Culture Music

A Look Back in Time to Japan’s Soul Music: Enka

If you are interested in Japan’s culture, it’s likely that you may have come across Enka at some point. Perhaps you may have seen it on TV or heard someone sing it at Karaoke. Generally, it has an image of being popular with older generations and is sadly often overlooked by many, perhaps seen as an inaccessible genre that does not resonate with modern audiences. However, Enka provides a fascinating and emotionally intense insight into Japan’s history, culture and sentiment, and you may be surprised to find Enka that connects with you! In addition, the general slow rhythm and clear pronunciation of lyrics makes them an excellent tool to practise Japanese through singing.

A brief history

Enka is sometimes synonymous with “traditional Japanese music”, but it is in fact separate from folk songs or “Minyou-Uta” which has the strong, affected vibrato (known as Kobushi) that is often associated with Enka. While Enka does have some singing characteristics shared with more traditional song forms, it is in fact a relatively modern genre from the post war era, and therefore touching on themes such as nationalism, longing for one’s home town, nature and lost loves. It can be described as sentimental ballad music, with the genre said to be revived from around 1969 and by some, was not seen as a genre of “Enka” but as the popular music of the time. The famous singer Miyako Harumi once said “I’ve never sung Enka, and this term did not exist when I debuted” (in the mid ‘60s).

There are several theories as to how the term “Enka”(演歌)came about. One theory is that the music referred to the songs indirectly providing political messages that would have otherwise been in contravention of the laws during the Meiji period, with the word deriving from “Enzetsu no Uta” or “speech song”. Another simpler theory is that it relates to being a “enjiru uta” or “performance song”.

As Enka was often the popular music of the time, it is interesting to note that many of the singers from the 60s and 70s that still perform today initially hit fame by performing “monomane” or “impersonations” of established singers. Household names such as Ishikawa Sayuri and Miyako Harumi initially performed impersonations of other singers to showcase their talents before becoming famous artists in their own right.


The traditional scale of modern Enka is “Yonanuki Tan Onkai” (ヨナ抜き短音階) or “Minor Scale without four and seven (the notes “re” and “so”), and is a modification of its major scale counterpart. The “minor” scale is what gives most Enka a melancholy and sentimental overtone, using more of the “black” notes on a piano. The music often uses the pentatonic scale such as the “Iambic Pentameter” which gives it a resemblance to the blues. You will often find, after listening to different Enka is that they have a particular formula to its rhythm and progression, making them easy to remember.

From the vocal perspective, the “Kobushi” is what makes a song sound like “Enka”. This is a stronger, more affected version of vibrato that is used by modern singers. The “Kobushi” is heard most when a note is sustained and the pitch of the singer’s voice fluctuates in a larger vibrato wave than regular singers. Another characteristic is having vocal runs punctuated with a change of voice register from head to chest voice, which can give some lines a yodel-like quality.

While most modern pop songs feature singers belting high notes and generally favouring singers with a higher vocal range (or “high vocal tessitura”), Enka singers tend to have a range in a lower register, with a thick and resonant middle belt with most Enka singers, and the higher range being in a thinner head voice or “falsetto”. This can make Enka easier to sing at Karaoke for those that have naturally deeper voices and struggle with the tenor/soprano ranges of modern pop songs.

Why do they keep singing about seagulls?

Enka often alludes to a traditional or idealised aspect of Japanese culture, such as one’s home town, sentimental love, or the cycle of the seasons. In particular, love, as with many other genres is a common theme. During the initial period of modern Enka, the most common place where people separated and reunited was at ferry ports. Therefore, not only ferry ports, but also the seagulls found there are commonly mentioned in Enka lyrics. The reason for the mention of seagulls, according to one theory is that they are said to take on the painful and joyous feelings as witnesses to many separations and reunited people at the ferry ports. They take on and then carry away these feelings as they fly away. This is why seagulls or “Kamome” are features in the lyrics of many Enka and even form the title of a number of famous songs.

Have a listen!

Hopefully this article has been illuminating for you to provide you with more knowledge of Enka, and perhaps impress your friends by singing some in Karaoke! Many Japanese people know a few famous Enka, but the links below are Enka that were popular at the time and are known by the older generation, but may be ones that have not been heard of by you or younger generations of Japanese people. These are gems waiting to be discovered!

Miyako Harumi “Kita no Yado kara” (From a house in the North)

Shimakura Chiyoko “Tokyo da yo Okkasan” (Mother, this is Tokyo)

Misora Hibari “Yawara” (Softness)

If you are interested in Karaoke, feel free to check out this article!

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Claudia Anderson

Claudia Anderson

Author & Translator