Tokyo Damage Report

japan book review 6 – TEARS OF LONGING by Christine Yano

TEARS OF LONGING by Christine Yano


Enka has been called “Japanese blues”, “Japanese country and western,” and “dasai grandma music.” Enka are sad, melodramatic ballads that you karaoke the fuck out of in run-down snack-bars at 3am. If you ever bike home drunk at 3am and pass bars with terrible out of key singing gurgling out of them, you’re hearing enka.


I like some enka passionately, and hate most of it.  So when I found out there was an English book about it, I jumped at the chance to read it. Maybe it could tell me how to avoid the crappy stuff. That didn’t happen, but nonetheless, this book is pretty good!

Like this: the BOMBASTIC style:


And this – the exact same melodies and verse-chorus structure but done super-minimal. . . .what i call the SUICIDAL STYLE.

Compare to this next one: the PLASTIC BULLSHIT NO-SOUL CORPORATE SELL OUT  style.

Note how it's still basically the same melodies and arrangements but all the soul has been sucked out by The Man.

I'll yell at  The Man more later, but  let's get back to the book review:

The good parts of TEARS OF LONGING are the history of enka, the breakdown of enka clichés, and the explanation of the Japanese word ‘kata.” (型)

The bad parts are the tedious chapters behind-the-scenes-at-the-record-company-meetings, which I get the feeling that Yano had to include just to prove she was a real anthropologist. Anthropologists have to go to places that no one has gone before.

Her constant harping on “the social construction of gender” and “the social construction of patriotism and the Japanese spirit,” I can take or leave.



Enka  is complicated to  define. The actual term “enka” was not widely used until the ‘60s. And  then it was immediately applied retro-actively  to the previous 70 years of pop-tunes-that-sounded-Japanese (as opposed to pop-tunes-that-sounded-western). Although, at the times those tunes were written, they were not thought of as enka.

Got all that?

Enka is a sort of release valve for Japanese emotions. People who would never share their true feelings with you can go to the karaoke with you and belt out songs with ridiculous, over-the-top emo lyrics like “I would drown myself in an ocean of sake for youuuuuuuuuu, I exist only to tell lies, I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me, I’d rather die than love another, waaahhhh.” It’s no coincidence that most enka songs have “sake” in the title – Japan’s other release valve.

Enka is made up of other, earlier styles of Japanese music, such as:


minyou (folk song),


Roukyoku (in Osaka, called naniwa-bushi) Roukyoku are narrative jams, story-telling ballads. This genre flourished among street performers, and recounted traditional tales, as well as newsworthy stories of the present, often with a preachy moral. Samurai, thieves, dutiful sons, and devoted wives. Duty and honor! Just vocal and shamisen.


kouta (‘little songs’), which were more humorous or ironic, and had more of a retro-Edo feel. Also shamisen-based.


These styles were synthesized in the 1930s by famous song-writer Koga Masao, who established the kata (form or pattern) of enka.




 A standout point of Yano’s book is her definition of kata. Here it is:


“There are good reasons for my using “kata” instead of translating it as the English words "pattern", "style", or "formula".

First, kata emphasizes an embeddedness in daily life. 

Second, kata emphasizes surface form and beauty: the emphasis on form and effects gives a highly theatrical sense to performance, and a performative sense to daily life.

Third, kata emphasizes detail.

Fourth, as a system of theatrical display , kata places emphasis on technique, on the process of doing: a performance becomes a presentation of presentation.

Fifth, kata separates the whole into discrete, patterned units, which create a recognizable code of the performance, a code whose goal is beauty.

Sixth, kata is important as a way for art forms to be taught and handed down from one generation. Kata becomes a means by which one may enter an art form, it is a manner of doing, a way of being. Kata at once establishes, constructs, and verifies a relationship with the past.

Seventh: At the same time as it formalizes, aestheticizes, and historicizes, kata also spiritualizes, which might be the most important characteristic of all. Working on the external through kata transforms and defines the internal. Unlike western thought that gives primacy to what is below the surface and behind the mask, kata gives the surface its due. Self presentations are not merely outward expressions of some inner substance, but a constant process of creating that identity, while simultaneously signifying and demonstrating it.

The western dichotomy of form (false) vs. content (true) becomes reconfigured as continuous and interpenetrating parts. Displays of emotion are at once raw and cultivated, and the ability to balance both is what makes fans appreciate you more than the other singers. When one becomes a jedi-master of a certain art form, you perfect the kata until the line between you and kata vanishes. The creative goal of kata-training is to fuse the individual to the form so that the individual becomes the form and the form becomes the individual.”


That said, the main kata of enka is excess. Melodrama heaped on top of melodrama! Whether manly bombast, sentimental schmaltz, or broken-hearted emo whinging, do it in excess! There is no such thing as “too obvious” or “too much”.


This being Japan, the idea of “that’s too fake” doesn’t apply – the idea is to be authentic by sticking to the formula and perfecting it. However, this being Japan, nobody bothers to explicitly state what the kata of enka exactly ARE – you’re just supposed to automatically know them from sheer repetition and knowing the context. To find out what the kata are, Yano took 115 popular enka songs (mostly from the shitty era of the 70s and 80s 90s, which is a bummer) and got statistical on the ass of the enka canon.


The most common words (based on how many songs they show up in) are:

 Dream, heart,you, sake, tears, crying, woman, person, love, flower, persona lone, chest, I, rain, couple, life, bloom,wind, man, snow, drink, boat, sorrowful, and right at the bottom: happy.


The single most commonly used word  : sake.

Like easily 3 times as much as any other word. You don’t even need a list.



Yano then takes the most common lyrical themes and examines how they’re used :



Yano says, In enka, dreams dwell on past loves, on mother, and on old hometown. They do not goad the dreamer into action but encapsulate the dreamer in a sate of inaction and resignation.

 Waiting is a related theme. Again the passivity which contrasts with the burning flames of emotion.



Crying is not weak or shameful, the way we think of emo music. In Japan, crying – through the magic of music, is turned into a thing of beauty, a performance of tears, a mark of exquisite tragedy. You don’t wipe away your tears, you show them off. Tears are like a safety valve for honne (private self). Enka songs often speak of secret tears.


Oh! In my barren heart

My tears freeze and my passion burns

Oh! Please embrace me

Please embrace my barren heart



Tears, tears, tears!

Even if my ears run dry, it won’t mean that my love has withered



I burn with desire and fall – the compassion of a woman

I am drenched with sadness- the tears of a woman

I cannot be with the one I love – the heart of a woman.


Also, it’s almost an iron law that drops of tears and drops of sake are made into metaphors of each other in every song.

And given Japan’s cultural propensity towards anthromorphization (see my yokai interview!), Yano says, “Enka’s emphasis on tears endows even nonhuman inanimate objects with the ability to cry: crying shamisen, crying nights, howling north winds, crying train whistlse. This projection of emotion onto objects and elements of nature makes for a kind of environmental empahy: the jilted lover does not cry alone but in concert with everything around her."




 sample lyrics:

I want this love to burn until death,

this one night love to which I surrender


A man’s love is the tenderness of a single night

But a woman’s love lasts until the day of death


I don’t care if I throw my life away,

just please let me be here by your side


There’s this definite wabi-sabi vibe to the enka view of romance – like the cherry blossoms that fall too soon, this morbid sentimental reverence for anything that is brief , and all the more precious or touching because of the transience.




Men are bummed because they have to do a duty that they really don’t want to do, or because they miss their home town, women are bummed because they fall in love with terrible men. Women have sex once and then spend the rest of their lives condemned to love and hate that man.


Women characters drink alone as they sing, which is shocking!


Men are also alone, but it is not a sign of weakness for them, it is a sign of standing on your own two feet, sticking to your guns – a good thing. Instead of having a one-night-stand and then pining for it the rest of your life, men commit to a certain course of action or a certain dream (otoko no michi – the men’s road) and then spend the rest of their lives following it to the bitter end, never wavering or giving up.





Enka is retro: like country music in the USA, which is sold to people as representing the “real America the way it used to be”, but in fact it’s kind of phoney.


Modern enka started in the ‘60s, duh, and represents a Disney version of ‘30s Japan that never was.  Enka cultivates this reputation as “nihon no uta” (song of Japan), an expression of nihonjin no kokoro (the hearts/soul of Japanese).


Notwithstanding, some of the most famous enka singers since the ‘80s are Korean and Taiwanese imports. Also, most enka singers are women but the lyric-writers and managers are all men.


Although thought of as music from grandpa/grandma’s generation,  most enka fans were into pop or rock music and then switched to enka when they got older.


Whereas Japan sells tea ceremony, flower arranging, koto music and sumo (not to mention that wacky anime!) to foreigners as “exotic tourist stuff from a foreign country”, enka is only sold to Japanese.


But it’s still seen as exotic – wahat Yano calls  “internal exotic.”


In regular words: it’s more Japanese than Japanese. It functions to bind people together and cement what it means to be Japanese, and creates a single idealized past without all that fascism and war. For example, they use a lot of “Japanese” instruments , flutes, shamisen, koto, taiko, but only in the intro, as decoration. To be “exotic.”



More on that nostalgia:


Ryuukouka (Japanese-style pop) became the dominant style of the Taisho era (1912-1926). And today’s enka draws mostly from ryuukouka. In other words, the nostalgia of contemporary enka is nostalgia for the Taisho era: not only was Taisho the era of ryuukoka, but Japanese society was advancing, modernizing quickly, and people were full of hope. Then came the fascism and the nuclear bombs.


As part of the nostalgia, new songs are made to sound exactly like songs from 40 years ago. This is kata (型) at work.  Now, don’t get me wrong: Yano’s rant about kata is the best explanation of what it is and why it is important to understanding Japanese culture that I’ve read so far.

But enka from the 80s and 90s is just crap.


Kata was invented for artisans, Buddhist monks, and martial artists. In other words, before mass production, mass media, and modern times.


And it makde sense BACK THEN to do every single damn thing with kata: if someone is a master artisan, they’re a tool-maker, and you ask him for a tool (say, a katana), you need it for a job. To stab suckas with. You don’t want him to get arty or original with it. Same thing with martial arts. And as for Buddhist monks, god isn’t going anywhere – god is unchanging and eternal, so kata is not supposed to change. 


But when modern times come along, applying kata to mass-production can result in huge cockups.


I mean sure, with  identical, assembly line transformer toys or hello kitty t-shirts, go ahead, use kata. They’re supposed to be the same! But with art or music? Fuck no, don’t use kata.


Kata worked fine when there was only like 40 songs written per year, because jedi-masters of enka took a whole year to make one song the old-fashioned way.


But by combining old-school kata with new-school mass-production and mass-marketing, you get the worst of both worlds: the un-creativity of kata, combined with modern techniques that allow companies to spew out hundreds of sound-alike songs every month. If you want the same songs, just use your modern factories to burn millions of cds of classic songs from the ‘60s. But of course the fans already have those songs, so you have to make them buy new ones by cranking out songs THAT SOUND JUST LIKE THEM. Worst of both worlds!




8,000,000 bc – minyou (folk songs) come into being

1860s – roukyoku becomes a big working-man’s type of music in the early Meiji period, as do kouta ('little songs')

1880s – enka starts as “enzetsu no uta” a form of acapella protest song.

“The word enka is an abbreviated form of enzetsu no uta (oratorical song). It originated in the 1880s to describe the anti-government protest songs sung in the streets in support of the jiyuu minken undou (‘The Freedom And People’s Rights Movement) which sought to establish a democratic constitution and a nationally elected assembly. The Meiji government imposed restrictions on public expression. The movement’s leaders, meanwhile, hopedto gain popular support, but were hindered by the low level of literacy among the population”

. . . so they , decided to use a kind of speech-song and take it directly to the streets, solving all three problems (publicity, avoiding censorship, illiteracy) at once.


In its original form, enka was half-sung and half-spoken by an enkashi (enka singer/caller) otherwise known as a soushi (singer/caller), acapella. In its rhythmic exaggeration of certain syllables, it was musically similar to the cries of street vendors, but its goal was political. Enkashi were described as “singing street guerrillas.” Because it was acapella (and preachy!), enka was less about melody and more about really exaggerated vocals – sad words sound REALLY sad, happy ones sound really happy, long notes are really long ,etc. And this can be heard in today's enka as well.


1890 – enka turns into more of a entertainment genre, because a constitutional democracy was established in 1890, the need for protest songs went way down. the enkashi began to write actual songs, form organizations, and print lyrics.

1890s – Soeda Azembo becomes the first “king of enka!", and incorporates a lot of the new western styles into his music, defining the enka sound of the Meiji Era. He sings “kae-uta” (parodies of popular songs), changing the lyrics to be about current events in newspapers, functioning as sort of a cross between a pop star and a town crier. I guess this is a way Enka was different from roukyoku.

1907 – intellectuals introduce the first instrument to the a-capella genre of enka: the violin. This “high class, Western” instrument was not a hit with the masses, but the concept of “having a band” really took off, and thereafter, enka used instruments!

1912 – more Pop culture: shin minyou (modern ballads): they mimic traditional folk songs but with lyrics about modern problems, like lonliness and missing one’s hometown. As Japan industrialized, there was a huge number of folks moving from the countryside to the city. This was accompanied by a huge boom of sad, emo ’78 records about guys and women in the big city who miss their hometowns.

1920s –There’s enough foreign music coming in that it gets its own genre: kayoukyoku. It seems that kayoukyoku originally referred to western music but then came to refer to Japanese pop which had an exotic, western ‘flavor’ to it as well. Maybe? It's not clear.

All the Japanese-sounding pop styles are now put under the umbrella of “ryuukouka” (pop tunes), to distinguish them from  kayoukyoku.   As a result of this "together-grouping" , a lot of ryuukouka hits would later be thought of as enka (remember, enka was defined retroactively). Jesus! Is that pedantic enough for you?

Meanwhile, enka is now popular enough that singers can make a living doing requests in bars. Pop tunes are a sort of exciting new thing, like radio and movies, that never existed before.


20s and 30s : advances in recording technology allow pop tunes to be sold in the exciting new 78RPM format! Record companies, sensing immense profits, demand that full bands (not just a shamisen) be used to back the singers.

1930s – ryoukouka eclipses shinminyou to become the dominant trend for Japanese style pop (although lots of people were by then really into swing jazz, so decadent and exotic!)

Koga Masao – the “father of modern enka” finds the perfect formula for enka: a foundation of kouta and add a bit of naniwa-bushi, keep the tempo slow, lay off the harmony singers,and rock the minor scale, and change the shamisen into a guitar (mandolin in a pinch). This helped solidify enka into a kata, or cliche.


1938 – government bans all foreign "enemy" music, as well as Japanese songs with sentimental or romantic themes. The government also banned all overt expressions of sadness such as the word for tears!


1944 – government, realizing it's losing the war on all fronts, resorts to more drastic measures: it also bans western instruments : guitars, banjos, ukuleles, as well as western melodies. Jesus fucking christ, you people.


1950 – misora hibari, former child star, becomes “queen of enka”. She can make anyone cry.


Japan’s shitty post-war times practically called out for a rebirth of enka with specially gloomy tunes like “bath town elegy” – also by Mr. Koga. This postwar-gloom enka focused less on people pining for their lost hometown, to alienated city-dwellers with no home to go home to.

Preachy songs about how "the real Japan"  gave way to more sophisticated, if immoral songs about “Here I am at a bar , just got dumped by a no-good man AGAIN, let’s get shitfaced.”


50s – record companies get more sophisticated, hiring professionals to write and arrange songs behind the scenes, reducing artists to just hired voices.


60s – mood kayou (mood songs) are blues-influenced enka ballads about failed romance, that featured saxophones. They are the worst kind of enka ever. Anything with a saxophone, switch that shit off.


Late 60s/early 70s: the word Enka makes a comeback, meaning not “anti-meiji-government protest songs” but “all pop music of the last 70 years which ‘sounds Japanese’”. A firm kata soon emerges to regulate new songs produced in this style



Do-enka (real enka): more influenced by naniwa –bushi: west-coast flavor, honor, machismo, all that shit. Plus serifu (narrative in a spoken-word voice) between voices. Contemporary do-enka singers: kitajima saburou, toba ichirou, miyako harumi, nakamura mitsuko, sakamoto fuyumi.

Mood enka : descended from the mood kayou of the ‘60s, without so many saxophones. more weepy and ballady, less honor-y and macho-y. where do-enka singers might ornament their singing with grunt or growl, mood enka people are more inclined to use yuri and kobushi, the vibrato that sounds like weeping.

Pops enka: crossover. Major key. Lyrics less suicidal.




rappa bushi (bugle call song) –  by Soeda azembo –first King of Enka celebrates kicking Russia’s ass in '05. Just a singer and a shamisen.

Sasurai no uta (song of wandering) (1917), lonliness of leaving hometown to find work in the city. a very topical theme in the rapidly industrializing country.

Sendou kouta (boatman’s song) by noguchi ujou and Nakayama SHinpei (1921) – first enka hit influenced by western music.

tottori shunyou releases "kago no tori" (bird in a cage)  (1924). It was a huge hit, became a film! Japanese corporations even then were really savvy about cross-merchandising. This 60 years before manga-became-videogames-became-anime-became movies and all that!

Sake wa namida ka tameiki ka (is sake a teardrop or a sigh?) – first big hit of Mr. Koga, inventor of the "classic" enka style.

Kage o shitaite (following after your image) – another Koga hit.

yu no machi erejii (bath town elegy)  (1948), by koga maso – classic postwar gloom.

namida no renrakusen (ferryboat of tears)(1965) reviving the traditional style in hippy times.

Ringo oiwake  (1952 )– super sad even by enka standards: the girl's mom died. big hit by Misora hibari – the postwar "queen of enka"

Kanashi sake, (1966) – another hit by MIsora Hibari.

sasori-za no onna (scorpion woman) – the "theme song" of Mikawa Kenichi. King of the cross-dressing enka singers. Apparently that was a thing back in the '70s?




Nakibushi – crying song (whose merit is measured by its ability to elicit tears)

Naniwa – bushi : Osaka song

Roukyoku (narrative song)

kae-uta (substitution song): a parody, where lyrics are substituted.

Shouka- school songs composed to introduce japanese children to western music

Rokyoku is a narrative art accompanied by the shamisen, and was perfected at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912).

Onkai – scale
yonanuki onkai ( asian sounding pentatonic scale)

ryuukouka! This just means “ japanese-sounding pop music on 78 rpm records.”

Serifu – lines (in a play) narrative spoken word interludes (in songs)

Kayoukyoku – western or western-sounding music (as opposed to ryuukouka)

enkashi (enka singer/caller)

soushi (singer/caller),

yuri – a vocal ornamentation influenced by American blues – a vibrato-like swinging of the voice.

Kobushi – a crying-waah-sounding vibrato more traditional ornamentation.

Jigoe – chest voice, natural voice

Uragoe : head voice, falsetto

Hanagoe – nasal voice

Damigoe – gravelly, blues- or metal-ly voice

Kosei – originality, individuality of a performance.

Miren – lingering affection, and its evil twin

Urami – lifelong, smouldering resentment

Hinkaku – dignity

Furusato – my old home town (sometimes it means “Japan the way it used to be in the good old days”)

Taishuu bunka – working class culture

Ki wo terawazu ni – without showing off anything new.

Tejaku-sake : pouring yourself a drink of booze (kind of brutal because traditionally people are supposed to pour drinks for their friends)

joruri, sekkyo-bushi (chants of Buddhist tales)

saimon-gatari (chants of traditional literature and worldly episodes).

fushi (chants)

tanka (narration). Fushi is the chanting part where the performer sings about the situation or feelings of characters, while tanka is the dialogue part where the performer plays the role of each character.

6 comments Tags: ,

6 Comments so far

  1. Joseph July 8th, 2011 7:10 pm

    Awesome stuff, dude.  Except The bombing of Pearl Harbor was in 1941, not 1938.  WTF?

  2. François July 17th, 2011 3:40 am

    For all the kanji fans like meself:
    Nakibushi 泣き節
    Naniwa–bushi 浪花節
    Roukyoku 浪曲
    kae-uta 替え歌
    Shouka 唱歌
    Onkai 音階
    yonanuki onkai ヨナ抜き音階
    ryuukouka 流行歌
    Serifu 台詞
    Kayoukyoku 歌謡曲
    enkashi 演歌師
    soushi (singer/caller), couldn't find this one.
    yuri 揺り
    Kobushi 小節
    Jigoe 地声
    Uragoe 裏声
    Hanagoe 鼻声
    Damigoe 濁声/訛声
    Kosei 個性
    Miren 未練
    Urami 恨み/怨み
    Hinkaku 品格
    Furusato 故郷/古里
    Taishuu bunka 大衆文化
    Ki wo terawazu ni 奇を衒わずに
    Tejaku-sake 手酌酒
    joruri 浄瑠璃
    sekkyo-bushi 説教節
    saimon-gatari 祭文語り
    fushi 節
    tanka 短歌

  3. admin July 17th, 2011 4:20 am

    @francois: thanks for reading, thanks for the kanji versions. I’m right now working on a little list of all the offensive shinto/holy war words in JAPAN’S HOLY WAR, and I’ll make sure to include the kanji with them.

  4. AnokPanda July 26th, 2011 1:16 pm

    my not thinking before almost drunk talking comment: Kata seems like the musical Mie. Marinate on it :)

  5. AnokPanda July 26th, 2011 1:52 pm

    Now that I've actually read this whole post, I'll say I enjoyed reading it very much…but I'm disappointed that I could not find 2 examples of the genre I've enjoyed (tho I could be way off my noggin in understanding what real enka music is) but either way the enka songs in the movies "sympathy for the Underdog" and "sonatine" the former actually being an inspiration for the latter; they seem to exemplify the lyrical content of the style. drinking alone makes me want to hear them LOL computer sound abilities are broken unfortunately

  6. […] – Yano’s book is great. I haven’t finished it, but I’ve read the introduction, the chapter on the history of enka, her analysis of the frequency of words, and parts on the gender roles in enka. My only beefs so far are that the book uses romaji instead of kanji (which is how academia does it, I get it, but always feels disrespectful of the original language) and that her look at frequency of words does not include verbs. The nouns she examines are useful on their own and provide some interesting analysis. Including verbs would adjust the rankings quite a bit, and I’d be curious to see how so. For a more detailed look at the book, be sure to check out Tokyo Damage Report’s detailed review. […]

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