From Abba to enka: how my 10-year-old fell in love with Nineteen Forties Japanese music

Since her father is a longtime music journalist and her mom is a musician, it was inevitable that my 10-year-old daughter would fall in love with music. However I by no means imagined that the music she would fall in love with can be enka.

Enka is usually thought of “conventional” Japanese music – its early roots are within the nineteenth century and most enka singers costume in conventional kimonos. However trendy enka was truly born within the postwar interval of the late Nineteen Forties as Japan was studying about western music from the settling US troops. This so-called “conventional” Japanese style is closely influenced by jazz and the blues, nation, and even rock, with intricate guitar traces fused with the stringed devices shamisen and koto.

Over this extremely numerous mattress of influences, performers sing deeply emotional lyrics based mostly on themes of loss, loneliness, despair, heartbreak and – simply as typically – celebration and pleasure. It’s a mishmash of dozens of sorts of music, and too dramatic to be referred to as straightforward listening. Enka is enka. For readers within the west, the obvious instance can be Kaji Meiko, whose music The Flower of Carnage dramatically soundtracks the beheading of Lucy Liu’s character O-Ren Ishii in Kill Invoice Vol 1.

Fuyumi Sakamoto: Yozakura Oshichi – video

My daughter listens to enka all day, day-after-day. She’s had musical obsessions earlier than, from western artists equivalent to Selena Gomez and Abba to the godawful J-pop digital boyband Strawberry Prince. However her love for enka and postwar “kayokyoku” songs has continued for properly over a yr, with no sign of ending. Her favorite singer is Fuyumi Sakamoto. Now in her mid-50s, Sakamoto has been singing for 35 years, honing her voice to unimaginable sensitivity. Fuyumi-chan, as my daughter endearingly calls her, is able to plumbing the depths of despair or scaling the heights of elation, at all times touching the listener’s coronary heart. It goes with out saying that her target market isn’t kids, however adults who’ve confronted life’s hardships and survived.

Enka’s undisputed queen, the late Hibari Misora, performing at Tokyo Dome in 1988.
Enka’s undisputed queen, the late Hibari Misora, acting at Tokyo Dome in 1988. {Photograph}: Newscom/Alamy

My daughter sings Sakamoto’s songs at karaoke, practises her mannerisms, learns details about her life. On studying that we and Sakamoto shared a mutual musician acquaintance, my daughter wrote her idol a gushing letter to go alongside and acquired an autographed CD in return – which she now carries all over the place she goes. Her bed room partitions are lined in posters and journal clippings of enka stars. She needs to be an enka singer when she grows up. It jogs my memory of me once I was about her age – solely as a substitute of posters of brooding younger rock stars like Kurt Cobain, it’s all girls of their 50s and 60s.

How did my daughter come to fall so closely for a mode of music that’s typically made by and for seniors? We reside in Tokyo and my daughter is half Japanese. Enka has at all times been within the combine on our house stereo – however then so has rock, punk, pop and dance. So why was it enka that caught? “I just like the lyrics of enka songs and the best way the performers sing them,” my daughter explains. Though the themes of enka songs are usually fairly mature, she says she is ready to relate to them: “The way in which the singers categorical the lyrics makes the deeper meanings simpler to know.”

Curiously, enka is discovering methods to attach with youthful audiences. Yearly on New Yr’s Eve in Japan, nationwide broadcaster NHK produces a five-hour reside music present within the countdown to midnight referred to as Kohaku Uta Gassen – the 2022 edition was watched by about 20m households nationwide. The lineup is usually made up of the yr’s pop hits, however there may be at all times a sprinkling of enka, which means that youthful generations are uncovered to it whether or not they prefer it or not.

And in the course of the pandemic, some enka stars, out of the blue unable to carry out for big teams of outdated of us, went on-line to achieve their viewers. Amongst them, megastar Sachiko Kobayashi – often known as “Final Boss” due to her larger-than-life performances and insanely outlandish outfits akin to the usually extravagant garb worn by the final bosses confronted in lots of laptop video games – started her new profession as a YouTuber, making meme-filled movies designed to attraction to a youthful viewers. And it labored – with movies the place this high-class star makes fish-out-of-water visits to McDonald’s, tries a part-time job in a bakery, or undertakes the Mentos cola challenge with explosive outcomes, Kobayashi’s channel has amassed 165,000 subscribers.

Sachiko Kobayashi goes to McDonald’s – video

Just a few weeks in the past, my spouse and I took our daughter to see the fiftieth anniversary live performance of prime enka singer Sayuri Ishikawa. In a sea of seniors, my daughter was the one child there. However Ishikawa shocked us all midway via the live performance by inviting the 46-year-old Japanese rapper Kreva on stage to carry out a few songs collectively. Ishikawa has worked with Kreva before alongside tattooed rocker Miyavi, in addition to alternative pop icon Sheena Ringo and ex-Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman, however it was cool to see with our personal eyes how enka is embracing extra trendy types of music and adapting with the instances.

My daughter has began to affect her classmates to take heed to enka, and he or she encourages Guardian readers to take a look at Fuyumi Sakamoto, Sayuri Ishikawa and enka’s undisputed queen, the late Hibari Misora, for a starter schooling on this most uniquely Japanese style of music. “I’ll take heed to enka for the remainder of my life,” she says – and I consider her.

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