Japanese popular songs between 1945 and 1970

I would like to describe in this article the pop song history in the aftermath of the WWII and during the time of the Japanese economic miracle in the 1960s. In other words, I want to recall the musical environment I was brought up in. In 1958 Tokyo Tower was built and became the symbol of reconstruction of Japan. In the following year 1959 the Japanese people celebrated the royal wedding. We had the first crown princess coming from a common family, a symbol of the Japanese democratization. Then the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964 marked the end of the post war period in Japan. Though the life was still tough and hard, people had a dream and a rosy future.

Songs from the post-war period

I was born in 1950, five years after the end of WWII. Therefore, I of course do not know real-time the songs released in the first post-war years. However, as far back as I can remember, I was still able to hear often hit songs from the immediate postwar time, for example "Ringo no Uta" (Apple song),

Michiko Namiki
which was the theme song of the film "Breeze" released on 10th October 1945, only a month after the Japan's formal capitulation. The song is a bit sentimental, but its lyrics hint feelings of love, which was forbidden during the war time. Such a song must have heeled the mental wounds of the people after the long-lasting war.

"Aoi Sanmyaku" (Blue mountains) from 1949 is indeed the most popular Japanese song according to various researches. This result is understandable, because this is a song of departure from the old world - in particular you can see it in the second strophe - and everybody saw in the post-war Japan a promising future which was symbolized by blue mountains and their shining peaks.

I suspect, on the other hand, if the popularity of this song might have another reason. I mean, all post war generations have experiences to dance with Euro-American folk songs. This habit was brought in by the American occupation army and became established in the Japanese school life. So, virtually all Japanese danced Mayim-Mayim, Oklahoma Mixer (Turkey in the straw) and Jenkka in their school days. "Blue mountains" was somehow among those standard folk-dance numbers and for many one-time boys and girls its melody is linked to bittersweet memories of their adolescence.
"Ringo no uta" by Michiko Namiki

I close my lips to a red apple
Look up the blue sky without a word.
The apple says nothing
But I well understand her feeling.
My lovely apple, my lovely apple. ...

"Aoi Sanmyaku" by Ichiro Fujiyama
Ichiro Fujiyama

When young and cheerful singing voices are heard,
Snow slides disappear and flowers bloom.
Blue mountains and snow breaking cherry blossoms
Bring us today a dream from the end of the sky.

Good by with the old jacket.
Good by with a sad dream.
Birds sing for a traveling girl who longs for
the blue mountains and rosy clouds. ...
    (*) This video was taken in 1974 when Fujiyama was 63 years old.
"Otomi san" by Hachiro Kasuga
Hachiro Kasuga

A pine tree grows over a chic black fence.
Shampooed hair looks inviting.
Otomi! You must have died.
Even Shakyamuni would not know that you are alive.
Esaoh! Gen'ya-dana. ...

Gen'ya-dana was a district of Edo (Tokyo) where many artists and also concubines used to live.

"Ringo-mura kara" by Michiya Mihashi

Do you remember your home village?
Many years have passed, since our communication stopped.
Red apples are sent off to Tokyo.
Whenever I see them
I have a pain in my chest. ...

"Chanchiki Okesa" by Haruo Minami
Haruo Minami

The moon looks sad in a back alley.
Sake of a stall tastes bitter.
Unknown neighbors join together,
hit small dishes and sing chanchiki-okesa.
Okesa sounds pity and painful. ...

"Oushou" by Hideo Murata
Hideo Murata

Shogi pieces are easily blown away by a breath.
But, I put my life on Shogi.
Laugh away such an idiot, if you will.
I was born in Naniwa.
The moon over its eight-hundred-eight bridges knows my guts. ...

Otomi-san and other enka songs

The first popular song whose hit I personally experienced was "Otomi-san" in 1954. This is based on a Kabuki play, where a girl becomes a concubine of a powerful merchant. One day, her former boyfriend comes to the merchant house and tries to extort money from his concubine without knowing that she was once his girlfriend. The story is awful, but this song creates a festive mood from an awful material.

Compared to the previous two songs, this "Otomi-san" sounds more Japanese. This has its reason, because "Otomi-san" is composed on a major pentatonic scale without the fourth and seventh tone of scale. This is one of the typical scales of the traditional Japanese music. The preferred scale for the Japanese kayou-kyoku (popular song) is the pentatonic scale without the fourth and seventh tone, but minor. This minor pentatonic scale was invented in the process of introducing European music into Japan to express sentimental and pessimistic feeling.

Michiya Mihashi
In the 1960s Japan succeeded in developing its economy at two-digit growth rate and the people came to enjoy consumption. They could own private cars and go on leisure trips. This Japanese economic miracle was supported by young workers coming from provincial areas. The songs reflecting their longing for home and friends were often composed on typical minor pentatonic scale. A typical example "Ringo-mura kara" (From an apple producing village) was sung by Michiya Mihashi, who has Japanese folk song as his musical background.

Enka received around this time new inputs also from other kinds of traditional popular performing arts such as "rokyoku" or "naniwa-bushi".
(*) Naniwa-bushi is a special style of narrative singing with shamisen accompaniment originated in Tokyo in the early Meiji Period. Naniwa-bushi numbers have usually vulgar stories underlining the contradiction between feudal obligations and personal relations.
I would like to introduce "Chanchiki okesa" from 1957 by Haruo Minami and "Ousho" (King of Shogi game) from 1961 by Hideo Murata.

Chanchiki-okesa describes a sad feeling of a young man living in a town far from his home and a girl he loves. Minami had a high and beautiful voice and created a gorgeous performance.
(*) "Okesa" is a folk song style in Sado and other places. "Chanchiki" is a metal instrument. In this song pub guests use small dishes as chanchiki and sing a song in okesa style.
Ousho on the other hand is a song about a Shogi (Japanese chess) player who wants to be the strongest in Japan. Murata had a macho voice and sang big-boned men in his songs. Both singers were enthusiastically supported by older and rural people.

Enka started to form its identity through the 1950s and 60s, but its border to other types of popular songs was still very fluid.

The development of urban popular songs

I personally was attracted by songs with a bit more urban flavor. Frank Nagai sang moody urban songs composed by Tadashi Yoshida such as "Yurakucho de aimasho" (Let's meet at Yurakucho) released in 1957. Frank Nagai trained his beautifully soft and moody voice and technique by singing jazz and other American pop songs as a singer for American officers' club. It was a typical experience for the singers in the post-war period. Frank Nagai symbolized the sophisticated night life in the urban Tokyo.

I also have to refer to the outstanding twin singers "The Peanuts", who made their debut in 1959 with "Chiisana Hana" (Le petite fleur). The Peanuts is the best duet group we ever had in our history of popular music. They were for me a symbol of smart and elegant world of Tokyo, which also leads to dreamlike foreign countries.

However, when I listened to their songs recently, I noticed that the world they described in their songs is not luxurious at all. For example, a girl makes her dress and mends her favorite socks for a date with her boyfriend. In another song, young people do not have money in their pockets but say they have big dreams.

The Peanuts were scouted by Catherina Valente and sang in a German TV show for several seasons. They released in Germany 8 single records and several albums, mostly in German language! While I was in Germany, I was surprised to hear from some German friends that they remembered "Die Peanuts" and their songs. Among others "Koi no Vacance" (Vacation of Love) and "Una sera di Tokyo" - Spanish was used for the song title - are still very popular in Karaoke!

"Ue wo muite arukou (Sukiyaki)" by Kyu Sakamoto
Kyu Sakamoto

I look up when I walk
So tears will not wet my cheek.
I remember the spring days.
I am left alone tonight. ...

When I refer to the activities of Japanese singers in foreign countries, I shall not forget "Ue wo muite arukou" (I look up when I walk). This song sung by Kyu Sakamoto was known as "Sukiyaki" in the English-speaking countries and became No. 1 in the Billboard weekly sales ranking in 1963. Sukiyaki was composed on a major pentatonic scale and in that sense very traditional Japanese. However, the singing style of Kyu Sakamoto was very American, as he was originally a rockabilly singer and sang accordingly.

Stimulated by Elvis Presley, rock'n roll and rockabilly boomed in Japan at the end of the 1950s. I was still a child and did not have much interest in rockabilly and its singers. But their annual rockabilly festival was not only popular but an incubator of many singers.

Sukiyaki had a taste which fits the feeling of young people, who were familiar with the music world very remote from the Japanese music tradition. The so-called "utagoe movement" started in the post war Japan in relation to the labor union activities. Young people gathered and sang together cheerful and fresh songs from all over the world. Because of its affinity to trade union, “utagoe movement” introduced many Russian folksongs, which are romantic and sentimental.

When the Japanese economic miracle started in the 1960s, young people who were born in the baby boomer years between 1947 and 1950 gradually started to participate in the consumption market. They had hope and dream in the future and needed songs reflecting their feelings. Therefore, the songs appealing to their young mentality started to be produced and idol singers for young generation were created, such as three young male singers Yukio Hashi, Teruhiko Saigo and Kazuo Funaki.

Funaki sang in student uniform "Koko Sannen-sei" (Third grade high-school students) in 1963 and got an explosive support by teen agers.

Another super-idol for young girls was Yuzo Kayama. Kayama was brought up in a luxury urban environment and as a student of Keio University, the smartest university according to the general perception of Japanese people, represented a new and pleasant life style. His hit "Kimi to itsumade mo" (With you forever) 1966 has not lost its popularity till now.

"Kimi-to itsumademo" by Yuzo Kayama
Yuzo Kayama

The twilight is hiding us at the window side.
Here will come again wonderful happiness tomorrow.
Your eyes are shining like stars.
My heart flames up in love.
The sinking sun coloring up the sky will fade away,
But our minds will never change. Never.

"I am happy.... When I am with you, I am most happy.
I am so happy. I will not give you up
till the end of my life. OK?"...

We had also female singers and their hits in the 1960s such as "Koi no Kisetsu" (Season of Love) by Pinky and Killers and "Bluelight Yokohama" by Ayumi Ishida, both from 1968. "Koi no kisetsu" is in fact the only hit song of this group. Later, Yoko Kon alias Pinky came to be active in musical performances. On the other hand, Ayumi Ishida later became a popular actress. She is the second among four daughters and the story of her family was dramatized for TV in 2003, in which she herself played as a singer.

"Yurakucho de aimasho" by Frank Nagai
Frank Nagai

While I am waiting for you, rain has started.
I am worrying whether you might come wet.
In a tearoom beside high buildings,
Even rain is amicable and somebody is singing a sweet blues.
The password between you and me is
"Let us meet in Yurakucho"...

"Koi no Vacance" by The Peanuts
The Peanuts

Your kiss makes me heave a sigh
And makes a young girl’s mind dream a sweet love.
On a golden shining beach,
Let us fall in love
Naked as mermaids. ...
(This video is from their fair-well concert in 1975.)

"Koko Sannen-sei" by Kazuo Funaki
Kazuo Funaki

The red setting sun colors school buildings.
Lively voices are echoing in the shadow of elm trees.
We are in the third grade of the high-school.
Even after we go different ways,
We are classmates forever. ...

"Koi no Kisetsu" by Pinky and Killers

I cannot forget him. I love him.
He was looking at sea in a blue shirt.
I was barefoot, and floating a small shell like a boat and crying without clear reason.
Love. My love flares up coloring the sky.
He said he would never let me alone till the end of life.
It was the season of love.

Love. My love flares up coloring the sky.
He said he would drink a morning coffee together with me.
It was the season of love. ....

"Blue light Yokohama" by Ayumi Ishida
Ayumi Ishida

The town lights are very beautiful.
Yokohama, blue light Yokohama.
I am happy together with you.
Give me as usual
Yokohama, blue light Yokohama,
words of love from you.
I walk and walk, and
I sway like a small boat and arrive in your arms....

"Anko tsubaki wa koi no hana" by Harumi Miyako
Harumi Miyako

Loading the letter, delayed by three days,
A ship leaves Habu port.
Though I love you so much, you live far away.
You are gone over the sea and never back
Letters by anko are one way letters....

Cf. "Anko" means "young girl" in Izu-Oshima. This is a video clip from a film with the same title made in 1965. Harumi Miyako puts on an Anko costume.

"Yosaku" by Saburo Kitajima

Yowaku is falling tree.
Hei-hei hoh, hei-hei hoh.
Echo is responding back.
Hei-hei hoh, hei-hei hoh.

Wife is weaving at the loom.
Ton-ton ton, ton-ton ton.
Tender hearted is she.
Ton-ton ton, ton-ton ton.

Yosaku, Yosaku. Sun is setting.
Yosaku, Yosaku. Wife is calling.
Hoh-hoh, hoh-hoh...

"Nagasaki wa kyou mo ame datta" by Kiyoshi Maekawa
Kiyoshi Maekawa

I trusted you alone.
I believed your words for love.
I have been searching for you and straying alone.
It is painful to stand on stone pavement.
Ah, it rains again today in Nagasaki. ...

"Kita no Hotaru" by Shinichi Mori

Mountain cries. Wind cries.
Slightly behind, Snow cries.
Woman cries, when light swings
and white body melts down.

When I die, breaking through my breasts
will fly a red firefly.

Fly away the firefly.
Fly into the chest of my beloved.
Fly away the firefly
Forget the bitters and burn away...

Enka becomes mature

In the late 1960s the word "enka" started to be used to refer to a special category of kayou-kyoku. Enka underlines traditional Japanese mentality and often describes the man-woman relationship in red-light district. Enka established its clear identity in contrast to the Western influenced "pops". Masao Koga, who is said to be the inventor of enka at around 1930, felt the surge of enka affection and restarted composing enka songs.

Then, new characteristic singers such as Saburo Kitajima (1962), Harumi Miyako (1964), Mina Aoe (1966), Shinichi Mori (1966) and Kiyoshi Maekawa (1969) made their debuts and enka started its golden age.

Saburo Kitajima
Saburo Kitajima comes from Hokkaido and is good at singing robust and powerful men in their works as fishers, woodcutter and so on.

Harumi Miyako made her debut in 1964 with "Anko tsubaki wa koi no hana" (Camellia of anko is a flower of love) when she was mere fifteen years old. She introduced a special growling voice and added extra power of expression to enka.

"Isezakicho Blues" by Mina Aoe
Mina Aoe

Aha, aha, aha, aha ...
Do you know the harbor of Yokohama?
When sea wind blows through roadside trees,
Lights turn on in Isezaki,
as if they deplore the falling flowers at night.
Lights of love and pity. Dudubi, dubi, dubi, dubi ...

Shinichi Mori
Mina Aoe and Shinichi Mori had both extreme husky voices. With such a voice and shocking blond colored hair Mina Aoe sang sexy, mature and independent women working in entertainment districts. I would like to present here one of her hit songs "Isezakicho Blues" from 1968. Mina Aoe died relatively young, but Shinichi Mori keeps his high popularity till now and gaspingly sings desperately painful feeling.

On the other hand, Kiyoshi Maekawa had a moody low voice。When he was young, he was a member of "Uchiyamada-Hiroshi and Cool Five". His first hit was "Nagasaki wa kyo mo ame datta" in 1969.

With the debuts of these singers with strong individualities Enka reached its golden age and kept its high profile for the next 20 years.

Impact of the Beatles

Against such a background the Beatles came to Japan in 1966 and gave a long-lasting and deep reaching impact on the Japanese pop music world.

A year before the Beatles' visit, the Ventures paid their second visit to Japan and gave rise to a "group sounds" boom. Many young musicians started to take electric guitars in their hands and formed units consisting of a few till several musicians and captured the soul of teenage girls. The Beetles' visit escalated the group sounds boom in the remaining years of the 1960s.

Despite that their sound was somewhat influenced by Ventures, Beatles and other Western groups, group sounds were in their essence still very Japanese and did not digest the new 8 beats rhythm from the West, and their technique was amateurish. Therefore, the boom disappeared promptly at the beginning of the 1970s.

When I was a teen-ager, I personally hated their loud and unsophisticated sounds, and hysteric and mad actions and reactions of musicians and listeners. Therefore, I am not entitled to talk about their music. However, I want to continue and take up here an example of group sounds:"The Tigers". This is a video clip from their film "The world is waiting for us" and the title of the song is "Blue bird". The main vocalist Kenji Sawada was a super idol among young girls. When I listen to their music now, I don't think it so loud, but extremely sentimental and Japanese.

Mike Maki
At the end of the 1960s I was rather fascinated by the emergence of college folks. They took their model from the American folk singers such as Brothers Four, PPM and Bob Dylan. Many singers and groups sang American songs such as "Blown in the wind" with translated lyrics, but they also started to make their own songs. "Bara ga saita" (A rose bloomed) by Mike Maki in 1966 was the first Japan-made folk song hit, though it was not very sophisticated. Ryoko Moriyama composed "Kono hiroi nohara ippai" (Full in this wide field) in 1967 and nowadays I sometimes play it with the arrangement for string quartet.

This was the situation of the Japanese popular songs just before the fanatic student movement and the change of value system took place around 1970. Japan was still in the period of high growth rate, but the environmental pollution started to endanger the nature and the human health. In the neighboring world the Cultural Revolution was raging in China and the Vietnam War bogged down.

"Aoi Tori" by The Tigers
from the film "The world is waiting for us"
Ken Sawada

I found a blue bird,
a bird bringing happiness.
in a beautiful island.

However, you will fly into the sky
though I love you so much.

I put a small happiness on my hand.
Therefore please don't fly away....

"Bara ga saitau" by Mike Maki

A rose blooms, a rose blooms A red rose blooms in the somber garden of mine. Only one rose blooms. This little rose brightens my somber garden. Rose, rose, little rose. Please keep blooming there as it is. A rose blooms, a rose blooms. This red rose brightens my somber garden.

"Kono hiroi nohara ippai" by Ryoko Moriyama
Ryoko Moriyama

I will give you all flowers
blooming till the end of this wide field.
As a bouquet with a red ribbon.

I will give you all stars
blooming till the end of this wide night sky
In a glass shining in rainbow colors. ....

 2009.1.18, rev.2014.8.16, 2020.12.9