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Mediating Modernity Through Popular Song: The geography of visual images illustrating enka in the context of karaoke and thematic parallels with Arabesk

Author: William H. Kelly

Source: Global Perspectives on Japan (GPJ), No.1 (2017), pp.175-206
Publisher: Forum Tauri Press
Keywords: Popular music, Modernization, Karaoke, Enka, Arabesk


It is often said that enka, a popular song genre which has been closely associated with karaoke-singing since its inception in the mid-1970s, expresses the true Japanese heart. Although enka is by no means an entirely uniform song genre, encompassing some degree of stylistic and thematic variation, enka songs are characteristically melancholy, expressing themes related to separation, lost love and loneliness, as well as a nostalgia for the past as expressed most potently through the concept of furusato (hometown), but also through a panoply of symbolic images which serve to contrast contemporary, modern, urban Japan with its more traditional, rural counterpart of another (better) age. Focusing on the visual images used to illustrate enka songs in the context of karaoke and their categorisation by the karaoke industry, this paper examines how, through a series of oppositions –rural and urban, past and present, western and Japanese– such images serve not only as a symbolic discourse mediating modernisation, but also to articulate a collective notion of Japanese identity, at least as it is expressed through the emotive symbolism of enka songs. Finally, the paper explores parallels between enka and the Turkish popular song genre, Arabesk, both in terms of the sentiments and themes expressed in song lyrics and with reference to the wider backdrop of rapid change and social dislocation characteristic of the historical contexts within which both genres developed and thrived.