi no Haha' (Flower Town [Geisha Quarters] Mother) by Tatsue KANEDA, etc.

Stories of families other than the above: 'Kyodai Bune' (Brothers' Ship) by Ichiro TOBA, 'Musume Yo (single)' (My Daughter) by Gannosuke ASHIYA, 'Mago (composed by Itsuro OIZUMI)' (Grandchild) by Itsuro OIZUMI, etc.

Stories of life and spirit: 'Jinsei Gekijo' (Life as a Theater) and 'Hana to Ryu' (Flowers and Dragons) by Hideo MURATA, 'Yama' (Mountain) and 'Kawa' (River) by Saburo KITAJIMA, 'Kawachi Otoko Bushi' (Kawachi Men's Song) by Mitsuko NAKAMURA, etc.

Stories of wandering gamblers: 'Tabi Sugata Sannin Otoko' (Three Men on Their Journey) by Dick MINE, 'Itako Gasa' (Conical Straw Hat in Itako Area) by Yukio HASHI, 'Hakone Hachiri no Hanjiro' (Hanjiro on the steep Hakone Road) by Kiyoshi HIKAWA, etc.

Stories of chivalrous men: 'Kyodai Jingi' (Duty of Brotherhood) by Saburo KITAJIMA, 'Karajishi Botan' (Lion and Peony) by Ken TAKAKURA, etc. (Songs about chivalrous men are similar to those about wandering gamblers, but the former usually have heavy melodies, while the latter are lighter.)

Kayo Rokyoku (songs combined with rokyoku [a kind of sung narrative popular during the Edo period]): 'Tawaraboshi Genba' (Genba TAWARABOSHI) and 'Kinokuniya Bunzaemon' (Bunzaemon KINOKUNIYA) by Haruo MINAMI, etc.

Theatrical and dramatic stories: 'Yamauchi Kazutoyo to Tsuma Chiyo' (Kazutoyo YAMAUCHI and his wife Chiyo), 'Shiko no Osho' (Supreme King), and 'Byakkotai' (Byakkotai Suicide Corps) by Rumi YAMAGUCHI, etc.

Stories about nostalgia: 'Kaerokana' (Should I Go Home?) by Saburo KITAJIMA, 'Kitaguni no Haru' (Spring in the North Country) and 'Bokyo Sakaba' (Nostalgic Bar) by Masao SEN, etc.

Takashi HOSOKAWA's 'Kitasakaba' (North Bar) does not fit into any categories above. This song describes the "north bar alley" in the eyes of the lyricist in a detached way without any enka-specific scenes, making a novel impression and winning the Japan Record Award.

It is sometimes said 'Enka is the heart of Japanese people,' but it should be noted that the yona nuki scale mentioned above did not originate from traditional Japanese music. Masao KOGA who played a critical role in the development of this genre produced works reflecting the influence of ethnic music around the world, including music in Korea where he spent his boyhood, Roma music and western music. Therefore, the view that the enka is the typical Japanese music is not always right.

Enka has been accepted by the Japanese public and formed a trend of music, but it is also true that many people are disgusted by its musical expression.
Noriko AWAYA, a singer who has made a huge impact on the world of Japanese popular music, professed her dislike of enka music, so much so that she even advocated 'anti-enka campaign.'
Koichi SUGIYAMA, a composer, also writes in his book that it 'brought about the dark age in Japanese music culture.'


Stage of creation
Enka was originally the abbreviation of 'enzetsuka' (speech songs), and songs referred to as 'enka' were the products of movement for liberty and people's rights. The criticism against clique government was put into the songs as a means of political assertion and propaganda. In other words, enka songs were political satire, and the name 'enka' is said to have begun to be used at the end of the 19th century when the crackdown on speech was intensified and people began to sing songs instead of making speeches. Around that time, 'Oppekepe-bushi' (Oppekepe Song) was the most popular, followed by 'Yattsukero-bushi' (Defeat Them Song), 'Genkotsu-bushi' (Clenched Fist Song), and others. There were other political satire songs, but thereafter, the name 'enka' became common. As enka singers also began to sing social satire songs on sentiment after the late Meiji period, enka songs gradually went beyond the substitute for speech to enter the music sector.

In the Taisho period, some enka singers began to compose music using techniques of western music. This is how Shunyo TOTTORI appeared. Composed by him, "Kago no Tori" (Bird in a Cage) became a great hit. This type of song, however, is not usually included in 'enka,' but is called 'hayari uta' (rage song).

Era of hit song
A new age dawned in the Showa period when foreign record companies established production companies in Japan and a new recording system called electric recording was introduced. Appearance of Chiyako SATO and Teiichi FUTAMURA in 1928 and Ichiro FUJIYAMA in 1931, however, made a big genre called 'hit songs' dominate virtually the entire popular music world and removed 'enka' from the music industry for a while.

Although popular music around that time is sometimes categorized as 'enka,' it intrinsically has unique musical characteristics harmoniously combining all of musical elements of enka, kayo kyoku, and vocal music, so it cannot be identical with enka music. However, 'Kira no Nikichi' composed by the aforementioned Masao KOGA and Bin UEHARA, a popular singer featuring a vocal style that uses 'kobushi,' were influenced by rokyoku performers such as Torazo HIROSAWA. Because some authors and singers surely belong to both genres as shown by these examples and today's 'enka' music is based on musical characteristics and techniques developed in this 'hit songs' era, the period is indispensable for describing enka music.

1950s (stage of revival)
Although 'hit songs' continued to lead the Japanese popular music after the war, because of the rise of a new generation and the retirement of Ichiro FUJIYAMA in 1953, their musical characteristics began to crumble and songs similar to the current enka gradually began to appear. Around that time, Hibari MISORA, who had already debuted with boogie-woogie as a hit song singer, changed her musical characteristics, nostalgia singer Hachiro KASUGA and Michiya MIHASHI debuted with King Records, Koji TSURUTA presenting himself as a chivalrous star debuted with Victor Records, Haruo MINAMI, the former rokyoku performer, and Yujiro ISHIHARA, the postwar superstar debuted with Teichiku Records, and Hideo MURATA debuted with Columbia Records, moving out of the world of rokyoku as Minami. In addition, Chiyoko SHIMAKURA featuring naki-bushi (crying songs) and Mighty Guy Akira KOBAYASHI appeared. Songs with a style which is very different in character from that of earlier 'hit songs' and similar to today's enka were developed based on traditional folk songs and rokyoku. Otomi-san,' 'Wakare no Ippon Sugi' (Farewell One Cedar), 'Aishu Ressha' (Sorrowful Train), 'Onna Sendo Uta' (Female Waterman Song), 'Kojo' (Old Castle), 'Chanchiki Okesa' (Okesa [a folk song of Niigata] with Chanchiki [gong]), 'Funakata San Yo' (Hey Sailor), 'Karatachi Nikki' (Trifoliate Orange Diary), 'Jinsei Gekijo,' etc. became hits around that time.

The independence of Nippon Crown Co., Ltd. as a record company that specializes in enka music in 1963 and arrival of various genre of music helped establish many music genres, leading the 'hit songs' to disappear.
Among such genres, songs based on yona nuki scale and kobushi came to be called 'enka.'
Nominally this marked the revival of 'enka' as a genre which had been discontinued in the Showa prewar period, but the enka songs completely lacked social satirical elements as conventional enka songs originated in enzetsuka had been passed on to the folk songs.
(It is also thought that kayo kyoku songs using yona nuki scale and kobushi were given the name 'enka' after enzetsuka came to be called 'folk' instead of enka.)

Movie star Ken TAKAKURA debuted as a singer around that time, and Saburo KITAJIMA, Yukio HASHI, Harumi MIYAKO, Mina AOE, Kiyoko SUIZENJI, Masao SEN, Shinichi MORI, Keiko FUJI, Sachiko KOBAYASHI (debuted when she was only 10 years old), and comic band-turned groups including Shiro MIYA and Pinkara Trio and Tonosama Kings also emerged.

Composers, such as Masao KOGA who switched from hit songs, Tadashi YOSHIDA, Kosho INOMATA, Toru FUNAMURA, Shosuke ICHIKAWA, Minoru ENDO who had been a strolling singer, and Masaaki HIRAO converting from rockabilly, and lyricists, such as Rei NAKANISHI, Tetsuro HOSHINO, Tokiko IWATANI, Yoko YAMAGUCHI, and Kohan KAWAUCHI, also appeared. Osho (music)' (King), 'Mina no Shu' (Everyone), 'Itako Gasa,' '365 Ho no March' (The March of 365 Steps), 'Hokkiko' (Return to the North), 'Minatomachi Blues' (Harbourtown Blues), 'Ikebukuro no Yoru' (One Night at Ikebukuro), 'Yawara (music)' (Judo), 'Kanashii Sake,' 'Hakodate no Onna' (Lady of Hakodate), 'Kyodai Jingi,' 'Kaerokana,' 'Yanagase Blues,' 'Isezakicho Blues,' 'Hoshikage no Waltz' (Waltz of Starry Night), and other songs became hits, and enka music, supported by young and old, reached an unprecedented peak. The popularity was split between enka and western music-oriented kayo kyoku (typically sung by singers in Watanabe Entertainment Co., Ltd.).

There is no clear line between enka and kayo kyoku, and some say the difference depends on whether a singer (and record company, etc.) says 'I am an enka singer.'
For example, although Munetaka INOUE and his Sharp Five sang a doenka-bushi song titled Tabigarasu Rock (Wanderer's Rock) at a time of group sounds, they are often thought not to be enka singers.

In the 1970s, Hiroshi ITSUKI, Aki YASHIRO, Masako MORI, Sayuri ISHIKAWA, and Takashi HOSOKAWA appeared. With many hits, including 'Namida no Misao' (Tearful Fidelity), 'Meoto Kagami' (Couple Mirrors), 'Onna no Michi' (Woman's Way), 'Onna no Negai' (Woman's Wish), 'Oyaji no Umi' (Father's Ocean), 'Yokohama Tasogare' (Yokohama Twilight Time), 'Kizudarake no Jinsei' (Life with Bruises), 'Kuchinashi no Hana' (Flower of Gardenia), 'Furusato (Hiroshi ITSUKI)' (Hometown), 'Kassai (Naomi CHIAKI)' (Applause), 'Sensei' (Teacher), 'Kokoro Nokori' (Regret), 'Yosaku' (Yosaku [a popular Japanese name for woodcutters]), 'Funauta' (Sailor's Song), 'Mukashi no Namae de Deteimasu' (Coming out in the Name of Old Days), 'Kita no Yado kara' (From an Inn in the North Country), 'Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyu-geshiki' (Winterscape of the Tsugaru Straits), 'Omoide Zake' (Sake of Memories), 'Kitaguni no Haru' (Spring in the North Country), and 'Yume Oi Zake' (Dream-chasing Sake), enka music developed steadily, competing with folk, new music, and idol songs. Meanwhile collaboration between enka and other genres began, including Shinichi MORI's receiving the Japan Record Award in 1974 for 'Erimo Misaki (Shinichi MORI)' (Cape Erimo) composed by a folk singer Takuro YOSHIDA. Since then, songs which are difficult to divide into enka and other music genres have appeared.

1980s to 1990s
As a karaoke boom started among middle-aged and elderly people from the late 1970s to the 1980s, enka singers who were conscious of easy songs to sing in karaoke, such as Takashi HOSOKAWA, gained popularity. Writing and marketing of songs for karaoke started. Young peoples increasingly moved away from enka and showed growing preference for pops.

Since the mid-1980s, there has been a growing divergence in the musical tastes of young people those of middle-aged and elderly people. TV song programs were made separately for young people and middle-aged and elderly people, leading to the time when it was difficult to create hit songs that everyone of all ages knew. Young people also became fascinated with karaoke and writing and marketing of Japanese pop songs for karaoke started too. Enka music had been supported by only middle-aged and elderly people and it became harder for singers with powerful voices and outstanding vocal ability, such as Saburo KITAJIMA, and unique singers with distinctive quality of voice and vocalization, such as Shinichi MORI, to display their talents as people had valued easy songs for amateurs to sing in karaoke, and thus enka music had less TV exposure. As a result, enka music began gradually to get conservative and decline.

Some mid-level singers, such as Natsuko GODAI, Fuyumi SAKAMOTO, Kaori KOZAI, and Ayako FUJI, debuted and created hits in such times, from the 1980s to the early 1990s. Music moguls also proved themselves alive and well, such as Chiyoko SHIMAKURA with 'Jinsei Iroiro' (Various Lives) and Hibari MISORA with 'Kawa no Nagare no Yoni' (Like the Flow of the River).

Ikuzo YOSHI, Yoko NAGAYAMA, and other singers who shifted from other genres to enka music, Takao HORIUCHI who switched from new music to enka music, and hit-making singers with their own style, such as Eunsook KYE who sang pops-like enka songs, had appeared and a new genre named 'new adult music' also emerged.

Major hits included 'Ame no Bojo' (Longing in the Rain), 'Omae to Futari' (Together with You), 'Osaka Shigure,' 'Michinoku Hitoritabi' (Solitary Journey to Michinoku), 'Okuhida Bojo' (Longing in Okuhida), 'Sazanka no Yado,' 'Kyodai Bune,' 'Hisame' (Chilly Rain), 'Musume Yo,' 'Kitasakaba,' 'Yagiri no Watashi (Takashi HOSOKAWA)' (Yagiri Ferry), 'Nagaragawa Enka' (Nagara-gawa River Song), 'Tsugunai' (Compensation), 'Toki no Nagare ni Mi wo Makase' (Yielding Myself to the Flow of Time), 'Suzume no Namida' (Tears of Sparrow), 'Yume Onna' (Dreaming Woman), 'Yuki Guni' (Snow Country), 'Sake Yo,' 'Yuki Tsubaki' (Snow Camellia), 'Inochi Kurenai' (Crimson Life of Passion), 'Koi Uta Tsuzuri' (Writing a Love Song), 'Murasaki Ujo'(Purple Rain), 'Kokoro Zake' (Sake of the Heart), 'Yozakura Oshichi' (Oshichi under the Cherry Blossoms in the Night), 'Higurashi' (An Evening Cicada), 'Chindo Monogatari' (A Story of Jindo).

In the course of gradual decline, enka music was being subdivided to give rise to new genres within it. Years after the mid-1990s, however, saw severer deterioration of the enka genre, and it became unusual for new enka CDs to become hits and sell as many as hundreds of thousands of copies in the late 1990s.

With the big success of 'Mago' by Itsuro OIZUMI and 'Hakone Hachiri no Hanjiro' by Kiyoshi HIKAWA in 2000, enka music enjoyed a big boom for the first time in years, altough it did not last long. This success, however, could not change the previous evaluation for songs themselves significantly, as 'Mago' became a hit among middle-aged and elderly people of similar age with Oizumi or older and Kiyoshi HIKAWA, who was popular even among teens and 20s, attracted young people with his outstanding looks for an enka singer.

At the same time, enka singers are increasingly releasing songs with pops in mind, such as 'Himawari' (Sunflower) (became a hit in 2002; produced by Masaharu FUKUYAMA) by Kiyoshi MAEKAWA. Therefore, many songs have come to extend beyond traditional enka genre boundaries, and the name of the genre is changing from enka to enka kayo kyoku.

There were once only a single or a few high-profile new enka singers who debuted each year, but the number is increasing to four to five. In addition, as the overall sales of J-POP, which had ranked high, slowed down, more enka songs are making it high up in the ranking on the whole.

JERO whose debut song 'Umiyuki' (Ocean Snow) became a hit in 2008 attracted attention as a first black enka singer and his enka singing in a Japanese hip-hop 2008-style fashion attracts interest and becomes a hit.

Moreover, singers with unique styles, such as Nezumi Senpai and Yu MIZUKI, have emerged. Chadha who was once an Indian enka singer came to Japan again to resume his music career, inspired by JERO's success.

Current cachet

It is undeniable that the genre is now strongly recognized as the one for only old generations in their 50s to 60s, and younger generation fans are far outnumbered. Hachiro KASUGA, Michiya MIHASHI, Haruo MINAMI, Hideo MURATA and other male singers who had both individualities and abilities and laid the foundations for new enka genre, and Hibari MISORA who was known as the queen of enka (also known as the 'queen of popular song world') have already passed away, and highly accomplished singers who followed, such as Saburo KITAJIMA, Hiroshi ITSUKI and Shinichi MORI, cannot show their abilities to the full. Enka music on the whole continues to slump without creating any big hits after "Mago" by Itsuro OIZUMI and "Hakone Hachiri no Hanjiro" by Kiyoshi HIKAWA. In addition, generations born after the war have listened to western rock music, Japanese folk music, new music, and idol music since the 1960s, and many of them continue to listen to rock and folk songs, without shifting to the enka music, even after hitting middle age. For this reason, enka fans are markedly aging.

Enka music is relatively well known among people in their 30s to 50s and those in the prime of manhood, who spent their boyhood, puberty and adolescence when there was a karaoke boom, due in part to the influence of their parents. They know of the enka music, but they are more likely to avoid listening to and singing it.

Many young people in their teens and 20s do not even know major hit songs and singers exist. But it is also true that there are some enthusiastic fans who enjoy the enka music as a hobby and entertainment.
(The most typical of such fans is Yutaka OE who came into the spotlight in a TV program, was apprenticed to Saburo KITAJIMA, and made his professional debut.)

In an event held in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2007 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Japanese immigration, enka songs, instead of J-pop songs, were performed as Japanese music.
(There are also Japanese-descended enka singers from South America, such as Vanesa OSHIRO and Kanako MINAMI.)
That is one example of how deeply rooted the image that "Japanese music always means enka" is in foreign countries.

Other examples of acceptance of enka music in other countries include the fact that the national anthem and pops of Ethiopia, Africa, are very similar to Japanese enka songs in terms of yona nuki scale and singing style. This is because Ethiopian soldiers who stopped in Japan during the Korean War were impressed by the enka music, studied its characteristics, and introduced these characteristics into their own music. Takashi HOSOKAWA, Harumi MIYAKO, and other Japanese enka singers are also accepted widely in Ethiopia.

These examples imply that the enka music is not just for Japanese people any longer and is spreading worldwide.

Korean enka (trot)

In the Republic of Korea, one of the popular music genres (after the Showa period when the genre turned to the one called "minjung gayo") called trot has been greatly influenced by Japanese enka. The word 'yonga,' the Korean reading of 'enka,' was often used to refer to trot until the Chung-hee PARK administration after the war, but as subsequent anti-Japanese manner movements did not allow the use of the Japanese-derived word enka (yonga), the name trot came to be used exclusively.

Because many enka songs deal with sadness and sorrow of parting, heartbreak, etc., they are usually written in minor keys. Most songs in major keys use the yona nuki scale.

[Original Japanese]