Enka is one of many musical styles from the Far East, originating in 19th century Japan. The genre is primarily sung by women, though some men have sung the music with great success. The Japanese music style incorporates sentimental sounds with ballad instruments.
What is enka music? Here, you can learn about the characteristics, history, and some top examples of the genre.
Definition: What is Enka Music?
Enka music is a Japanese genre that originated in the Meiji period. It typically involves bitter themes like love and loss or loneliness. Vocals are the primary element of enka, and many performers are solo singers with or without musical accompaniment. Some artists play and sing simultaneously.
Traditional Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi or shamisen often accompany the vocals. In recent years, however, synthesizers and pitch-shifted guitars have added Western flavor to the musical art.
Enka draws on traditional Japanese imagery, with the singer typically clad in a kimono. Male performers wear formal attire. Japanese idealism and romanticism come into play as enka songs reference the music and style of other traditional genres. Thus, enka is often a retrospective on Japan’s history and culture during its Meiji flourish.
Historians still debate the exact meaning of the term “enka,” but the word itself comes from the characters 演 (“en”), meaning “performance,” and 歌 (“ka”), meaning “song.” The genre differs from other Japanese musical styles due to its relatively young age and lack of overt religious significance.
Modern enka resurged after World War II, making it part of Japan’s Showa-era pop music. You can hear enka songs in karaoke places, bars, and stores across Japan. Like many music genres from the mid-1900s, enka is currently in a hybrid state where modern musicians combine it with other music types to create new sounds.
Enka Music Characteristics
Enka is a ballad style, contrasting many traditional Japanese music genres. Older Eastern types use sparse instrumentals, but enka is more Western in its use of melody and harmony. Japanese or Western stringed instruments create a somber mood for the vocalist’s bitter lyrics.
Vocalists use melisma, a technique where a singer sings different notes on a single syllable.
In many ways, enka is similar to the West’s blues, which focus primarily on the negative experiences of the singer. The music doesn’t typically energize its listeners like pop or rock, instead regaling them with tales of woe sung beautifully. Both blues and enka draw from the pentatonic scale. Enka also shares some similarities with tango and doo-wop.
Enka is highly vocal-dependent, and the singers usually use vibrato styles to waver their voices and imply emotion. Many long, held notes increase the dramatic nature of the music. The harmony typically follows, creating emotional pauses and suspenseful moments. Enka often features a single vocalist, but some performers include backup vocals.
The lyrics of enka songs are usually negative or bitter. Like blues, the songs describe life’s hardships, unrequited love, and even suicide. Hyperbole and dramatization are heavy in enka, which singers use to emphasize their emotions. Minor keys also enhance this musical art of lyrical storytelling.
7 Examples of Enka Music
To see the characteristics of enka music on full display, let’s look at seven famous examples.
Onna no Michi (Path of the Woman) by Miya Shiro (1972)
In Miya Shiro’s Onna no Michi, you can hear the singer’s extensive use of vibrato and melisma vocals to make his voice waver. Long notes at the end of the verses signal when the next verse will begin. The Western-style symphonic accompaniment is simultaneously sad and uplifting, incorporating string instruments, flutes, brass, and more.
The song tells a tale of a woman’s grief as her beloved man deserts her. Onna no Michi became popular during the postwar enka resurgence. This song stayed at the top of Japan’s Oricon single charts for sixteen consecutive weeks, selling over a million copies.
The song is an excellent example of modern enka themes, style, and vocals.
Namida no Misao (The Faithfulness of Tears) by Tonosama Kings (1973)
Namida no Misao is an example of an enka song featuring backup vocals, which is another similarity the genre sometimes has to blues music. You can hear the vibrato vocals, the pauses, and the elongated notes typical of the musical style. Namida no Misao also features instrumental breaks, a component of enka added in modern popularization.
The lyrics entail a woman’s struggle, bargaining to stay with her lover, who takes her for granted. The Tonosama Kings’ Namida no Misao held the position of number-one Japanese single in Oricon for nine weeks. It is a famous enka track due to its dramatic and captivating vocals and varied string instrument usage.
Kita no Yado Kara (From a Northern Inn) by Miyako Harumi (1975)
Miyako Harumi takes a more modern approach to enka in her song Kita no Yado Kara. She sings in a standard ballad style for most of the song, only employing vibrato and melisma as the dramatic chorus arises. A variety of horns accompany the vocals, but the violin and mandolin make up most of the accompaniment.
Kita no Yado Kara’s lyrics tell of a woman bitterly thinking of her unappreciative lover during a winter night, even stating that she would be fine if he died. Harumi’s song won the 18th Japan Record Awards in 1976. It is the song that Miyako Harumi is best known for as an enka idol.
Omoide Zake (Reminiscent Alcohol) by Kobayashi Sachiko (1979)
In Omoide Zake, You can hear Kobayashi Sachiko’s wavering voice as she recounts a tale of a man she remembers meeting. Vibrato and melisma add intensity to her voice, and she holds notes dramatically at the end of the verses. String instruments and brass accompany the ballad with many minor note sequences.
Sachiko recounts that she cannot remember when or where she met him but that she can only get drunk on “reminiscent sake.” Sachiko has a long history of performing enka music and voice acting in various media. As a result, she is one of many well-known female enka singers who are active even today in Japan.
Mago (Grandson) by Oizumi Itsurou (1999)
Mago by Oizumi Itsurou takes a different conceptual tone than other enka songs. The Japanese string instrument, the koto, takes the spotlight in the instrumentation. Itsurou uses the standard enka vocal conventions in his singing, but this song isn’t about a bitter romance.
Mago tells the singer’s hopes that their treasured grandchild will grow up strong and be better than he was in life. Despite being produced during the decline of modern enka, Oizumi Itsurou’s single sold well in Japan. It is an example of how themes within the genre can differ from the norm and how the music style keeps many conventions over time.
Ai no Mama De (Just As Love) by Akimoto Junko (2008)
Akimoto Junko’s Ai no Mama De returns to the bittersweet enka style. Her solo performance comes with an entire orchestra of strings and other instruments that make way for her long-held notes at the end of each verse. Junko applies a more modern style that lacks significant melisma, much like the dramatic ballads of Western nations.
The lyrics of the song are standard fare for enka. Ai no Mama De is primarily a love song but has tenets of hoping that the romance will end “just as love,” suggesting a suspicion or bitterness that it might end prematurely. This song reached Oricon’s number one singles chart in January 2009.
Hoshikage no Warutsu (Starlight Waltz) by Sen Masao (1966)
In Hoshikage no Warutsu, the vocalist delivers a deep, dramatic tale through vibrato singing. A string-heavy orchestra backs him up with sparse backup vocals during certain verses. The song’s lyrics take the perspective of a man who regrettably must break up with his lover even though he still loves her, saying, “Let’s sing the parting starlight waltz.”
Sen Masao is an enka singer with several top-ten hits on the Oricon charts.He primarily took the stage during the genre’s postwar resurgence. Hoshikage no Warutsu’s bitter mood and style make it a great example of enka music.
Top 5 Enka Musicians
Who are the musicians who have made lasting marks on the enka genre? Let’s look at five of the most prominent individuals or groups.
Hibari Misora (1937–1989)
Hibari Misora is also known as the Queen of Enka. She started performing as a child and recorded over 1,200 songs in her lifetime. Even after she died in 1989, she continues to sell records, passing 100 million sales in 2019. Her most well-known enka song is Kawa no Nagare no You Ni, “Like the River’s Flow.”
Hibari Misora earned a Japanese Medal of Honor and was the first woman to earn a People’s Honor Award. She was integral to inspiring hope in others during and after World War II. Specials on Japanese TV and radio still play as a tribute to Misora even today.
Hiroshi Itsuki (1948–)
Hiroshi Itsuki is a male enka singer who has won many awards for his contributions to various music genres. He has collaborated with many J-pop artists like Ai Takahashi. Itsuki sold over 20 million singles and over 4 million EPs. His fame began with the song Yokohama Tasogare (“Yokohama Twilight”) in 1971.
Itsuki has won the Japan Record Awards grand prize two times and a Gold Award from Japan’s Composer Association. As of 2022, Hiroshi Itsuki is still creating music in both the enka and J-pop genres.
Miyuki Nakajima (1952–)
Miyuki Nakajima is a long-standing member of the kayokyoku scene, which includes every genre of Japanese pop music. She has 43 albums, 46 singles, and over 21 million copies sold across genres like enka, rock, and folk. Nakajima is also a composer who has produced several chart-topping songs popular with Taiwanese and Hong Kong singers.
One of Nakajima’s well-known enka songs is Ruju (“Rouge”). Although she isn’t expressly known for her contributions to enka, Miyuki Nakajima profoundly impacted Japan’s music in various genres.
Born Jerome Charles White Jr., Jero is the first black individual to attain fame as a Japanese enka singer. The influence of his Japanese grandmother inspired him to study the language and learn the enka style. In 2008, Jero’s first single, Umiyuki (“Ocean Snow”) reached number 4 on the Oricon charts.
Jero’s hip-hop image and descent have inspired many cross-cultural enka fans. He earned the Best New Artist Award at the 50th Japan Record Awards in 2008. In 2018, Jero announced an indefinite hiatus from making music, though he has already left an incredible mark on Japan’s culture.
Keiko Fuji (1951–2013)
Keiko Fuji is one of many enka musicians who found fame in the 60s and 70s through their ballads. She holds many Oricon records today, making her one of the country’s best-known musicians. Her debut album topped the chart for 20 weeks, and her next album kept the top for the following 17 weeks. Altogether, she holds the record for 37 straight weeks.
She married another enka musician and television personality, Kiyoshi Maekawa, before announcing her retirement in 1979. Later she gave birth to Hikaru Utada, who became one of Japan’s best-selling pop sensations by 2010. Keiko Fuji represents an entire family of Japanese music history, beginning with enka.
The History of Enka Music
Enka began not necessarily as songs but as narratives put to music. Specifically, in late 19th century Japan, political activists created enka by playing music while iterating messages, sermons, policies, and proposals. In rare cases, soshi or “political” enka players still appear for rallying causes.
Enka with violin became popular in the late Taisho period and the early Showa period (the 1920s–1940s). Around the same time, a new breed of Japanese popular music called ryukoka began, which drew in enka and expanded on it.
It wasn’t until the postwar period of the 1940s and 50s that Western influence through jazz reached Japan. During that time, Hibari Misora and other musicians created music with Western instruments in enka style, which then became the modern version of the genre.
In the 1960s and 70s, enka saw its height of commercial success through various musicians and singles under the Japanese Oricon record charts. However, by the 1980s, enka was beginning to decline, and many consider the genre practically obsolete in the modern day.
Today, like many other genres, enka is in a state of musical hybridity. Genres like folk, pop, and rock borrow tenets from it, creating fused styles like “light enka.” The genre still has fans across the globe, though most of them are older people. Its distinct position as a Japanese musical style intrigues many despite its relative unpopularity.
What is Enka Music? Final Thoughts
Enka is a Japanese music genre that culminated from traditional styles and Western influence. Thanks to the emergence of pop after World War II, enka spiked in popularity. Today, you can find enka music in karaoke centers, bars, stores, and restaurants across Japan. Its fanbase still lingers, although the style continues to decline.
Try listening to enka for yourself. It’s a great way to engage with music and Japanese culture.