Japanese popular songs from the 19th century till 1945

Encounter with the Western music

Japan changed its political system from a union of about 300 small kingdoms lead by Shogun to a centralized state under Emperor Meiji in 1868. This transition went smoothly, because the people at the time well understood the necessity to modernize the country both martially and economically so that it could protect the country from the Western colonization.

In the endeavor to modernize the country, music was not an exception. However, different from technology, it was not easy for the people to accept Western music with loud and noisy sounds, different scales and continuation of mechanical rhythm. Our ears are so conservative and cannot accept different types of music easily. The musical landscape in the first decades of the Meiji period remained therefore as it was in the feudal time.

Revolution from above

The revolution in music came from above and the new textbooks based on the Western music theory were introduced into the elementary education first in 1882, 15 years after the start of the new Meiji government. But, European tonalities, which were the basis for most songs in those textbooks, were not easily accepted, because they were too difficult for the Japanese people at the time, as they traditionally had 5 tone scales and could not properly perceive "fa" and "si". Western style melodies sounded too strange for most Japanese people.

A new series of school songs were issued in 1887 and a new trial was made, namely a new tonality was developed on the basis of traditional "ritsu" scale with the shifting of keynote from "so" to "do" and some tuning adjustments. As a result, the new pentatonic scale sounded similar to the European major scale, but without "fa" and "si". This proved to be a success in the adaptation to the Japanese ears. In addition, this enabled the usage of basic European chords to the music based on the new scale. New school songs based on this modified Western scale were taught since then in Japanese schools.

At the same time European music gradually came to be known to the general public through military music. The level of understanding of European music also progressed among intellectuals through European teachers in Japan and Japanese students studying classical music in Europe.

Pentatonic minor scale

From around 1900 onwards more and more songs were composed on a pentatonic minor scale, which was made from "miyako-bushi" scale with changing of keynote from "mi" to "la".

The preference of minor scale came from the following circumstances. In the first years of modernization, the government wanted a wholesome music based on "bright" and "healthy" major scales. However, the melancholic miyako-bushi was the most popular scale in the feudal Japan until the revolution in 1868 and the then intellectuals were accustomed to the sentimental tone of miyako-bushi and thought that the music based on the major scale sounded unsophisticated and simplistic. They felt this unsophisticated music was imposed by the new government. Therefore, in the beginning of the 20th century, as a sort of protest against the authoritative government policy and in the sense of return to tradition, the pentatonic minor scale was widely accepted.

First hit songs based on the new tonalities

If we trace the development of scales for enka-songs (*), we find that there were exclusively traditional Japanese scales till 1900. The European style scale, with pentatonic modification, was first used in 1901. This means that the ordinary Japanese people started to accept European style music from around the beginning of the 20th century as a result of school education and increased occasions to listen to European music.

(*) The word "enka" is used here in its original meaning, namely propaganda songs of freedom fighters starting from the end of the 1880s. At the later stage enka-songs became lyrical and the main sources of popular songs before they were produced commercially by the music industry.

Later the word "enka" came to be used for popular songs most typically on pentatonic minor scale and with melismatic passages. The

Sumako Matsui
word "enka" in the later parts of this article and other pop song articles is used in this meaning.

From the 1910s onwards Western style music became predominant in Japan. The first hit song made on the modified Western scale was "Katyusha no uta" (Song of Katyusha) in 1912. This was composed by Shimpei Nakayama as a song in a drama "Resurrection" which was adapted from a novel of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy with the same title. By singing this song, Sumako Matsui, heroin of the drama, became a national idol. Lots of music sheets were sold. Among them official copies were 78,000 and piracy copies were 140,000 or 150,000. "Katyusha no uta" was a song based on the pentatonic major scale, but the most hit songs by Shinpei were composed in minor key, such as "Sendo kouta" (Boatman's kouta) in 1922.

(*) "Kouta" is a traditional style popular song.
"Katyusha no uta" by Sumako Matsui (a cappella)
Katyusha, my dear! Parting is painful.
I want to see you again at latest before snow melts.
Shall I pray god to fulfill my wish? ...
"Sendou kouta" by Shunyou Tottori
I am withered pampas grass on the dry riverbed.
You are also withered pampas of the same kind.
Both you and me are withered pampas grass, which
does not bloom in this world. ...
(*) Shunyou Tottori is one of the well-known enka singers. This is a historic example of acoustic recording in the early 1920s.

Birth of kayou-kyoku and its variety

In Japan, radio broadcasting started in 1925 and electric recording was introduced for SP records in 1927, and the technical preconditions for the development of popular songs became ready. The radio station began using the word "kayou-kyoku" for the popular songs it broadcasted. These happened when the reign of Emperor Showa, i.e. Showa period (1926 - 1989), started.

Chiyoko Sato
The first hit songs in the Showa period were "new folksongs", which described provincial places on the newly introduced pentatonic minor scale. We still occasionally sing the popular songs from that time such as "Habu no minato" (Harbor of Habu) which sold more than 100,000 discs in 1928.

I would like to introduce here also "Tokyo koushin-kyoku" (Tokyo march) from 1929. With this video you can see also the cityscape of Tokyo in the 1920s, i.e., Tokyo at the time of first kayou-kyokus. A classical soprano singer Chiyoko Sato (1897 - 1968) sang both songs and could be called as the first pop singer in Japan.

Modern and urban style
In those days American songs as well as numerous European songs became popular with Japanese lyrics, such as theme songs of German and French films, French chansons and tangos.

Teiichi Futamura
The modern American music, in particular fox trot, stimulated Japanese composers and for example "Kimi koishi" (I love you) was made in 1929.

Kimi koishi was revived in 1961 by Frank Nagai. I put here Futamura's version, though Frank's version is much more sophisticated than the original song by Teiichi Futamura (1900-1948). I find it amazing that this song was made only 10 years after the Western style popular songs were first accepted by the Japanese people and that it sounds very far from the traditional Japanese tones.


Masao Koga
Masao Koga composed "Kage wo shitaite" (Longing for your image) in 1931, which is thought to be the first example of enka songs. However, all previous songs composed on the pentatonic minor scale sound similar to this first enka. Masao Koga made many enka-style songs when enka became as a recognized category of popular songs in the 1960s and became the respected authority at the time. I think that this later reputation was the reason why people came to believe that Masao Koga was the creator of enka-style.

However, Masao Koga did not confine himself to enka style. Ichiro Fujiyama (1911-1993) made his debut with Koga songs. "Oka wo koete" (Over the hill) in 1931 was a record-breaking hit. Fujiyama was a singer representing the Japanese popular songs before WWII. He was a promising baritone singer of the Japanese classical music world. However, while he sang baritone part of Beethoven's 9th symphony, he started to work also as a pop singer during his student time and had a firm position till the end of his life. His singing style comes from classical music, but he sang various types of songs. Classic singers were an influential group of Japanese popular songs at the beginning of their existence.

Geisha singers

Kouta Katsutaro
However, there were also other types of singers. In 1933 and thereafter a number of geisha girls made their debuts as popular singers and sang songs with Japanese atmosphere in their special melismatic style, which was later adopted by enka singers.

Two major names are Kouta Katsutaro(1904-1974) and Ichimaru(1906-1997) and many others followed them as popular singers.

Kouta Katsutaro sang "Tokyo Ondo" (*) in 1933 and lead a boom of new local ondos. However, they did not sing only folksong like songs. One of the geisha singers, Michi-yakko(1917-1996), sang comical songs, such as "Aa, sorenanoni" (Ah, nevertheless) in 1937.
(*)"Ondo" is a special style of Japanese folk songs, where many people dance together with the same postures.
Swing back to the tradition

Taro Shoji
As a reaction to the modern and Western style living and music, the return to the old Japanese things became also an influential trend. Appreciation of rural and agricultural mentality and resistance to the urban, modern and Western style created popular songs deeply linked with the traditional music of the feudal time. A typical singer was Taro Shoji (1898-1972). His first hit "Akagi no komori-uta" (Lalaby in the Akagi Mountains) in 1934 featured a yakuza(*) and its hit was followed by many "matatabi"(**) songs. "Matatabi" songs combined the traditional popular songs with shamisen(***) accompaniment with pentatonic minor scale. This tradition goes deep into the post-war period.
(*)"Yakuza" is Japanese mafia.
(**)"Matatabi" means wandering life of yakuza-gamblers.
(***)"Shamisen" is a traditional Japanese string instrument. It was virtually the only instrument used for popular songs during the Edo period (1603-1867).
"Habu no minato" by Chiyoko Sato
Cormorants on the shore will go home in the evening.
The setting sun colors the port of Habu.
I wish we will have a calm weather tomorrow. ...

"Tokyo koshin-kyoku" by Chiyoko Sato

Willows in Ginza remind us the old days.
Who knows that elegant lady?
We dance with Jazz and drink liquor.
It rains in the next morning, as if it were tears of a dancer. ...

"Kimi koishi" by Teiichi Futamura

When twilight approaches, my agony becomes endless.
In my confused mind emerges a figure. Who is it?
I love you though my lips are faded.
Tears are overflowed. The night is getting late. ...

"Kage wo shitaite" by Ichiro Fujiyama

I am longing for your misty image,
On rainy days and sunny days.
Under the moon shine my heart finds no satisfaction.
If I wrap it up, it flairs up and
burns my body, while I cry silently....

"Oka wo koete" by Ichiro Fujiyama
Ichiro Fujiyama

Let us go over the hill.
The beautiful sky clears up cherrfully and we are so happy.
My heart bounses with joy. Applaud our youth.
Let us go over the hill and further more with hope.

This video recording was made in 1973.

"Tokyo ondo" by Kouta Katsutaro

Haa, if we dance, choito.
It must be Tokyo ondo, yoiyoi.
In the midst of the fine city, fine city, sate.
Yattona sore yoi yoi yoi,
Yattona sore yoi yoi yoi....
    (*) The words with underline do not have any particular meaning. They are special kinds of yelling we often use in traditional folksongs.

"Aa, sorenanoni" by Michiyakko

Adballoons are flying in the sky today again.
I thought you must be very busy in the office at this time.
Ah, nevertheless, nevertheless ... Hey, you!
No wonder I get angry.
    (*)This video recording was made in 1970.

"Akagi no komoriuta" by Taro Shoji

Don't cry, good baby. Sleep.
Even if crows in the mountains cry,
You should not cry, sleep.
If you cry, crows will cry again.

You're a boy. Sleep.
Even if you have no parents, you should not cry,
The moon is alone but does not cry.
So, sleep well. ...

Development of Japanese popular songs
"Yelaixiang" by Li Kouran
Li Kouran

Nightingale is singing romantically in the spring wind.
Yelaixiang is fragrant in the moonshine.
This fragrance, tears in a long night and singing nightingale.
The dream of a love disappears and leaves Yelaixiang. Yelaixiang.
Yelaixiang. A white flower. Yelaixiang. A flower of love.
Aha, my chest aches and the song is sorrowful. ...

    (*) This film was taken in 1958.

"Douki no skura"

You and I are the cherry blossoms of the same class.
We are blooming in the ground of the same military aviation school.
Bloomed blossoms are determined to fall.
We will fall brilliantly for our country. ...

"Suzukake no michi" by Katsuhiko Haida
Katsuhiko Haida

I will talk with a friend in the platanus road.
In the town of the school we used to go to.

Lovely bells ring behind leaves and
The dreams recur in the platanus road. ...
    (*) This video recording was made in 1969.

War approached

Despite of military incidents in the continent in the 1930s, people in Japan felt at the beginning of the Showa period still very remote from the war. However, the militarization of the Japanese politics advanced and Japan was heading towards war. The atmosphere of the time was reflected also in the popular songs.

Among the singers coming from the classical music, Noriko Awaya (1907-1999) became known as "queen of blues", because she sang "Wakare no blues" (Farewell blues) in 1937 and other melancholic blues with her special vibrato voice. The popularity of her melancholic songs might reflect the vague anxiety among the people.

"Wakare no Blues" by Noriko Awaya
Noriko Awaya

On opening the window, I can see the harbor.
I can see lights of the American pier.
Night wind, salty wind and love wind aboard,
where is the today's departing ship going to.
My sobbing mind!. My short-lived love!
Blues for dancing sound sorrowful. ...

This video recording was made in 1973.

Theme songs for movie films became popular from the end of the 1930s. Among the singers who became famous on the screen, I cannot forget Li Koulan (in Chinese "Li Xianglan": 1920-). She is a pure Japanese woman, but was introduced in the entertainment world in 1938 as a Chinese girl singing in Japanese, as a symbol of peaceful and prosperous coexistence of different races in Manchukuo. She sang many songs composed by Japanese and Chinese composers. At the end of the war, she was arrested by the Chinese Communists for treason and collaboration with the Japanese. After a series of military tribunals she was released, because she could prove that she was not a Chinese but a Japanese national. This Yelaixiang is a video from her farewell program in 1958. Later she became a Member of Parliament and worked hard to strengthen the friendship between Japan and China.

Wartime songs

The variety of songs ended at the end of the 1930s. The wartime control influenced a lot on the social life including popular songs. Military songs became prevailing. However, it seems to me that the most popular military songs were rather not those which triumph victories, but melancholic songs for example to remember fallen comrades or to idealize the friendship among fellow soldiers.

"Douki no Sakura" (Cherry blossoms of the same year) released in 1944 was sung among Tokkotai(*) pilots and one of the most popular military songs. Tokko-pilots used to sing this song a day before their final departure to sacrifice their young lives for the fatherland. When I listen to this song, I cannot believe that they were willing or happy to die. They had no other way and tried to convince themselves, I presume. Present suicide bombers in the Middle East might have similar mental conflict.
(*)Suicide or kamikaze squad
Though the wartime military government tightened the discipline of the people according to the need for conducting war and restricted entertainments, it could not forbid all non-military songs. There were therefore lyrical and romantic songs also during the war time. For example, "Suzukake-no-michi" (Platanus road) in 1942, which Katsuhiko Haida (1911-1982) sang and became popular as a college song. It sounds all the more beautiful to me, when I think those students who sing this song had to feel war and death very close to themselves.
 2009.1.31, rev 2014.8.17, 2020.12.9