A windy night, the whistle of the midnight train, and a bad breakup.

Welcome to the world of “enka” (ballads), the music of suffering and lost love, jealousy and loneliness. Unchanging in an ever-changing music scene, enka has survived the times to still ring today for those nostalgic for Japan’s lost and idealized past.

What is enka?

Translated literally as “performance song,” enka is a genre of popular music that originated back during the Meiji Era as a form of political activism.

When Japan’s first political party was formed in the late 19th century, party leaders were banned from addressing the public. Instead, they wrote songs of political satire to have singers perform on the streets.

Gradually shifting away from its political affiliation, enka experienced its second wave during the postwar years of the Showa Era, when it developed into its current form, encompassing melodramatic lyrics and nostalgic scenery to complement the nation’s traditional identity.

Although no longer as popular as in its heyday, enka can still be heard across Japan and maintains a dedicated audience, mostly those of the older generation.

What is enka’s style?

The songs generally incorporate a pentatonic scale, giving it a melody somewhat similar to American blues.

This scale is referred to as the “yonanuki onkai” (yonanuki scale) based on the fact that the fourth (“yon”) and seventh (“nana”) notes are taken out (“nuki”) to form five notes in an octave.

A combination of both Western and Japanese instruments are used when performing enka, with Japanese instruments such as the traditional koto, shamisen and “taiko” drums usually used sparsely to add an Asian flavor to the composition.

Singers emphasize “kobushi,” a distinctive vocal style similar to vibrato, and a technique considered crucial for any enka artist.

Lyrics often center on themes of lost love, drinking, tough times or nostalgia for one’s hometown, and are said to embody the ethos of Japan’s conservative past.

Who are some of the best-known singers?

By far the most prominent, or possibly the most famous singer from 20th century Japan, is Hibari Misora, often dubbed the “Queen of Enka,” or “Queen of Showa.” Debuting in 1945, her showbiz career as a singer and actress spawned countless hits, including “Tokyo Kiddo,” “Ringo Oiwake” and “Kawa no Nagare no Yoni,” and lasted until her death in 1989.

Other noteworthy enka singers include Hiroshi Itsuki, a household name and a recipient of the Medal with Purple Ribbon; Saburo Kitajima, a regular on the yearend “Red and White Singing Contest”; and Shinichi Mori, who has expanded his repertoire to other genres, to name a few male stars.

Notable female singers include 50-year veteran Chiyoko Shimakura; Keiko Fuji, the mother of contemporary J-pop diva Hikaru Utada; and Sayuri Ishikawa, who made her name performing the classic “Tsugarukaikyo-Fuyugeshiki” in 1977, still a popular karaoke tune.

It is also worth mentioning that in line with enka’s image, most female singers perform in kimono.

Contemporary stars include Kiyoshi Hikawa, whose good looks and youth score big with female fans, and most recently, Jero, the black American enka singer who rocketed up the charts with his hit single “Umiyuki” in February, selling more than 200,000 copies, quite a feat for an enka recording.

Who listens to enka?

Enka mainly targets a middle-aged audience. According to Asuka Takahashi of Radio Nippon, a Tokyo-based AM broadcaster, listeners to its daily enka programs range from people in their mid-40s on up to seniors.

“Most participants who come to the events we plan are of the middle- or senior age group,” she said, explaining many listeners are self-employed. “We have a fair amount of truck drivers listening to our programs, too,” she added.

Although younger people generally do not listen to enka, Hidefumi Nishikubo, editor of Oricon Biz, an entertainment business magazine, said the industry considers the younger generation a potential target, and in the case with the Jero it utilized digital media for his promotional campaign to spawn a hit.

What does the future hold?

Although enka saw its market share drop to nearly 3 percent during the late 1990s, when the charts were invaded by J-pop megahits, it has been regaining ground in recent years.

As of Nov. 10, the genre held 12 percent of the market, thanks to an increase in top-100 hits.

Nishikubo of Oricon Biz said enka is part of the Japanese DNA, and through marketing and proper exposure it will be inherited by generations to come.

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