Video: Obsolete songs, part 2 – Sayuri Ishikawa “Tsugaru Straits Winter Scene.”

Much to the annoyance of Mrs. Adamu, I have a soft spot for enka, Japanese-style country music that sings of tragic loves, unhappy marriages, and the sheer beauty of Japan’s natural landscape. One aspect of this music that I like is that, perhaps thanks to Japanese colonialism, this style of music is found all over Asia with the requisite local twists. Wikipedia’s article is a great summary:

Modern enka (演歌 — from 演 en performance, entertainment, and 歌 ka song) came into being in the postwar years of the Shōwa period. It was the first style to synthesize the Japanese pentatonic scale with Western harmonies. Enka lyrics, as in Portuguese Fado, usually are about the themes of love and loss, loneliness, enduring hardships, and persevering in the face of difficulties, even suicide or death. Enka suggests a more traditional, idealized, or romanticized aspect of Japanese culture and attitudes, comparable to American country and western music.

This video features a recent NHK performance of Sayuri Ishikawa’s 1977 hit song “Tsugaru Straits Winter Scene.” The singer’s haunting wail and that swank, sleazy saxophone pay tribute to the utter sadness of taking the four-hour ferry connecting Honshu and Hokkaido. Specifically, the woman in the song takes the (then 13-hour) trip from Tokyo to Aomori before getting on the boat. According to pre-song banter, the ride was a good way for women leaving their lovers in Tokyo to come home to Hokkaido to “get their thoughts together.” Here is a quick, fairly unpoetic translation of the lyrics:

Since the time I stepped off the train originating in Ueno
Aomori Station is surrounded by snow
The masses heading back to their homes back north are silent
Listening only to the sea
I get on the ferry, alone
I stare at the gulls in the cold
I am crying
O, Tsugaru Straits winter scene

“Look! that’s the Tappi Headlands, far to the north!”
Says a stranger, pointing
I wipe the the window, which has steamed with breath
All I can see is mist in the distance
Farewell, my love! I am going home
The sound of the wind sways my heart
As if commanding me to cry
O, Tsugaru Straits winter scene

Farewell, my love! I am going home
The sound of the wind sways my heart
As if commanding me to cry
O, Tsugaru Straits winter scene

So what makes this song obsolete? The opening of a highway tunnel in the 80s meant that the main ferry (the Hakodate Ferry) closed and this melancholy feeling, perhaps experienced by thousands of women hailing from Hokkaido, is now a thing of the past. It’s worth noting that since this song was such a huge hit and Ishikawa has stuck around as an enka veteran, its obsolescence hasn’t affected its status as a classic.

9 thoughts on “Video: Obsolete songs, part 2 – Sayuri Ishikawa “Tsugaru Straits Winter Scene.””

  1. That’s a classic, that is. Seen it on NHK more than a few times. I also have a soft spot for enka, and, like Mrs Adamu, Mrs Jade Oc cannot stand it and squawks loudly if I turn the car radio to it.

    PS: Kamome is usually a seagull, not a sparrow.

  2. I don’t remember it, but I’ve heard a lot of enka that didn’t stick, exactly.

    I’m struck by how fast she’s singing. I don’t remember most of the enka I heard being quite so rapid-fire. But I didn’t encounter it until ten years later, and didn’t pay that much attention until the late 80s and 90s: was there a stylistic shift sometime around ’80?

  3. Ah, you owed me that story. You may recall I “won” the right to pick the topic of a story you’d write, in some sort of minor online contest. So I asked you to write a story professing your love for enka. Jeez, it took you long enough, that must have been a year ago.

    However, the song about the Hakodate Ferry is not obsolete. It may not be THE Hakodate Ferry that was immortalized in song, but there is still A Hakodate Ferry,. In fact, checking the web, I discovered there are TWO ferries. One is a regular ship, the other is a fast hydrofoil that just went into service a couple of months ago.
    I used to walk past the ferry terminal on the Omori Docks in Hakodate every day as I walked to classes, back in ’96. Still, I’m not sure it would be possible to stand outside on the deck of a hydrofoil in winter, staring at the gulls in the cold. The hydrofoil is fast enough, you’d probably freeze to death in mere seconds from the wind chill.

  4. My aunt who hates Enka has always complained that she can’t understand the “recent” popularity of “Enka” saying that when she was young (1950ies, and 60ies) that there was no Enka. She despised it as having a Korean origin.

    Now the interesting thing is that actually to some degree, that maybe she is correct.
    The composer Koga Masao is frequently called the father of Enka. Koga has experienced his childhood and youth in Korea under Japanese rule. It is said that during this period he became attracted to Korean folk melodies that were based on pentatonic scales and thus having a very melancholic melodies.

    From 1955, after he was already an established composer, Koga began to compose song using these pentatonic scales, and having a huge success. Later his songs were often called “Koga melody”.

    The interesting thing is that Koga’s songs were not only popular in Japan, but they had also an impact to the Korean music scene, that actually Korean “Trot” (frequently called as Korean Enka in Japan) also adopted pentatonic scales and as a result, “Enka” and “Trot” became very similar.

  5. Ah, well I just wanted to see you make that humiliating admission that you liked enka and that people think you’re nuts. Ha. And in checking your archives, it appears you did write about enka briefly a couple of times in the last year and a half.

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