On New Year’s Eve, many families in Japan inevitably wind up gathered around the TV to watch a selection of holiday programming. One of the most popular shows is NHK’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen.”

Celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, the song contest pits a men’s team and a women’s team against each other with the studio audience picking its favorite. This year, viewers at home will also be able to vote.

Certain musicians become staples on “Kohaku,” and last year one of those performers, enka star Saburo Kitajima, announced he would retire from the program. The 78-year-old singer took part in the show a record 50 times, was the “anchor” (final solo performer) 13 times and led the grand finale 11 times.

Instead of bringing in another enka singer to replace Kitajima, NHK has opted to fill the slots with more J-pop acts: idol group HKT48, boy band V6 and rockers Sekai no Owari will make their debuts. Johnny’s act Arashi will anchor the show and pop star Seiko Masuda will perform her 1996 hit “Anata ni Aitakute ~Missing You~” for the grand finale.

Enka artists have always found a warm welcome on the “Kohaku” stage. The genre, which is an offshoot of 1970s Japanese pop, is defined by emphasizing the first note in a verse and the over usage of vibrato. The lyrical content is romantic, melancholic and mainly focused on traditional Japanese life. This year, enka will be represented in 12 of the 53 performances on “Kohaku” — a decline from the 24 out of 50 performances that featured on the show in 1994, when enka artist Toshimi Tagawa made her debut. The disappearing number of enka musicians on the lineup doesn’t bode well for the genre, something Tagawa is acutely aware of.

” ‘Kohaku’ is like a gateway to success. As a singer, you gain nationwide popularity once you take part in the program,” she tells The Japan Times. “It’s a special opportunity for enka singers in particular to perform on the same stage as artists from other genres, and to be noticed by those artists’ fans.”

Tagawa has participated in “Kohaku” four times: in 1994, 1995, 1998 and 2002. She worries that the trend toward more pop acts is something NHK is doing to target a new audience amid a slide in ratings.

“Having more pop acts means it’s a turning point,” she says. “It would be better to have a fair mix (between J-pop and enka), but I believe there will be an even clearer (representation of pop) from now on.”

Tagawa, 39, says she doesn’t blame NHK for featuring younger acts and says she began her career admiring Miho Nakayama, Shizuka Kudo and other pop stars from the 1980s. Her mother was a member of the Osaka Shochiku Kageki Dan (presently called the OSK Revue), an all-female performance group coupling its name with the Takarazuka Revue, and her father loved enka and Japanese folk songs. Even at the age of 3, Tagawa would sing her father’s favorite enka songs for relatives and neighbors.

“I was very shy and quiet as a child, but through singing enka I was able to openly express my emotions,” Tagawa recalls. “I was around 10 when I realized I was actually really into enka. Even though I was listening to the Japanese and American pop songs that my siblings were into, I clearly divided what I would listen to and what I would actually sing.”

Tagawa’s love for enka might have indicated that she had an old soul. The genre tends to be associated with older listeners, and performers draw on tradition to the point that female enka acts are often decked out in kimono when they perform. Tagawa believes senior fans are attracted to the “melancholy and nostlagia” of enka’s lyrical themes. She admits she may be too young to connect with the music in the same way her core fan group does, but says she understands that it’s clearly something that emotionally resonates with them.

“The golden age for enka was back in the 1970s and the ’80s, when public transportation wasn’t well established,” she says. “It took longer to go from city to city than it does now and it took a couple of days on the train (or on a boat) to see your lover or your family . . . even the phone lines weren’t fully developed. This longing helped to form the soul of the music.”

Yusuke Wajima, an associate professor in the music and theater department at Osaka University, says this longing and loneliness was the defining emotion of the Showa 30s (1955-1965), a period often remembered as Japan’s “good old days.” The sentiment was brought out superbly in Takashi Yamazaki’s 2005 film “Always San-Chome no Yuhi” (“Always: Sunset on Third Street”).

“The theme became popular around the time of the Japanese postwar economic miracle,” Wajima says. “That’s when the youth of Japan started to come to Tokyo to seek a new life for themselves. That was uncommon in the prewar era.”

According to Wajima, the word “enka” comes from the term “enzetsuka,” which describes protest songs from Japan’s civil rights movement of the 1880s. However, the enka that flourished in the 1970s was nothing like Meiji Era enzetsuka.

“There’s almost no influence from enzetsuka in the music that’s now known as enka,” Wajima says. “It’s only referred to when we’re talking about the history of the genre. The term ‘enka’ came about around 1964-65 and referred to pop music from nagashi (bar performers) that adopted a little of enzetsuka’s dark, mysterious moods.”

As enka started to take hold in Japan, some singers who were associated with the genre initially didn’t want to get stuck with the label, according to Takeshi Uemura from the Nippon Columbia record label.

“Singers such as Kazuo Funaki and Harumi Miyako are considered great enka singers, but they believed they were simply singing the popular music of that time,” he says. “The category of enka came after the actual music, and artists who now consider themselves to be enka performers all came out within the past 40 years.”

Just like the relatives and neighbors who enjoyed Tagawa’s childhood enka performances, the genre’s main audience is made up of people over 60.

“Most of the audience, including newer fans, got into enka by singing it at karaoke,” Uemura says. “After retirement, many of them joined karaoke clubs and classes to get opportunities to sing.” This exposure leads them to pick favorites and, according to Uemura, their devotion sometimes leads them to follow their favorite singers across the country.

Despite the karaoke initiations, Uemura says the primary route to fame is still via traditional media: television, radio and print. Tagawa says that she has had fans request her latest single, “Ichigo Ichie” (“Treasure Every Meeting”) on cassette. However, enka musicians have been moving toward promoting themselves on the Internet.

“Younger enka artists such as Kiyoshi Hikawa (37) have younger fans — women in their 40s and 50s — who are capable of using the Internet,” Uemura says. “We’ve recently started using social media such as Facebook and Twitter to reach out to them.”

Keisuke Yamauchi, a 31-year-old singer on Victor Entertainment, live-streamed one of his meet-and-greets via the Nico Nico Douga website. Around 100 lucky fans attended the event, while Barks music news estimated 34,000 tuned in online. Nippon Columbia’s Uemura says his label has also looked into the possibility of having its “Columbia Monthly Kayo Live” event streamed online.

In the meantime, efforts to reach potential new audiences for enka are similar to the “Kohaku” model: use J-pop. Nippon Columbia has been releasing a compilation titled “Enka no Chikara” (“The Power of Enka”) since 2008 that features enka stars covering J-pop hits.

“The concept behind ‘Enka no Chikara’ is to show regular music fans how skilled enka vocalists can be,” Uemura says. “It’s the singing ability that I would like music fans to pay closest attention to.”

As a new generation moves toward the consumption of nostalgic memorabilia, however, professor Wajima believes enka will eventually fade away and be replaced with new ways of reminiscing.

“Recently, Seiko Matsuda and idols from the ’80s are becoming central to this nostalgia, and within 10 or 20 years the music of that era could replace enka,” Wajima says. “However, a new style of music that contains the superb skills and techniques of enka, displayed by the artists of the ’70s, could possibly be a rediscovery even for those who aren’t enka fans — though this style could come out under a different name.”

Tagawa doesn’t necessarily associate nostalgia with a specific genre of music, but instead she thinks there is a desire among fans to return to a time in Japanese pop-culture history where music was more experimental.

“Many musical challenges were happening during the 1970s — the golden age of kayōkyoku (traditional Japanese pop),” she says. “There was a variety in the sound of that time: from straightforward enka to the mixing of other genres such as folk and Latin.

“The lasting appeal of enka, though, is its hidden, strong soul — we’re singing for a generation who went through everything.”

To keep her fan base excited, Tagawa hopes to continue holding special meet-and-greets — for her “Ichigo Ichie” event, she brought her own homemade cakes and pastas. Her new single, “Onna no Funauta” (“A Woman’s Ship Song”), will be released Feb. 25 and she plans to hold meet-and-greets on a houseboat to coincide with it.

“The song compares the female heart to the ocean, something very deep and immense,” Tagawa says.

Thinking about the year ahead, she hopes to be more directly involved with her fans and is wishing for continued success in her career, something she says would be best realized if NHK grants her a position at next year’s “Kohaku.”

For more information on Toshimi Tagawa, visit www.columbia.jp/artist-info/toshimi. “Kohaku Uta Gassen” airs on NHK from 7:15 p.m. on Dec. 31.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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