Here are some of my thoughts about enka in bullet point style:
– Yano’s book is great. I haven’t finished it, but I’ve read the introduction, the chapter on the history of enka, her analysis of the frequency of words, and parts on the gender roles in enka. My only beefs so far are that the book uses romaji instead of kanji (which is how academia does it, I get it, but always feels disrespectful of the original language) and that her look at frequency of words does not include verbs. The nouns she examines are useful on their own and provide some interesting analysis. Including verbs would adjust the rankings quite a bit, and I’d be curious to see how so. For a more detailed look at the book, be sure to check out Tokyo Damage Report’s detailed review.
– Here are some verbs I think would get included in the list: しみる (shimiru, penetrate, permeate), つのる (tsunoru, grow stronger), 許す (yurusu, permit, allow), 逢う (au, meet), 泣く (naku, cry), 飲む (nomu, drink), 降る (furu, fall), 枯れる (kareru, wither), すがる (sugaru, cling to, rely on), 滲む (nijimu, blur), 生きる (ikiru, live), 死ぬ (shinu, die), 帰る (kaeru, go home, return), 誓う (chikau, swear, pledge), 抱く (daku, embrace), 酔う (you, get drunk), 耐える (taeru, endure), 行く (iku, go), 捨てる (suteru, throw away, dump).
– Enka, as Yano notes, “has been reconstructed to invoke ‘tradition.’” This is a pretty wide tangent for the second bullet point, but here it goes: I think what enka has done for Japan is very comparable to what country music has done in the United States. Country music has been codified and formulated much in the same way that enka has, and I think it even has it’s own vocal stylings much in the same way that enka has kobushi.
In terms of nationalism, though, I’m thinking in particular of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” which has made me throw up in my mouth a little since I first heard it at summer camp in 1994, in particular the line “I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free.” Where to start with this line. First, “American” isn’t a place, so modifying it with “where” is just wrong. Second, the “at least” has always bothered me. At least you’re free? It’s always felt to me that this line sweeps anything knocked down in pursuit of freedom under the carpet. Sure, there’s a bunch of terrible shit, but at least we’re free.
–One non-shitty country western thing before we return to enka: A classic example of country western kobushi (aka “twang”): Wayne Hancock’s “Thunderstorms and Neon Signs.”
I think this twang was probably first introduced (or at least perfected) by Hank Williams. It’s also interesting to note that this song came out in 1995! It sounds like it could be much older, and the sepia-toned album cover supports the idea that some country, like enka, is a modern music designed to seem much older and more traditional:
– Ok. Back to normal stuff. All enka songs begin with a 10-30 second instrumental section which allows the emcee to give a quick intro of the performer and describe the effect the song has had on the populace. This also gives singers a moment to greet the audience and fellow performers and to gracefully position themselves in preparation to sing.
– It’s interesting that the top five songs are from 1978 and earlier and that the top two are from the 1972-1973 period when enka as a genre was first getting defined. I think this is why you see Miya Shiro and Nagata Atsushi of the Tonosama Kings both make use of an almost painfully undulating kobushi: this is when the elements of the genre were put into place, and these two may have put kobushi right up at the top.
– The best way to learn enka: Buy a couple “Best of” CDs for a handful of artists and then force yourself to listen to listen to them over and over. Keep them in your car or load them on your smart phone. You’ll be surprised how quickly you gather the subtleties of the songs.
– Check out this very detailed Japanese write-up about how to get better at karaoke. It includes advice to get over any コンプレックス (complexes) you might have, humming along with songs to learn them, and practicing higher key songs so that you can train your vocal chords.
– I was surprised by how much “I’d die for you!” there was in enka, and I was tempted to call it unique to enka, but it most definitely isn’t. The country western song “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” for example:
This song seems to mirror the story behind Yamamoto Jōji’s song みちのくひとり旅 (Michinoku hitori tabi, Solo journey to Michinoku). A man longs for a dead lover and can only give up his love/reunite with the love in death.
– I think that’s just about all I’ve got. Do you have any favorite enka songs? Share them in the comments here or on social media. I’ve got a list I’ve been keeping from karaoke sessions with coworkers. I’m not sure what if anything I’ll do with it, but it’s always nice to learn new songs you didn’t know about.
Quick Take: Ah yes, the elusive 人の妻 (hito no tsuma, other person’s wife), given in some lyrics as 他人の妻. The hito no tsuma is one of the most attractive tropes in Japanese culture (the world?). This song seems to imply that the narrator is sleeping with someone else’s wife, but only for the night, in the titular 宿 (yado, lodge), which is presumably covered by camelias. I don’t have much to say about Okawa, unfortunately, other than that the kobushi power seems to get stronger as we head toward the top ranked songs.
Difficulty: 8. Lots of kobushi, but maybe not impossible to pull off.
9. 北国の春 (Kitaguni no haru; Northern Country Spring), 千昌夫 (Sen Masao), 1977 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: A 季節 (kisetsu) song that highlights the countryside and how the seasons there are superior than in Japanese cities. So obviously the solution is to 帰る (kaeru, go back) to the 故郷 (furusato, home town). Each verse here has a similar structure: list three seasonal weather phenomena/locations, tell some very short story about the countryside (e.g. “Haven’t seen a girl I broke up with five years ago, we were never able to tell each other we loved each other”), then the サビ (sabi, hook) of “maybe I should go home.” Subtitled version here.
Difficulty: 5. Sen has a deep enough voice that this one seems accessible.
Quick Take: This is definitely disco-era enka. And I can dig it. It’s a drinking song, a breakup song. So of course there’s another appearance of 未練 (miren, lingering affection, regrets, attachment), which naturally only get worse the more you drink. And there’s the killer line in each verse: おもいで酒に酔うばかり(Omoide-zake ni yō bakari, The liquor of nostalgic remembrances only gets ya drunk). I may have been loose with my translation. Clearly the implication here is that you shouldn’t think too much about the past, that *memories* get you *drunk*.
Difficulty: 9. Massive kobushi attack. This isn’t so apparent from the studio version, but live versions are full of wavering notes. It seems like the song overall is in a lower pitch, but I’m sure this one would be challenging.
7. 北の宿から (Kita no yado kara; From a Northern Inn), 都はるみ (Miyako Harumi), 1975 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: The highest female enka singer in the rankings, Miyako has three in the top 50 (both songs about しぐれ, strangely, at 36 and 11). From the beginning of the song, we know who it’s addressing: あなたは変わりはないですか (Anata wa kawari wa nai desu ka, How are things with you?). This is a great example of why karaoke is such good study practice. This was her third million-seller and clearly she hit the jackpot. The song varies from calm and collected death threats (あなた死んでもいいですか？, Anata shinde mo ii desu ka?, Could you go ahead and die?) to soaring take on 未練 (miren), which in this song define a woman’s heart.
Difficulty: 8. Maybe not quite as difficult to reproduce as Kobayashi’s voice above, but challenging nonetheless.
Quick Take: I get it, but I don’t like it: This is a four-and-a-half-minute snoozefest, but it hits all the enka tropes: an isolated area of Japan that receives heavy precipitation and is known for hot springs; the perfect place to lay up for a while and meet a side lad/lady or just yearn over stuff in general. Perfect setting for an enka song with the chorus line 奥飛騨に雨が降る (Okuhida ni ame ga furu, It rains in Okuhida). And, damn, check out that title. It’s a kanji nerd’s dream. Ryū grew up in Gifu, and the Hida area of that prefecture is the setting of the song. This is another debut song, making it one of three debuts in the top six, I believe.
Difficulty: 9. So slow and so much kobushi throughout makes this one a tough one to get through.
Quick Take: Nakajō was featured on the Gaki no tsukai batsu game in 2014. He performed a semi-duet with comedian Tomochika. Nakajō’s appearance alone was enough to make the Gaki no tsukai team laugh. Nakajō has an interesting background. After two failed “debuts,” he ran a snack bar in Tokyo and eventually appeared on a show that seems a lot like American Idol and won. One of the judges from that show gave him a new stage name and wrote him this song. The song itself is pretty typical: the narrator smokes a cigarette and finally understands the lies that his lover told him. This seems like it would be a fun (but difficult) one to sing, especially the rotating サビ (sabi, hook) which describes various lies, beginning with 哀しい嘘のつける人 (kanashii uso no tsukeru hito, people who tell sad lies). I think I would really enjoy exaggerating the final 人 for comedic effect (つけるヒーーーーーートーーーーー!).
Difficulty: 9. There are a couple of tough kobushi parts with faster lines that are borderline spoken word. I’d love to be able to sing this one, but alas.
Quick Take: Two in the Top Ten for Sen Masao. This song proves once and for all that enka is country music and vice versa. Not really, of course, but this is a sad song and captures a lot of the tropes: the Starlight Waltz is the song the narrator sings while breaking up with someone. And this is despite admitting that he still likes the person: 今でも好きだ / 死ぬほどに (Ima de mo suki da / shinu hodo ni, I still love her now / so much that I would die). This basically defines the enka theme of unfulfillable, impossible love. It’s worth tracking down a young Sen singing this song when he was at the height of his vocal powers.
Difficulty: 8. Slow songs are harder than fast songs, and this one is particularly slow.
Quick Take: This song takes advantage of the most frequently used karaoke word: 夢 (yume, dream). Basically it’s a simple song of heartbreak, shown by the very fun サビ (sabi, hook) : あなた／なぜなぜ／私を捨てた (Anata naze naze watashi o suteta, Why oh why did you break up with me). Easy language for beginner students to understand, and the music is super catchy.
Difficulty: 8. This is probably one of those songs that’s hard to sing well, but maybe within reach for some of us?
2. なみだの操 (Namida no misao; Loyalty of Tears), 殿さまキングス (Tonosama Kings), 1973 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: Just another song about a heartbroken woman who just wants to be beside her man and is willing to die if she can’t. I wasn’t sure if the song was sung from a man’s point at the beginning, but I think the 女だから (onna da kara, because I’m a woman) is a pretty clear hint that the narrator is a woman, despite the fact that the singer is male. The other clues are the わ (wa) particles floating about. Christine Yano confirms this in her book and writes about how the gender roles are often “crossed”: “In effect, what these crossed performances demonstrate is that the cultural imagination places women at men’s (sexual) service, but men at society’s service.” So, yeah…I’m going to go ahead and say this song is a good bit misogynistic. Harumph.
Difficulty: 9. It would be tough to match the nasally voice of the lead singer.
1. 女のみち (Onna no michi; Path of a Woman), 宮史郎とぴんからトリオ (Miya Shiro and the Pinkara Trio), 1972 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: Miya Shiro’s unrivaled kobushi power—and probably his looks: a pencil mustache and slicked back hair—propelled this song to the top of the charts for 16 consecutive weeks in 1972. I’m willing to bet his unique kobushi is what drew listeners to this song. This is another song that appears to be a female narrator sung by a male singer. It isn’t quite as intense as the pledges to die in the song above, but it does include other pledges: 二度としないわ / 恋なんか (Ni do to shinai wa / koi nanka, I won’t do it twice / fall in love).
Difficulty: 10. Do not try this one at home unless you have massive kobushi skills.
So that’s it! If you made it all the way through the week, thanks! I’ll have one more post tomorrow putting together a few of my big-picture thoughts.
20. おやじの海 (Oyaji no umi, My Old Man, the Sea), 村木賢吉 (Muraki Kenkichi), 1979 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: I was skeptical about the title when I first saw it (“Old Man’s Sea”?), but it makes sense once you realize that the song is an ode to the sea and a fisherman’s life (which is linked to Japanese culture through food incredibly strongly). There’s a great example of 愛しい, except in the lyrics I found, it’s given as そんなおやじがいとおしい (Sonna oyaji ga itōshii, That old man is dear to me). Life on the sea is hard, so it’s not surprising that the song ends on 耐えて行く (taete yuku, I will endure it). Not my favorite on this list, but I can see exactly why a song like this would become a hit in the same way that “Wichita Lineman” became a hit in the U.S. This another song that was self-produced and later became a hit after it was played on a Hokkaido radio station.
Difficulty: 10. Lots of kobushi and delicately shifting notes. This one would be a tough one to learn.
19. おまえとふたり (Omae to futari, Together With You), 五木ひろし (Itsuki Hiroshi), 1979 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: This song sounds very similar to Itsuki’s “Yokohama Twilight” which also features a repeated chorus and came in at 46. This song underwhelms me, but the one thing I think it does have going for it is the kind of ironic way that the chorus 幸せを幸せを (shiawase o shiawase o, happiness, happiness) is sung so damn sadly. Other than that it’s all pretty formulaic: forget the past, you’re fine as you are, I won’t leave you again, yada yada. I will give Itsuki some credit though, he has a really precise, delicate voice and hits every note as it’s meant to be sung.
Difficulty: 9. This one would probably be tough because of delicate shifts in notes and rhythm and the need to have some impressive kobushi.
18. 昔の名前で出ています (Mukashi no namae de dete imasu, I’m Working With My Old Name), 小林旭 (Kobayashi Akira), 1975 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: Now here’s an interesting song, precisely because it has a more interesting story behind it, which is explained well at this Yahoo Chiebukuro post. The narrator of the song is actually a woman, despite the fact that the singer is Kobayashi. The narrator has been working at different 酒場 (sakaba, bars) in different cities under different names, but has returned to Yokohama and is using an old name so that hopefully あなた (anata, you) will find her. If you find the right karaoke video, you may see them meet in the end. This song also details ボトルキープ (botoru kīpu, “bottle keep,” i.e. bottle service), in which customers purchase a bottle and put their name on it to keep at the bar. Check out this cool authentic karaoke video.
Difficulty: 6. This one doesn’t seem too bad, although I’d have to give it a shot to know for sure. Kobayashi doesn’t seem to be packing too much kobushi power.
Quick Take: This is a super old school song that Futaba covered in 1971 (on the excellently titled album “Futaba Yuriko’s Ballad Theater of Tears” 『二葉百合子の涙の歌謡劇場』). The song tells the story of mothers who went to the wharf to see if their sons would be among those returned on ships from the Soviet Union where they were being held at the end of the war. The title became the term for those mothers, whose plights must have struck songwriters. This song is so old school that it isn’t even labeled enka on the YouTube clips. You see 歌謡浪曲 (kayō rōkyoku, ballad shamisen song). There aren’t too many enka words in this song because it was written before the formulas were all set, but you do see さだめ (sadame, destiny), which is frequently encountered.
Difficulty: 11. This one also goes to 11. Futaba has intense kobushi, this song is slow, and there’s nowhere to hide.
Quick Take: As if to prove a point about enka vocabulary, this song starts off with さだめ (sadame, destiny/fate) almost immediately: the same destiny links these two people as they decide—決めた (kimeta, I’ve decided) is the repeated chorus here—to travel with each other. The song seems to be making a poetic comparison between 浮き草 (ukigusa, greater duckweed) and the narrator of the song, kind of floating along. This is a nice little song.
Difficulty: 7. If you have the voice range for this, I don’t think it would be too bad. Not too much decorative kobushi.
15. 昭和枯れすすき (Shōwa kare susuki, Withered Shōwa Pampas Grass), さくらと一郎 (Sakura and Ichirō), 1974 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: More death here, due to being persecuted by “the city” (街, machi) and “society” (世間, sekken). The solution: いっそきれいに死のうか (isso kirei ni shinōka, I guess I’ll go ahead and die). The song describes all the ways the narrator(s) have lived life to the fullest and have no 未練 (miren, regrets). They’ve become the titular pampas grass. The studio version of this song is better than some of the live versions I’ve seen, but none of them really strike me that much. Pretty generic enka stuff. Apparently this song blew up after being used in a movie nine months after being released.
Difficulty: 10. Lots of kobushi and kind of strange off-notes, plus you need a partner.
Quick Take: This is yet another enka song that took on a second life after its initial release. It was first put out by Chiaki Naomi as a B-side in 1976 and then as an A-side in 1982 after being used in a TV drama. It seems like a bunch of folks covered this song that year (including Misora Hibari and Fuji Keiko, whose versions are worth seeking out). Hosokawa’s version is, I think, the best selling of them. This song seems to benefit from singers with a wide vocal range, so female singers who can hit low notes like Misora or male singers who can hit the high notes like Hosokawa. The song itself concerns a couple in love, running away together. There are dueling quoted lines at the start of each verse that could make for a nice duet. And again we get the idea of destiny, left up to nature in this case: 船にまかせろさだめです (fune ni makasero sadame desu, Leave our fate up to the boat). I generally don’t like slow enka, but this one has enough of a story and is pretty nice.
Difficulty: 9. Hosokawa shows off the full range of his vocals in this delicate song. Impressive. And probably damn hard to match. Also some tricky rhythmic sections.
13. 港町ブルース (Minato machi burūsu, Port Town Blues), 森進一 (Mori Shin’ichi), 1969 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: This is Mori Shin’ichi’s bestselling single. Mori is old school, and you can hear the influence of rock and roll in this song. It feels like this is right before enka got codified in a way that resulted in the sound you hear above with Hosokawa. The song is good, though, and it highlights the importance of 港 (minato, ports) in Japanese culture/mindset. The song has a few port images, but the main part, and I think the appeal, is the way it lists out a number of small port towns, such as Hakodate, Miyako, Kamaishi, and even Kessennuma. Here’s an older version worth checking out.
Difficulty: 9. Mori’s vocals are tough to cover. He’s got a voice.
Quick Take: This is a pretty straightforward enka song that’s a simple praise of the titular grandchildren. No classic enka vocab words here. There are some nice sentences and words in there for students of the language, though. One word that was interesting to me was えびす顔 (ebisu-gao, lit. “Ebisu face” i.e. smiling face). I’m a little surprised this song is so high in the ranking.
Difficulty: 7-8? Anything this slow with kobushi is pretty tough.
Quick Take: Here’s one word I haven’t mentioned yet: ネオン (neon, neon). This word generally refers to the lights of red light districts, in this case in Osaka. Here it’s combined with しみる (shimiru, blur), which is what happens to the lights when the narrator of the song cries. Pretty generic enka type stuff (“If I’m enough, you can have me,” “Happiness, yada yada”) with some call outs for Osaka landmarks. Became a million seller. This is a nice version, just unsubtitled, or I would have embedded it above.
30. 圭子の夢は夜ひらく (Keiko no yume wa yoru hiraku, Keiko’s Dreams Blossom at Night), 藤 圭子 (Fuji Keiko), 1970 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: This is another nice song from Fuji Keiko with a lot of narrative qualities to it. She starts by talking about how her life was dark when she was younger but that despite this she’s had her dreams which blossom at night. Love is fleeting (especially the idiots she dated when she was younger), dreams last. 未練 (miren, regrets/unfulfilled love) makes another appearance here, but she claims to not have had it when she was younger and sillier. The next line then suggests that those who don’t forget will keep their dreams…an interesting take. This feels like a much more confident woman in this song, which doesn’t play into stereotypes, so it’s sad to note Fuji committed suicide in 2013, according to the English Wikipedia page. Life is hard, especially for women in Japan.
Difficulty: 7. This feels more difficult than 女のブルース.
29. 花街の母 (Kagai no haha, Red-light District Mother), 金田たつえ (Kanada Tatsue), 1973 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: This one is a little tricky for me to understand, but from what I make of it, a mother is supporting her daughter by performing as a geisha. She hopes to see the daughter married because バカにされても夢がある (baka ni sarete mo yume ga aru, I have dreams even if you make fun of them/me). There’s an appearance of 幸せ (shiawase, happiness) in its full kanji form 幸福, which you see a lot in enka songs. I’m not really feeling this song. It’s slow and feels like maybe it’s a throwback to older enka. There’s interesting info on Japanese Wikipedia: apparently Kanada worked hard to put out the song on her own somehow, but it didn’t become a big hit until six years later when it got her into the Kohaku Uta Gassen.
Difficulty: 9. The ups and downs on this one feel pretty unique. It would be difficult to master.
Quick Take: I’m pumped to see this one on the list because it’s in my repertoire. I’m not sure where I first heard it, but I have memories of one of my roommates in Tokyo singing it. It’s a great example of constructed nostalgia in enka. The theme of the song is 北の酒場通り (kita no sakabadōri, street of bars in the north). The lyrics go on to discuss the type of people that do well there and how you can charm people. There’s the classic enka line 女を酔わせる恋がある (onna o yowaseru koi ga aru, There’s love that will intoxicate women). Nope, nothing sketchy sounding about that! To be fair, the men don’t have it easy either: 男を泣かせる歌がある (otoko o nakaseru uta ga aru, There are songs that make men cry). Fun song.
Difficulty: 5. Hosokawa’s voice is higher than it appears which can make this song difficult, but it’s not dripping with kobushi. Give it a shot.
Quick Take: Here we have another weather phenomenon standing in poetically for the emotions of the people in the song. And those feelings are immediately apparent from the first line of the song: 飲ませてください (nomasete kudasai, let me drink). This is a fantastic song for beginner/intermediate students because most of the lyrics are very normal grammatical constructions. There are lots of imperatives and a great ないわけじゃない (nai wake janai, it isn’t that I don’t X) phrase. The song itself is simple: the narrator is drinking to try and forget the person he loved who broke up with him.
Difficulty: 8. Kayama’s voice is pretty high, and there seem to be some tricky notes/rhythm sections. But this could be worth it for the grammatical study and because it’s a fun/sad drinking song.
Quick Take: Ashiya sets the theme immediately: 嫁に行く日が来なけりゃいいと (yome ni yuku hi ga konakerya ii to, [I think] it would be nice if the day you marry never comes). While the dad in the song is bitter at first, he eventually wishes his daughter well, tells her to take care, as she goes to live with her husband. The rest of the song consists of memories of the daughter and a spoken section that could double as a wedding speech. I can imagine the tens of thousands of Japanese fathers who have bawled this song at karaoke. Check out this authentic karaoke video to imagine how this might play at your average night out in Japan.
Difficulty: 7. Nothing to hide behind in this sparse song. You’d have to have your kobushi game on point.
Quick Take: A traveler’s song. The narrator has been gossiped about and 耐えてきた (taete kita, put up with it), but has decided to set out from the most nostalgic and idyllic of Japanese locations—港町 (minato machi, port town)—early the next morning. The word for gossiped/talked about is pretty interesting: 後ろ指 (ushiro yubi, back finger?). This one doesn’t feel quite as fun and festive as 北酒場, but I guess that’s probably because it’s a lonelier song. This is probably higher in the rankings because it was Hosokawa’s debut song. For a video with subtitles, look here.
Difficulty: 8. Hosokawa gets some pretty soaring vocals in here. That and the rhythm would probably make this one more difficult.
Quick Take: This one feels formulaic as all hell. I guess all of these songs are pretty damn formulaic, but this is just another take on “even though times are rough, I can get by with you around, and let’s drink some sake and forget everything.” The サビ (sabi, hook) here is 飲む (nomu, to drink) + ほす (hosu, drink up) = 飲みほしましょうか (nomihoshimashōka, shall we drink it all up).
Difficulty: 7. Seems kind of standard difficulty level. Slight kobushi, a couple of rhythm tricks, notably on the hook.
Quick Take: There’s something about the last few songs (or maybe enka in general?) and raising the stakes so intensely with the first line, and this song may take the cake: たとえ死んでもいいわ / あなたのためなら (Tatoe shinde mo ii wa / anata no tame nara, I’d be fine dying / if it was for you). The narrator spends the rest of the song outlining the ways in which he will not be a burden to his love, connected to the theme of the mirror…I think in the couple’s place.
Difficulty: 9. Lots of kobushi here, although I was unable to find an original studio version or a live version from the ‘70s, only the singer doing a version later on. It would be cool to see a contemporaneous version.
22. 女のねがい (Onna no negai, A Woman’s Wish), 宮史郎とぴんからトリオ (Miya Shiro and the Pinkara Trio), 1972 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: Dang. Totally unable to find an original version of this song, only covers by YouTubers. Miya is a name to remember, and this song is a sequel of sorts to one that we’ll see later on the list. Try the permasearch link to see if any have appeared. I don’t think the cover versions have nearly as much kobushi power as Miya does…he’s kind of in a league of his own. The song itself goes on to describe women who deserve love (women who are grown in the shade, who work at bars, whose tears have dried up, etc.) and a kind of love. This line describes it best: ひそかに愛をささげてみたい (Hisoka ni ai o sasagete mitai, I want to devote my love secretly). The strange thing is that this is contrasted with “love at first sight.” This song is basically a big fat mansplain.
Difficulty: Going to give this a 10 out of respect for Miya.
21. みちのくひとり旅 (Michinoku hitori tabi, Solo Journey to Michinoku), 山本譲二 (Yamamoto Jōji), 1980 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: Again with the dying: This song starts with a line about how it would be nice to die with you here together. Over the course of the song it becomes clear (I think?) that the person being addressed, an お前 (omae, you) who is the “last woman” for him, has already died, so they must 夢でも逢えるだろう (yume demo aeru darō, we’ll be able to meet in our dreams). This makes me think that the “solo journey” from the title is a code word for death? One word that gets used a bunch here is つのる (tsunoru, to become stronger), in this case in reference to 未練 (miren, lingering affection/attachment) and いとしさ (itoshisa, loveliness). For a subtitled version, look here.
Difficulty: 7. Yamamoto has a really controlled voice and kobushi that seems like it might be replicable, but not too easily.
Quick Take: This is a take on a hometown song. Someone is being called back to their hometown, having forgotten the 誓った恋 (chikatta koi, love that she promised) before leaving for life in Tokyo. This is also a super short song, clocking in at under two minutes in some versions. Matsumura debuted with this song and drew attention for her long hair and playing the shamisen.
Difficulty: 10. Soaring vocals and kobushi make this song tough for all but the best singers. Plus you need to rock the shamisen for maximum authenticity.
39. 恋唄綴り (Ko-uta tsuzuri, Orthography [?] of a Love Song), 堀内孝雄 (Horiuchi Takao), 1990 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: This is a nice little song about love songs and all the feels associated with them. Strong use of あんた (anta, you) here by Horiuchi, and again a reminder that 逢 > 会 when it comes to karaoke. I believe this is also our first encounter with 時雨 (shigure, drizzle), which feels like a classic karaoke/poetry word. And as always, there’s never enough booze to drown your sorrows: 飲めば飲むほど淋しいくせに (nomeba nomu hodo sabishii kuse ni, I’m lonely no matter how much I drink).
Difficulty: 4. This one doesn’t seem so bad. There are a couple of rhythmically tricky spots, but otherwise
Quick Take: This is a pretty intense old school, star-crossed lovers enka song. The pace is slow, and the intensity of the feelings are intense enough to warrant the English translation of this song rendered by Wikipedia: “My flaming Emotions.” This doesn’t appear to be the official translation, as best I can tell. I think the title puns on 紅 (kurenai, crimson/red) and the other meaning for kurenai (won’t you give me? [?]). There’s lots of “I only need you to live” type lyrics and claims that the narrator and partner are 結ばれていた (musubarete ita, linked). Not my favorite song, but I can respect it for what it is—a call back to some of the original enka music.
Difficulty: 10. There’s nothing to hide behind with this one. You’ve got to hold and kobushi every note, basically.
37. 逢わずに愛して (Awazu ni ai shite, Love without meeting), 内山田洋とクールファイブ (Uchiyamada Hiroshi and the Cool Five), 1969 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: I’m so glad these guys are on the list. The first time I went to Japan, some of the Rotary Club members taught me a few of their songs and I came home with a Cool Five CD, which I subsequently listened to enough times that I can sing most of it. But not this song! I recognize the song, but I’ve never sung it. The lyrics are pretty generic love song stuff, this time with a focus on the title and the idea that absence/distance makes the heart grow fonder. You see the word 枯れる (kareru, wither) early on, which is in a lot of enka songs: 涙枯れても夢よ枯れるな (namida karete mo yume yo kareru na, Even if my tears dry up, my dreams will never fade). You can hear some of the 50s doo-wop roots in these songs (notably in the backup singers) and see it in their outfits on album covers. Some other recommendations: 長崎は今日も雨だった (Nagasaki wa kyō mo ame datta, Nagasaki Was Rainy Again Today), 東京砂漠 (Tokyo sabaku, Tokyo Desert), 西海ブルース (Saikai burūsu, Saikai Blues).
It’s interesting to note that Wikipedia labels the band a 歌謡グループ (kayō grūpu, popular song group). They debuted in 1969, right around the point when enka became a term for a genre and incorporated kayōka songs.
Difficulty: 5. The lead vocalist Maekawa Kiyoshi has a pretty deep voice, which makes this more accessible to most of us, but he also has pretty pinpoint tone and kobushi, making it a little more difficult. Still, not all that hard.
36. 浪花恋しぐれ (Naniwa koi shigure, Naniwa Love Shower), 都はるみ・岡千秋 (Miyako Harumi, Oka Chiaki), 1983 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: Our first duet! And of course it’s not very politically correct. Based on what I gather from the lyrics (and please correct me if I’m wrong), the male character is a rakugo artist who drinks too much and makes his wife cry, and the wife supports him and tries not to cry. Here’s the telling line from a little rap that she does after a singing verse: うちはどんな苦労にも耐えてみせます (Uchi wa donna kurō ni mo taete misemasu, I’ll show you that I can handle any adversity). Obviously it’s meant to be a sweet love song, and even he confesses his love throughout, but it’s not a surprise that this song is from the 80s. Apparently the story is based on the life of rakugo performer Katsura Harudanshi and his wife. If you want to read the lyrics, check out this version which cannot be embed.
Difficulty: 10. Not only do you need to find a partner for this song, you both have to be pretty damn skilled in the arts of kobushi to pull this one off, and you need to be able to spit some wicked Kansai-ben.
35. よせばいいのに (Yoseba ii no ni, But it would be nice if you came near), 敏いとうとハッピー＆ブルー (Toshi Itō and Happy and Blue), 1979 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: There’s a lot of self-blame going on in this enka song, as you can tell from the サビ (sabi, hook) in this song: いつまでたってもダメなわたしね (Itsu made tattemo dame na watashi, I’m terrible no matter how much time passes). To my ear, these guys seem like Cool Five knock offs who have swapped their slick doo-wop suits for letterman jackets, but there’s a possibility that I’m biased. I’m also confused whether this song is sung from the male or female perspective, maybe both. At any rate, it amounts to the same thing. Can’t find the love they want, and feels bad for it. Be sure to check out this old school version to get a sense of what they were like.
Difficulty: 8. High pitched and speedy, tough to perform, I’d imagine.
34. 津軽海峡冬景色 (Tsugaru kaikyō fuyu keshiki, A winter scene on Tsugaru Strait), 石川さゆり (Ishikawa Sayuri), 1977 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: This is a nice song with a stronger narrative than many we’ve seen so far: the narrator is leaving Tokyo to return to Hokkaido. She takes the train from Ueno to Aomori and then hops on a boat where she is overwhelmed by the winter scene of the Tsugaru Strait. There are some classic karaoke tropes: 夜行列車 (yakkō ressha, night trains), crying 鷗 (kamome, gulls), かすみ (kasumi, mist) covering the water. And much like a good poem, all of these things stand in for the singer’s feelings before we understand that she’s leaving あなた to go home. There’s a surprisingly extensive English Wikipedia page for the song, which notes that it launched Ishikawa to fame and into the Kohaku Uta Gassen for the first time.
Difficulty: 8. Tough to say with this one. Seems like it might not be too bad, but Ishikawa has some pretty flexible vocals. Could be tricky.
33. 長崎は今日も雨だった (Nagasaki wa kyō mo ame datta, Nagasaki was rainy today, too), 内山田洋とクールファイブ (Uchiyamada Hiroshi and the Cool Five), 1969 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: This is the first enka song I ever learned, and it’s a classic. As mentioned above, I can blame the Rotary Club guys (shout out to Ohiwa-san) for my taste in bad (read: great) karaoke songs. The simple nature of the title makes it a great dad joke if you ever need a cheap laugh and it happens to be rainy in Nagasaki that day. The song itself takes you around Nagasaki city and points out some of its features like 石畳 (ishidatami, flagstones), which also made an appearance above in 逢わずに愛して. 冷たい風が身にしみる (tsumetai kaze ga mi ni shimiru, the cold wind cuts into my body) feels like a pretty classic line, parts of which appear in other songs. 愛し (itoshi) is another enka word, one that I wrote about in Final Fantasy VI. The karaoke videos for this song (at least in Japan) never fail to have excellent shots taken throughout Nagasaki, which you should definitely visit if you haven’t. Beautiful place. And here’s an old version.
Difficulty: 3. If I can sing this one, you can too. Maybe a couple of rhythm sections that are tricky, but not too bad.
Quick Take: I love this song. It’s especially helpful for learning the grammar pattern ですもの (desu mono, because) and for the usage of に (ni) to mark the subject of verbs. The first part of the song is the ways in which being a woman affects how she acts. 女ですもの (onna desu mono, because I’m a woman), she loves, she gets drunk on dreams, she’s alone, nevertheless she persists and survives. The song then (brilliantly!) switches to あなた (anata, you), spelling out what she wants of the guy: あなたにすがりたい (Anata ni sugaritai, I want to be pursued by you) and other things, such as being spoiled and raised up. And in the second half of the song, it switches to describe Tokyo and then life in general: 何処で生きても (doko de ikite mo, wherever you live). The implication being that life is tough, yo.
Interestingly enough, Fuji is the mother of Utada Hikaru!
Difficulty: 4. This seems pretty accessible, possibly because Fuji has a relatively deep voice compared to some female singers.
I don’t remember the first time I learned the word 演歌 (enka), but it was likely the summer of 2002 when I was on a Rotary internship in Okayama. Several members of the Rotary Club were responsible for organizing our activities, and they would take us out at night to all manner of snack bars across the city. We sang American songs, drank beer, ate 柿ピー (kaki pii, peanuts and crackers), and listened to them sing Japanese songs. I have very distinct memories of two of them performing 旅姿三人男 (Tabi sugata sannin otoko, Three Men in Traveling Clothes).
Gradually, over the course of two months, a few of the songs made their way into our heads, and at our farewell dinner I performed 長崎は今日も雨だった (Nagasaki wa kyō mo ame datta, Nagasaki Was Rainy Again Today).
I went home with an Ishihara Yujiro CD and an Uchiyamada Hiroshi and the Cool Five CD, and I listened to them over and over, especially once I got my first iPod in 2006 when I was on the JET Program. I also picked up a few other songs here and there, listening to friends and town employees sing while on the JET Program, and recently I’ve been doing カラオケ勉強会 (karaoke benkyō kai, karaoke “study meetings”) with coworkers in Chicago. My repertoire is only decent, but I like what I can do.
In an effort to learn more about enka for the JT article, I took a look at the Top 50 Bestselling Enka Songs. This is a list that floats around the internet on several different sites and is supposedly based on Oricon data. Some of the sites have disclaimers at the bottom that it may not be accurate, but it’s interesting and helpful at the very least. I watched all 50 and wrote up my thoughts. I’ll post ten of them each day this week in descending order, starting today. Each write-up will include my toasty hot take, a difficulty rating, and a link to a “permasearch” on YouTube. Many of the music videos for these songs will likely be taken down for copyright violations, but you can use the permasearch link to search for the songs on YouTube, which will hopefully reveal new versions or at least covers by amateurs.
Without further ado, here are 50 through 41:
50. 雨の慕情 (Ame no bojō, Yearning in the rain), 八代亜紀 (Yashiro Aki) – 1980 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: The narrator of the song pleads with the rain to bring her the man (well, not technically a man, but an いい人[ii hito, nice person]) she misses. This is a nice song for language learners. There are lots of simple adjectives (憎い, 恋しい, 嫌い) used in repetition and the great example of of imperative in the chorus 雨雨降れ降れもっと降れ (ame ame hure hure motto fure, Rain rain, fall fall, fall more and more). Overall the language is relatively simple. As with many Japanese songs, Yashiro has very specific dance moves that go along with the chorus.
Difficulty: 4. Pretty straightforward. If I was a woman or had a higher voice, I might be singing this song regularly.
Quick Take: You know this song is going to be great from the title alone, which means barstool/perch. As you can tell from the video, it’s about a woman sitting at her barstool, wanting to follow after a person who won’t face her. It’s got some great lines like お酒でごまかす / このさびしさを (Osake de gomakasu / kono sabishisa o, I’ll conceal it with liquor, this sadness) that help show an inverted direct object. Great song.
Difficulty: 7. Some definite 小節 (kobushi, undulating melodic ornamentation or embellishment) present, but it’s not over the top.
Quick Take: I’m not sure you can get a simpler yet more powerful enka title unless you dig deep into the archives (酒は涙か溜息か, for example?): tearful love. The song is set in the back alleys of Shinjuku…in the rain…with the blossoms of flowers (presumably cherries?) falling. This is Japanese soul music. According to enka, the best (but saddest) love is illicit love which requires you to 忍び逢う(shinobiau, meet surreptitiously), especially if it involves rain or (in the case of Ishihara Yujiro) 夜霧 (yogiri, night fog). Yashiro is notable as the first female enka singer to have seven top 10 singles on the Oricon charts. Japanese Wikipedia notes that she was uncomfortable with her “husky” voice at first but gained confidence after hearing American singer Julie London.
Difficulty: 8.5. Yashiro breaks out more of the kobushi in the song than she did in 雨の慕情.
Quick Take: This is another powerful song of loneliness: A woman, presumably in the countryside, is left on her own (perhaps her partner goes out often?). Because he’s the only person she knows in the town, she’s lonely and crying. It’s the second instance we see of a line similar to 心はかくせない (kokoro wa kakusenai, I can’t hide my soul). It also features the nice contrast between あなたが欲しい (anata ga hoshii, I want you) and あなたを許せない (anata o yurusenai, I can’t forgive you), showing how divided her feelings are as well as the frequent karaoke encounter of anata. Some other great enka lines include: 悲しみがこぼれます/ ひとりじゃ暮らせない (kanashimi ga koboremasu / hitori ja kurasenai, My sadness spills over / I can’t live alone), and the ever useful お酒ください (osake kudasai, alcohol please).
This version on YouTube also has an amazing introduction and features a great set and an Akita pup biting at Kōzai’s fingers.
Difficulty: 6. Some minor kobushi, but nothing over the top. Very accessible lyrics.
Quick Take: Leave it to the first man on the list to sing the laziest song so far: this is basically a list of different evocative karaoke words (kiss, lingering scent, cigarette smoke, Blues, whistling, etc) followed by the chorus あの人は行って行ってしまった (ano hito wa itte itte shimatta, That person has gone, gone away). Apparently this shouldn’t be a surprise: Itsuki went through three failed stage names before breaking it big with this hit. His Japanese Wikipedia page is curiously extensive. [Stroking chin emoji] It’s worth tracking down a version of Itsuki singing this in his prime to understand the effect he must have had on audiences.
Difficulty: 3. Some minor kobushi, but this is a pretty great (if somewhat lame) song for beginners.
45. 長良川艶歌 (Nagaragawa enka, Nagara River Enka), 五木ひろし (Itsuki Hiroshi), 1984 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: Here we are with Itsuki again. This song is much stronger than the previous. Sounds like the narrator is staying at a lodging alongside a river with someone he’d like to be with, a traveller, who’s gone in the morning. Lots of good あなたing in this song, which then goes on to get qualified by some nice phrases like すがってみたい人 (sugatte mitai hito, someone I’d like to follow) and 私を泣かす人 (watashi wo nakasu hito, someone who makes me cry). There are also some poetic lines like 窓に夜明けの風が泣く (Mado ni yoake no kaze ga naku, The dawn wind cries at the window).
One interesting point: note the use of 艶歌 instead of 演歌 in the title. There’s no Yahoo Chiebukuro post for this unfortunately, but there is an Oshiete Goo post, which notes that 艶歌 was used to describe the romantic content of songs whereas 演歌 came from earlier political protest songs. Christine Yano talks about this in her book but doesn’t use kanji, so I have to assume that this is the other character she’s talking about.
Difficulty: 9. This is one of those songs that will sound off if you don’t place the stress and kobushi on each word appropriately.
44. 箱根八里の半次郎 (Hakone hachiri no Hanjirō, Eight-ri Hanjirō of Hakone), 氷川きよし (Hikawa Kiyoshi), 2000 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: This is an epic song that launched Hikawa Kiyoshi’s career and rejuvenated enka as a genre. The alliteration in the title and the callback to classic images of the Japanese countryside are powerful. I have trouble deciphering some of the lyrics, to be honest, but all analysis of the song mentions 股旅物 (matatabimono, wandering life of a gambler), an enka category that hadn’t been sung in a while, and it’s clear that the title character is a shabby, unreliable guy. The dense vocabulary of the song contrasts with the simplicity of the サビ (sabi, hook) – やだねったら、やだね (yada nettara, yada ne, literally “If I say I don’t like it, I don’t like it” although maybe closer to “If I say I don’t wanna, I won’t”?). An interesting Japanese blog post calls the lightness of this song a response to the だらしなさ (darashinasa, slovenliness) of the Heisei era.
You can also see/hear in the video that there are plenty of Kiyoshi fans who love his style as well.
Difficulty: 11. This one goes to 11. Hikawa has mad kobushi skills and a soaring voice. I’ve heard this one imitated poorly too many times, and I may have perpetrated one or two imitations myself. You’ve been warned.
Quick Take: This is a lovely song of unrequited love colored by the purple rain from the title. The narrator won’t follow her love but still has feelings for and memories of him. It’s full of karaoke words like にじむ (nijimu, blur) and しみつく (shimitsuku, stained in). And we can’t forget the absolute classic 未練 (miren, lingering affection/attachment/regrets): むらさき雨、雨に / 遠くかすむ町 / 訪ねた女の未練でしょうか (Murasaki ame ame ni / tōku kasumu machi / tazuneta onna no miren deshō ka, In the purple rain, rain / a misty town in the distance / is this the longing of a woman visiting?).
Difficulty: 4. Pretty straightforward with just some minor kobushi. A very clean and clear karaoke song. What’s not to like.
42. 愛のままで… (Ai no mama de…, Just as love…), 秋元順子 (Akimoto Junko), 2008 PERMASEARCH
Quick Take: This is the most recent hit on the top 50, and perhaps not surprisingly, this song launched Akimoto into the Kōhaku Uta Gassen for the first time in 2008, the oldest debut at 61 years old. To my ear it sounds like a pretty standard love song, a nice one, but nothing too special to recommend it other than some typical karaoke imagery: キャンドル (kyandoru, candle), 偶然 (gūzen, coincidence), 奇跡 (kiseki, miracle). It is notable for the first appearance of 愛しい (itoshii, dear), in this inverted phrase: 他人（だれ）かと比較る幸せなんていらない (dare ka to kuraberu shiawase nante iranai, I don’t need the pleasure of being compared with someone) / あなたの視線が愛しくあれば (anata no shisen ga itoshiku areba, If I have your dear gaze).
Difficulty: 3. A couple of potentially difficult stresses, but the language is pretty accessible and the voicing not so challenging. This one feels like it could be a fun one for many.
Quick Take: Now that’s some fucking enka! I had a feeling I would like this one from the title alone, and the very first line sealed it for me and also does a good job of summarizing the song: 生きてゆくのが辛い日はお前と酒があればいい (ikite yuku no ga tsurai hi wa omae to sake ga areba ii, When days are rough, I’m fine if I have you and alcohol). Kawanaka apparently made a name for herself with this song after failing with a few other singles. I really like the video that I’ve linked—it definitely shows how enka has been used to define Japanese identity. (If the video happens to be down, it showed a couple working at a sushi restaurant, some shots at a fish market, and a visit to a shrine.)
Difficulty: 7. This song is sneaky difficult. There’s more kobushi in there than appears to be in the studio version.