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‘I did it my way’ — ‘Hey, stop! You do it my way ‘cos I wrote the damn song!’

by Philip Brasor

These days, a news report just isn’t a news report without three or four men bowing in front of reporters over some misdemeanor.

Executives from Fujiya, Nikko Cordial, Dai-Nippon Printing and any company that makes those cheap water heaters hanging over your sink have all done it. Last week even the Meteorological Agency apologized for miscalculating the start of the cherry blossom season.

Japan places a premium on the public apology, though some say the reflexive nature of the gesture might prompt doubts about its sincerity. Take enka singer Shinichi Mori, who tried to apologize to lyricist Kohan Kawauchi several weeks ago. Kawauchi effectively rejected the apology by refusing to meet with Mori face-to-face. The incident caused a sensation because of Mori’s position within the world of Japanese popular music and his reputation as a prima donna, but it also pointed to the PR importance of at least making a show of contrition even if no one believes you really feel sorry.

The problem that led to the scandal arose last New Year’s Eve, when Mori performed “Ofukuro-san (Mother)” on NHK’s annual song contest, “Kohaku Uta Gassen.” Kawauchi, who wrote the words, was taken aback. Mori had added a semispoken introduction to the song that he felt contradicted the spirit of his lyrics.

In February, Kawauchi contacted Mori’s management and arranged a meeting with the singer to voice his objection. According to the 87-year-old writer, he was lead to believe that Mori agreed to the meeting, but on the day it was scheduled Mori canceled at the last minute. Kawauchi was furious.

When reporters later asked Mori about Kawauchi’s reaction, the singer became defensive. “I’ve been singing that introduction for 30 years,” he told them. “Maybe it sounds impolite, but I think of ‘Ofukuro-san’ as my song.” The next day he realized how impolite he really did sound and tried to visit Kawauchi at a hotel he was staying at in Tokyo, but the lyricist wouldn’t see him. A week later, Mori tried again by making an impromptu visit to Kawauchi’s home in Aomori Prefecture, and again he was rebuffed. Back at the train station he told an army of reporters that he tried his best to apologize but Kawauchi just wouldn’t let him.

Kawauchi called Mori’s attempts “cheap theater.” How dare he just show up at my door without an appointment! There is a certain protocol for this sort of thing and Mori has revealed his base insincerity by not following it.

The press, of course, was delighted with the way things had developed, having already grown bored with the flap over health minister Hakuo Yanagisawa’s “baby-making machine” apology. As long as neither man budged, the story could play itself out indefinitely: the petulant enka star vs. the imperious elder artist.

It was a standoff that could only have happened in the insulated world of enka. The 59-year-old Mori belongs to that generation of singers who debuted when enka was just emerging as a distinct genre within the larger category of kayokyoku (popular music). Before the ascendance of rock-inspired Group Sounds in the ’60s and the “new music” pop-folk boom of the ’70s, what we now call “enka” was the stylistic norm for most indigenous Japanese pop.

The term codified an overwrought style of singing and lyrical content that was always sentimental and often maudlin. It appealed to people who had come of age either during the war or right after; people who knew hardship and liked nothing better than for a singer to identify with that hardship, no matter how hackneyed the story or how melodramatic the delivery. In fact, the more melodramatic the better. People who don’t appreciate enka say it all sounds the same, but that’s the point. Distinctive melodies or arrangements distract from the performance, during which the singer demonstrates his command of histrionics. Mori is a master of this. He cries genuine tears throughout his concerts. In a sense, he’s right: Every song he sings, he makes his own.

Mori attained superstardom young and much of his popularity sprang from the knowledge that he grew up dirt poor. Kawauchi, who at the time was famous for having written a popular TV series, wrote “Ofukuro-san,” as well as lyrics for other songs, specifically for Mori. Enka singers do not write their own material. As in most traditional arts, they apprentice to sensei (teachers) who are usually songwriters. Kawauchi was Mori’s sensei and defended the singer in a 1972 scandal in which Mori was rumored to have fathered an illegitimate child. Mori had crawled through the dirt to achieve success, Kawauchi wrote in a famous essay for a women’s magazine, and now envious people wanted to pull him back down.

A lot can happen in 30 years and the press has speculated that what really bugs Kawauchi is that Mori has essentially ignored him all this time. He has even threatened to sue his former apprentice for changing his song, and the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors , Composers and Publishers (JASRAC) has said that he can do just that. Writers of musical compositions or lyrics can withhold permission from anyone to perform their work, though they usually don’t since doing so would reduce their income. At his age, Kawauchi has less interest in making money than in preserving what’s left of his legacy — and getting back at those who he feels have dissed him. Maybe he doesn’t even want an apology.

JASRAC says that Mori can perform the song if he removes the introduction, which, interestingly, was written by yet another lyricist. Like a defiant 10-year-old, the singer has said he will no longer perform “Ofukuro-san,” or any of the other Kawauchi lyrics in his repertoire, much to the disappointment of his fans. They like it when he sobs on cue during the climax, even if he is insincere.