Singer Aki Yashiro, the grand dame of Japanese enka ballads who had many big hits during her career spanning five decades, died Dec. 30 of lung disease, her office said. She was 73.

Yashiro, who debuted in 1971 after working as a singer at a nightclub in Tokyo's upmarket Ginza district, had suspended her musical activities after announcing in September that she would focus on treatment of a connective tissue illness.

She had developed anti-MDA5 antibody-positive dermatomyositis, a designated intractable disease, and died of rapidly progressive interstitial lung disease, the office said.

Known for her trademark husky voice, her biggest hits included "Funauta" (Boat song) in 1979 and "Ameno Bojo" (Yearning in the rain) in 1980.

Yashiro, who took her stage name from her home city Yatsushiro in Kumamoto Prefecture, performed at national broadcaster NHK's popular "Kohaku Uta Gassen" live music show on New Year's Eve 23 times, appearing first in 1973.

She also performed in other genres, including blues and jazz. She released her first jazz album, "Yoruno Arubamu" (Songs around midnight), in 2012 and sang at the famed Birdland jazz club in New York the following year.

She was a regular visitor to women's prisons and juvenile detention centers throughout her life.

Also an acclaimed artist, her paintings have been accepted many times at exhibitions, including by the prestigious Le Salon in France.

"As a hit song is born due to everyone buying one record after another, I want to share that feeling of happiness and joy," Yashiro said in an interview last year.

"My goal from now on is to die while exchanging thankyous."