Japanese music around the world discussion

Japanese music around the world, as well as the impact of world music on the evolution of Japanese culture focusing on the post-war period. Using Web searches and Google Scholar searches related to post-war Japanese music, including specific search terms like “enka” and “Beatles in Japan,” the researchers collected a series of primary and secondary sources showing how music in Japan evolved throughout the 20th century like a dramatically changing kaleidoscope of clashing cultures. Music and culture evolve concurrently, often paralleling and mirroring each other and echoing each other’s politics, values, and aesthetics. In the generation immediately following the end of World War Two, enka and the introduction of the Beatles music to Japan represented the dichotomies between conservative and progressive, between old and young, between past and future.

Evolution of Enka

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Even though enka has changed over time, the musical style has always had a strong political and cultural connotation. Enka, which literally translates to “performance song,” traces its roots to the prewar Meiji Era (Cahoon 1). It was a style of singing that used lyrics to convey political messages, during a time when political parties were starting to communicate their platforms in public but were restrained by laws prohibiting speeches (Cahoon 1). Therefore, enka became a way for Japanese politicians to subvert the Meiji reform policies, and it also showcased the way Japan was changing.

Enka was and still is characterized by its fusion of western and Japanese elements. Yet through blending western instrumentation with classical Japanese vocal styles and some Japanese instrumentation and scales, enka has been called one of the “musical markers of Japaneseness,” (Shamoon 113). It retains a sentimental value in the culture today, mainly among the older generation that came of age around the 1960s. Enka is mainly a ballad genre, but its style has changed considerably since it first evolved out of kayokyoku styles but then started to take on different forms in the 1960s (Shamoon 113). The closest American parallel to enka would be country music, due to the ballad format and the conservative nature of the genre, which has evolved but still has strict stylistic rules (Cahoon 1). In fact, enka has been called “rigid and concerned with nostalgia for a ‘pure’ Japanese past,” even while significantly changing many elements of the music itself including the instrumentation and vocals (Shamoon 113). However, even when enka emerged as the dominant popular music in Japan during the 1960s, sentimentality was a part of its spirit. It was an attempt to reach back to a purer era in history. Japan was industrializing rapidly during the 1960s, and these changes transformed the social and geographic landscape of the nation. Enka was a symbolic aural bridge between the past, present, and future. Enka arguably reached its peak in the 1960s, which is why it is now perceived as the music of an older generation.

The British Invasion

When the Beatles first played in Japan in June of 1966, the event was more than just a concert. It was a symbol of bridge building between Japanese and English culture, harmonizing East and West. However, the Beatles played at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, a building that during the postwar period was “considered a national shrine to Japan’s war dead,” (“Live: Nippon Budokan Hall, Tokyo,” p. 1). It was located as part of the Imperial Palace and had been constructed during the Olympics in 1964 for martial arts displays. It was essentially an emblem of Japanese power and identity, just as enka had been in the poswar era. The Budokan possessed symbolic power, so when the Beatles came and performed there, it was a major political and social issue.

The younger generation might not have cared, but many “saw it as sacrilegious that a rock ‘n’ roll group were allowed to perform there,” (“Live: Nippon Budokan Hall, Tokyo,” p. 1). The “annoyed elders were postwar right-wingers,” according to Sathian, and mistrusted the new type of invasion coming from a western power: the British invasion. Therefore, the Beatles symbolized the war all over again. The performance was more about politics and Japanese national pride than it was about music. Prime Minister Eisaku Sato said at the time that it was “inappropriate” for the Beatles to play at the Budokan (Sathian). The outcry against the Beatles had become so pronounced, that there were death threats against the band and the security was tight: some 30,000 uniformed police on the street between the airport, Beatles’ hotel, and the concert venue (“Live: Nippon Budokan Hall, Tokyo,” p. 1). In contrast, there were only 10,000 seats inside the Nippon Budokan, but the Beatles played several shows to sold out crowds.

Whereas enka was the music that symbolized the past, Japanese identity, and nationalism, the Beatles symbolized the future, a new role for Japan in the geo-political stage, and multi-nationalism. After the Beatles played their historical shows in Tokyo, a major barrier had been dismantled between Japan, which had previously been the war enemy of the allies and Great Britain, and the Western world that had once fought against it. For the older generations, the Beatles symbolized their national identity being usurped by Westerners. For the younger generation, it was different: the need to be part of a global community while still retaining Japanese identity was what they got out of the Beatles performance. Enka might have been the thread that tied the younger generation to its parents, allowing them to remember the costly war. The Beatles and all the other western influences on Japanese music, however, made a stronger impact on the avant garde scene in Japan. Both threads, sentimental enka and the forward-thinking Beatles, combined to create the Japanese music of the future that would influence the world.

Culture and Counterculture

As Sathian points out, “music can say a lot about geopolitics.” This is true for enka as well as the Beatles. Both enka and the Beatles have strong political dimensions as well as being embedded in their respective cultures. For Japan, enka was the way to assert Japanese identity, including its history and aesthetic. Instruments like the shamisen are often used in tandem with western instrumentation in enka. Similarly, the vocal style of enka is quintessentially Japanese, and difficult to mimic (Cahoon). Interestingly, modern African-American performer Jero has become a cultural anomaly, as he sings enka in the traditional way as viewed in this performance: (https://vimeo.com/41383840).

Jero shows the tremendous impact even traditional Japanese music has had on the world. Not all traditional music needs to be confined to its culture of origin. Some forms, when removed from their cultures of origin, communicate volumes about that root culture and help to build bridges through the arts. The same thing happened in reverse when American country music became popular in Japan (Furmanovsky). Enka and country music share much in common, much more in common than country music and the Beatles or enka and the Beatles. And yet for the Japanese listener in the 1960s, country music resembled enka as well as a radically different musical aesthetic. Furmanovsky claims that country music became so popular in Japan among young people that it challenged jazz; the equivalent would be enka suddenly becoming popular among American hippies. What these musical conversations meant was that Japan was listening closely to what the world had to say through song. The nation of Japan was on the brink of major social, political, and economic changes. It had hosted the world at the Olympics, its economic prowess was growing astronomically, and it was ready to borrow and synthesize from other cultures, fusing musical and artistic styles within its own sensibility. Japan was maturing much as America was during this time, evolving an identity out of the clash between the old culture and the counterculture movement of the 1960s.


During the postwar period, Japan needed desperately to reconstruct its national identity. It also had to rebuild after the ravages of the war, and redirect its attention towards its economic development. While it grappled with disarmament issues and diplomacy at the level of politics, Japanese culture was also going through its growing pains. Art and culture, and particularly music, became a way to renegotiate Japanese identity and ethos. Starting with enka, Japanese music evolved a strong folk-driven element that represents the conservative thread in Japanese society. Although enka has changed perhaps more than people care to admit, the musical style is sentimental much as the blues or country music is the Americans. Contrary to enka, the British invasion starting with the Beatles performance in Tokyo at the Nippon Budokan represented a radical departure and shift in Japanese culture. The Beatles appealed to the younger generation around the world, who everywhere saw in the Fab Four liberation from their parents’ conservative worlds. This was especially true in Japan. The Beatles represented the division between the progressive youth and the conservative elders, leading to a self-aware generation of rock musicians who completely transformed Japanese music. Japanese music since the Beatles has been innovative and renowned worldwide, including experimental rock forms as well as noise and electronic music.

Works Cited

Cahoon, Keith. “Just What is Enka, Anyway?” 2005. Retrieved online: http://nippop.com/features/Just_What_is_Enka__Anyway%3F/

Furmanovsky, M. (2008). American country music in Japan. Popular Music and Society, Vol 31, Issue 3, 2008, pp. 357-372.

“Japanese popular songs between 1945 and 1970,” (n.d.). Retrieved online: http://www.ocada.jp/culture/pops1.php

“Live: Nippon Budokan Hall, Tokyo,” n.d. Retrieved online: https://www.beatlesbible.com/1966/06/30/live-nippon-budokan-hall-tokyo/

McClure, S. “Yesterday: When the Beatles Typhoon hit Japan.” (n.d.) Retrieved online: http://features.japantimes.co.jp/beatles-in-budokan/

Sathian, S. When the Beatles took on Japan’s right wing. 2016. Retrieved online: http://www.ozy.com/flashback/when-the-beatles-took-on-japans-right-wing/69958

Shamoon, Deborah. “Recreating traditional music in postwar Japan: a prehistory of enka.” Japan Forum, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2014, pp. 113-138.

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