On Appreciating Enka

Like many of the Japanese arts, enka does not lend itself to immediate grasp by outsiders.  The singers are usually middle-aged, and sport some sort of formal attire, agnostically either Japanese or western style.  The music is an odd mashup of big band, Latin, pop and traditional sounds.  The big orchestras and overwrought crooning suck any subtlety out of the enterprise.  But the lyrics inhabit that delicious space where a few key words – usually historical or geographic allusions – are able to conjure up entire scenes, if only in the minds of a native audience.

It’s an easy mistake to put enka in the box of traditional music, as if so many folk songs had nothing better to do but dress up and join the big band era.  But enka is thoroughly modern and is, in fact, a specific reaction to the massive social upheaval that occurred after the war, when the country went through its second prolonged period of economic expansion. In many ways it reflects the unique Japanese experience of alienation in the marxist sense.

The post-war boom drew an unprecedented number of young people out of the countryside and into the cities, fracturing families and destabilizing traditional village life.  Millions of Japanese learned for the first time to live in apartment blocks, wear neckties and have bosses.  In the early years of growth money was tight even in the city, and the young workers could not often afford the time or the fare to return to the villages for regular visits.  The cities had phone service long before the villages did.  And, to some extent, the workers with new desk jobs in the city lost the ability to relate to their families back in the village, where their ancestors may have farmed the same plot of land for many centuries. Japan’s Confucian family values system heaped guilt on these first generation city dwellers – for having left the village in the first place, and for having left regular contact with their families.  Enka is one way of expiating this guilt.

And so enka generally treads within this narrow range of themes.  There is the girl left behind in the village – what ever happened to her?  A longing to return to the village paired with the painful realization that things will never be the same.  The traditional way of life is romanticized and objectified at the same time that the impossibility of return is recognized.

And there are new things about the city – a looser social structure, quick gains, and new ways to pursue love and romance free of old strictures.

Here is a good example of this typical form of enka – Takashi Hosokawa’s “Bokyou Jonkara.” He misses his hometown in the Northeast, with its brutal winters and consistent way of life.  Exuberant memories of childhood games, family music making and drinking with dad are interspersed with the bitter reality of life alone in the city and his many years of neglect to write or visit.