Guilty Pleasures – Enka

I am slightly embarrassed to say that I enjoy enka. Enka is a Japanese ballad form, popular from the sixties to the eighties and now somewhat in decline.

Enka songs are invariably sad and sentimental; an ideal background to what a cockney friend called “a good drink and a cry”. They usually describe relationships between men and women, often set in the “mizu shobai” world of bars and karaoke clubs, where they are frequently sung. Enka still have a general appeal to older people in Japan and feature on NHK’s New Year Kōhaku Uta Gassen, “red and white song competition”.

My favourites include work by the female singer Yashiro Aki. She sings about lost love and a woman’s modest hopes of happiness, in songs such as “mo ichido aitai” and “onna no yume”. In my humble opinion the daddy of them all was Kobayashi Akira who in his song “mukashi no namae de deteimasu”, tells the story of a lonely drinker’s ongoing desire for a nightclub hostess who leaves town and changes her name. Another song that captures this mood is “sake to namida to otoko to onna”, “booze and tears and men and women”, but I am not sure if it is enka or early J-pop.

It is worth bearing in mind that Japan invented karaoke. Whilst the private karaoke room is a newish phenomenon, most entertainment districts have for years had a plethora of karaoke establishments ranging from several hundred seat hostess clubs, to rooms with space for two or three customers, run by a hobby “mama san”; who will pour your drinks and join you in a duet.

I am an unlikely karaoke performer; being both tone deaf and unable to read Japanese. It is however difficult to refuse to sing when you are with colleagues or clients who have all taken their turn on the mike. In the early days, in some establishments, the choice was either sing enka, or a western song without the benefit of a backing track, so I went for the former. This was often done with the help of a friend reading the lyrics aloud a line ahead of me singing them. Even with the significant echo and reverb on these professional machines, I still sounded rubbish, but if everyone had drunk enough, it didn’t matter.

The only time I have felt particularly self conscious was in a karaoke club in Osaka, where after I completely murdered a song, it became apparent that the owner was a professional enka singer, and outside of my group, the guests were her semi-professional students.

By far my preference is to listen rather than sing. I imagine that I am probably the only Surrey resident with Yashiro Aki on his I-pod.