Every year, NHK has this huge elaborate television production called Kōhaku Utagassen (Red-White Music Battle). It is a huge celebration of celebrities, musicians, and of course singers. It starts from the evening on the last day of the year and continues right up until the countdown for midnight, at which point the hottest boy bands in Japan tromp out on stage to do a big New Year number.
I hate it.
Most years since coming here, I’ve tried to have the TV off at midnight. This is fine when we’re at our home in Fujisawa, but on the rare occasion when we make it up to my in-laws’ in Akita, the TV on non-stop and it is awful. There isn’t much to do other than huddle around the heater in the living room close to the TV. Unlike in Hawai’i, there aren’t any fireworks or huge events unless you venture to the city hubs, so it’s hard to find reasons to distract myself.
This year I’m staying home, so no mandatory 24/7 TV required. I’m free! No garish pachinko-like sets, no abrasive and obnoxious hosts, no endless streams of idiots shouting and screaming and hitting each other. Freedom!
But I’m going to end up watching Kōhaku anyway this year, because I’ve been bitten by the enka bug.
That’s Sayuri Ishikawa, one of Japan’s most famous enka singers and the longest-running contestant on Kōhaku, singing Noto Hantō (Noto Peninsula). A few weeks ago, I just happened to stumble on some YouTube vids of her and fell for her hard. I don’t remember the last time I fell so deeply and completely in love with a singer.
I have very little experience with enka, despite being Japanese-American and having lived here in Japan for nearly a decade. My maternal grandparents, first-generation transplants from Hiroshima, sometimes listened to it on KIKU-TV when I was younger, but of course I couldn’t appreciate it as an upstart kid. I had Green Day, I had THE BACKSTREET BOYS. Who had time to listen to old fuddy-duddy music, especially when you didn’t even know the words to sing along? Never mind that, when you didn’t even understand the language being sung!
How foolish I was, how ungrateful!
After my grandparents passed, I’d also hear enka at other relatives’ houses, and it was always the worst. Slow, wavering, nasal, overbearingl and overemotional, and very Asian. It was something that clung to the inside of my ears the same way cloying incense stuck inside my nostrils. It wasn’t the cool kind of Asian that I could use as social currency, like JPop knowledge or video games or anime/manga. It was old people stuff, and who wanted to get into that?
How stupid! How arrogant!
I moved to Japan and found that most people here, thankfully, did not listen to enka, nor expect me to know anything about it. Enka peeked around the corners of my life, but it was simple to change the channel, tune it out, not listen, not look, not care. I was exposed to enka, but I was not aware of enka.
Then I found Sayuri Ishikawa, fell madly in love, and now feel nothing but white-hot shame at myself. This is the video that destroyed everything I thought I knew about enka:
She’s singing Amagi Goe (Over Mt. Amagi). Look at the way her hand lingers, listen to that deep gutteral way she digs for those notes when she says she hates you, the way she stares directly into the audience and inquisitively tilts her head as she asks you Is it all right to kill you? It’s one of the most haunting things I’ve ever heard, and combined with her downright creepy performance, this is one of the most nerve-wracking and just cool things I’ve ever seen.
I had to have more of this. From Ishikawa, I was introduced to other artists, both through YouTube recommendations and tip-offs from friends and students. It helped not just to have a better understanding of Japanese than I did when I was a little kid, but also to have been to some of the locations being sung about. (Like American country music, enka often name-checks places and locations, and a lot of songs are about longing to return to those places.) I’ve also gotten over a lot of my weird internal prejudices about old Asian music, especially as it compares with Western music.
In any case, I’m still a baby fan. I have one artist that I’ve latched onto and fixate over, and haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the genre. Music is a thing that I held very near to my heart as a high school and university concert clarinetist, but my adult life has been relatively quiet and frozen in time. I’m often too busy or too stressed out to listen to old familiars, let alone try new stuff. I spend more time in silence than I did as a youth. Enka suddenly flared up into my life and seized me the way jazz did when I was in intermediate school, the way symphony moved me in high school, the way blues singers captured my heart in university. I feel like for the first time in a while motivated to have music in my life, where once I was satisfied to waste away long, quiet days.
Enka remains to me a total enigma. I still don’t know what’s the difference between, say, modern enka and classic enka, folk songs or true enka, and I can still only rattle off a handful of singers and song titles off the top of my head. I want to make 2018 a year filled with music.
For this year’s Kōhaku, she’ll be singing Tsugaru-Kaikyo Fuyugeshiki (The winter landscape of Tsugaru Strait). I have only a little time left before she goes on, and I have to memorize all the lyrics before she takes the stage. This is it, my moment of redemption. Time to make up for a lifetime of dismissing enka.