The musical forms treated here as ‘popular’ comprise those most often associated with the rise of the mass media, specifically printed media, recordings, radio, cinema and television. While most musical genres performed in Japan have been disseminated through print and recordings or broadcast at one time or another, particular genres have developed in close conjunction with the mass media and the socio-musical expectations of their audiences.
(i) To 1945.
Many genres of Japanese music associated today with the Western concept of ‘popular music’ originated during the Meiji period (1868–1912). The terms hayariuta and, later, ryūkōka (both literally meaning popular songs) have been used as broader concepts that subsume specific popular song forms. Many such popular songs have texts that are related to current events or social trends and are relatively short-lived in popularity. In contrast to traditional folksongs, composers and lyricists of popular songs are individually identifiable and some gain considerable fame. With some exceptions, especially among jazz-influenced forms, purely instrumental music has played a secondary role in Japanese popular musical life.
During the Meiji period, the introduction of Western culture and concepts of democracy and liberalism deeply affected the Japanese political as well as musical scene. Particularly in urban centres such as Tokyo and Osaka, emerging popularistic political movements enlisted support through a new kind of speech-song called enka. With texts related to the goals of the Jiyū Minken Undō (People's Democratic Rights Movement), enka songs were heard in music halls and tea houses as well as outdoors on street corners, where broadsheets containing the lyrics were sold. Owing to the songs' directly political nature, the lyrics were considered of greater importance than the melody, so early enka were usually half-shouted and half-chanted to emphasize the texts clearly. In using this technique they were influenced by the style of rakugo, comic storytelling that was performed in variety halls. Early examples of this kind of enka include Dainamaito-bushi (‘Dynamite Song’) and Oppekepē. Later, other traditional song genres that had developed in Japan's urban tea houses and theatres influenced the melodic and performing style of enka, including shinnai-bushi, gidayū-bushi, kouta and zokkyoku.
In the late Meiji and the Taishō periods, political and social events continued to shape enka lyrics. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–5 made popular composed songs on patriotic and military themes (gunka), often accompanied by the genkan lute. Again during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, gunka from the Sino-Japanese War were revived, and new patriotic songs were composed. In between these two conflicts, however, economic depression and the growth of socialism once more produced socially critical song texts. In addition, everyday events and humorous topics also found a place in enka lyrics. From 1907 the violin sometimes replaced the shamisen lute as accompanying instrument, as heard in recordings of Nonki-bushi (1918).
In 1896 the first gramophones were imported into Japan for sale, and traders soon discovered that Japanese consumers preferred indigenous music to that from the West. Early recordings were made in Japan by kouta and gidayū-bushi singers, manufactured in England or America and then re-shipped to Japan. In 1907 an American-Japanese record company (Nichibei Chikuonki Manufacturing Company, the predecessor of Nippon Columbia) was established, soon followed by other companies building factories and founding sales outlets for a quickly growing market. By 1926, the monthly sales of Nichibei Chikuonki alone had reached 150,000 records and 5000 phonographs.
The rise of hit songs spurred on this economic development. One of the earliest was Kachūsha no uta (‘Song of Katherine’, composed by Nakayama Shinpei), a ballad of 1914 that sold 200,000 copies. While this song dealt with a foreign theme (it was composed for the Tolstoy play Resurrection) and displayed a mixture of European harmonies and Japanese scales, most hit songs of this period remained ‘Japanese’ in sound. Accompanied by shamisen, using yō or in scales and containing lyrics in traditional poetic forms, popular songs of the early days of phonograph recordings sound similar to the kouta of the tea houses, gidayū-bushi or folksongs. In addition to the few examples of ‘exotic’ European-type songs, other important genres showing Western influence include shōka, children's school songs, and the previously mentioned gunka military songs. The former were composed from the mid-1880s specifically for use in school instruction and were disseminated through school textbooks. Shōka school songs often used the so-called yonanuki (‘fourth and seventh [degrees of the major or minor scale] omitted’) scale. They were short, easy to learn songs, written in verse form and having metres of 4/4, 2/4 or (less frequently) 3/4 or 6/8. In the classrooms, these tunes were accompanied by piano or orugōru music box. Gunka such as Taishō gunka, composed by Yamada Gen'ichirō in 1894 during the Sino-Japanese War, appeared at the same time as shōka and also used the yonanuki scale. Many of these, which were used to bolster fighting spirit among soldiers both at home and abroad, feature a steady march beat and an instrumental accompaniment emphasizing Western military and drum instruments.
The rise of popular song genres such as enka and gunka stimulated the development of a new occupation: the professional songwriter. Nakayama Shinpei (1887–1952), originally a grammar school teacher, gained instant fame with Kachūsha no uta and in his lifetime wrote over 2000 songs. The best known of these include Gondora no uta (‘Gondola Song’, 1915), Sendō kouta (‘Boatman's kouta’, 1921) and Tōkyō ondo (1933; see §VII, 3 above). In the course of his career, Nakayama often took advantage of the relationship between popular song and theatre (later films), linking some songs with a particular play or film and vice versa. Later in his career he felt more drawn to Japanese folk music and composed songs in folk style, using a yonanuki scale mostly in minor mode. Koga Masao (1904–78) gained fame with Sake wa namida ka tameiki ka (‘Is Sake Tears or Sighs?’, 1931) and from an early age wrote under contract for different record companies. He developed his own musical style (the so-called ‘Koga melody’) that used the yonanuki scale and Japanese-style vibrato and ornaments in the voice (yuri and kobushi). Many of his numerous hits were sung by Fujiyama Ichirō (b 1911), so that the two names became inextricably associated with one another in the popular song world.
The years between the Taishō era (1912–26) and the beginning of World War II saw significant turbulence in Japan's society and economy. Due to improvements in medical care and general quality of life, Japan's population almost doubled between 1910 and 1940. This meant that Japan, previously self-sufficient in raw goods and agriculture, now required imports from abroad and ever larger amounts of exports to pay for them. In addition, economic depressions and a dramatic population shift to the cities created social unrest that could not be easily pacified by the weak central political powers. The impoverished tenant farmers resented the relatively comfortable life of urban dwellers, and the growing Western-influenced popular culture (including songs that referred to jazz, alcohol and couple-dancing) was criticized by rightists as ‘anti-Japanese’.
Interestingly, it was particularly in periods of economic hardship and social unrest that the record industry grew at astounding rates. Record sales rose over 60% between 1929 and 1931. The rise of star singers such as Fujiyama and Awaya Noriko (b 1907), who both consistently produced hit songs throughout the 1930s, spurred on record consumption and the newly-developing radio industry. Awaya became known as the ‘Blues Queen’ for hit songs such as Wakare no Burūzū (‘Separation Blues’, 1937) and Ame no Burūzu (‘Rain Blues’, 1938), both of which were composed by Hattori Ryōichi (1907–93). The Japanese version of a blues sound was created through the use of the minor yonanuki scale (see §I, 4 above) and evenly-accented, moderate 4/4 rhythms to the accompaniment of a brass-dominated jazz orchestra. As the military rose in influence in the years preceding World War II, gunka from previous wars and new military songs became popular. Roei no uta (‘Bivouac song’, 1937), with lyrics pledging victory and courageous deeds and set to trumpet fanfares and drums, was a particularly popular gunka, selling 600,000 copies. Popular songs of the World War II period reveal many titles dealing with current events, particularly with the war in the Pacific and Asia, and appealing to patriotic feelings. Some of the non-militaristic songs that were popular at this time were originally composed for films; close ties between films and popular songs had already developed in the 1930s.