カラオケ (karaoke) is one of the greatest ways to learn the Japanese language. Karaoke forces students to “do” the whole spectrum of language: Read 歌詞 (kashi, lyrics) on the screen, listen to others sing and, if they have the guts, sing the songs themselves, cementing many vocabulary and grammar lessons they’ve learned in the process.
演歌 (enka, traditional Japanese ballads) is one of the most important genres of karaoke music in Japan, and while you may groan and think me an おやじ (oyaji, old man) for suggesting it, enka songs offer great language lessons and also provide interesting insight into how the Japanese conceive of love.
The term enka comes from an abbreviation of 演説歌 (enzetsuka, oratorical songs), which began as a cappella, antigovernment protest songs in the 1880s. In her excellent study of enka “Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song,” Christine Yano calls enka as a genre of music an “invention.”
In the late 1960s, the term began to be used by publishers and promoters as its own genre and came to retroactively cover a wide range of songs that were more “Japanese” than other music. Among the types of songs enka included were 民謡 (minyō, folk songs), 浪曲 (rōkyoku, narrative songs), 流行歌 (ryūkōka, popular music), 小唄 (ko-uta, ballads) and ムード歌謡 (mūdo kayō, mood songs).
Thus, the character of the style began to be formulated before the genre; as Yano notes, “the music sounds ‘old,’ but the genre itself is young. … Inasmuch as modernity is shifting and relational, enka is ‘modern’ music that brings Western instruments together with Japanese scales, vocal techniques, and textual themes.”
The scales that Yano mentions are the major and minor ヨナ抜き音階 (yonanuki onkai, yonanuki scales), which create a familiar Japanese sound, and one of the notable vocal techniques is こぶし (kobushi, undulating melodic ornamentation), which can sound like growling at its most extreme and gentle wavering of a note at its lightest.
One method Yano uses to break down the textual themes of enka is examining the frequency of words in enka songs. An examination of over 100 songs shows that the five most frequently encountered words, from most to least frequent, are 夢 (yume, dream), 心 (kokoro, heart/soul), あなた (anata, you), 酒 (sake, liquor) and 涙 (namida, tears).
As these words suggest, many enka songs depict an idealized, imaginary type of 恋 (koi, love), which is the ninth most frequently encountered word in the study. Often this love is impossible, forbidden or unable to be reclaimed after its loss, necessitating the alcohol to help forget. Sometimes this love doesn’t involve people but rather 故郷 (furusato, hometowns).
One word that doesn’t make Yano’s list but might if verbs and variations were included is 逢う (au, to meet), a non-常用 漢字 (jōyō kanji, common-use kanji) version of 会う (au, to meet) that implies two people leaving from separate places to meet in a third location.
Let’s look at how Yujiro Ishihara and Aki Yashiro both sing of 忍び逢う恋 (shinobi-au koi, furtive love) in their respective songs 夜霧よ今夜もありがとう (“Yogiri yo Konya mo Arigatō,” “Thank You Again Today, Night Fog”) and なみだ恋 (“Namida-goi,” “Tearful Love”).
In the first, Ishihara directly thanks the night fog for concealing trysts with a lover until they are able to meet during the day (i.e. not illicitly), and in the second Yashiro sings indirectly of an unfulfilled love by comparing it to blossoms falling in the rain of Shinjuku’s 裏通り (uradōri, back alleys) at night.
An even more extreme example is the classic song 逢わずに愛して (“Awazu ni Aishite,” “Love Without Meeting”) by Hiroshi Uchiyamada and the Cool Five. As the title suggests, the narrator pleads for the lover’s love without ever meeting again.
Because love in enka is so flawed, often the people in the songs experience 未練 (miren), which is an interesting and relatively unique Japanese word that means something along the lines of regret, attachment and lingering affection. Alcohol doesn’t seem to help Sachiko Kobayashi in her song おもいで酒 (“Omoide Zake,” “Memory Liquor”): 飲めば 未練がまたつのる (Nomeba miren ga mata tsunoru, “When I drink, my longing becomes stronger”).
But there are strong (or at least resolved) characters in enka as well, such as the duo Sakura and Ichiro in their song 昭和枯れすすき (“Shōwa Kare Susuki,” “Withered Showa Pampas Grass”). They sing of being beat down by the world, but 力の限り生きたから (chikara no kagiri ikita kara, because we lived to our ability) / 未練などないわ (miren nado nai wa, we have no regrets).
Enka also celebrates particularly Japanese locations. 港町 (minato machi, port towns) figure largely, such as in Shin’ichi Mori’s 港町 ブルース (“Minato machi burūsu,” “Port Town Blues”), which highlights port towns like Hakodate, Kōchi, Kamaishi and Kesennuma.
Picturesque locations figure largely as well, and you can gain the respect of locals by belting out Hiroshi Uchiyamada and the Cool Five’s 長崎は今日も雨だった (“Nagasaki wa Kyō mo Ame Datta,” “Nagasaki Was Rainy Again Today”) while in Nagasaki or Yujiro Ishihara’s 恋の街札幌 (“Koi no Machi Sapporo,” “Sapporo, City of Love”) while in Sapporo.
Often enka songs are formulaic and stale, much like bad country and western songs in the United States, but every now and then you find gems with a stronger narrative such as Sayuri Ishikawa’s 津軽海峡冬景色 (“Tsugaru Kaikyō Fuyu Geshiki,” “Winter Scene on Tsugaru Strait”), which relates her return to Hokkaido from Tokyo, or Akio Kayama’s 氷雨 (“Hisame,” “Hail/Frozen Rain”), which is a relatively ordinary sad drinking song but has simply constructed sentences offering easy grammar lessons.
And never forget that we live in a great time. You don’t have to ヒトカラ (hitokara, abbreviation of 一人カラオケ meaning “sing in a karaoke room alone”) anymore: You can practice enka from the comfort of your very own home thanks to YouTube. Just load YouTube and search for any song along with the term カラオケ, and you’re likely to find a version you can use for 勉強 (benkyō, study). Include the English word “cover,” and you’ll find amateurs showing off their own skills.
You can use these and any other versions that you find and 合わせて歌う (awasete utau, sing along with them) to improve your skills before performing in front of the pressure of your peers.
And while you may not be willing to die for your love, which is actually suggested in a surprising number of enka songs, by studying enka, you’ll be able to kill at the カラオケ ボックス (karaoke bokkusu, karaoke room) and perhaps appreciate the intensity of emotions in this most Japanese of genres.
Daniel Morales is counting down top 50 best-selling enka songs on his blog, How to Japanese. Sing your heart out.