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The Violin – a Japanese Folk Instrument? ヴァイオリン演歌

Margaret Mehl

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Published: November 7, 2014 at 10:52 AM [UTC]

In early summer 1999, towards the end of a sabbatical in Japan, a Japanese friend and I strolled through in Ueno Park in Tokyo. A festival happened to be in full swing and we wandered into the open air theatre. On the stage an astonishing sight met my eyes. A Japanese man in a kimono, hakama (a kind of pleated wide trousers), and high wooden geta sandals was playing the violin and singing at the same time. In between pieces he talked. As music goes, the performance wasn’t much to write home about, and the words I did not catch. So when my friend said the performance was vulgar and wanted to leave, I agreed.

But I couldn’t forget it. What was this man doing in his Japanese attire but with a Western musical instrument? The scene suggested some kind of performance I would label as “folk.” But to my knowledge Western musical instruments had never made it into what we could call the folk traditions of Japan – not even the versatile violin.

Only much later did I learn that the years after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) saw a new breed of strolling minstrel known as the “vaiorin enkashi,” a street singer, who accompanied himself on the violin. The first one to do this is said to have been Kaminaga Ryôgetsu (1888-1976). Not that he could play, but he felt that the novelty value of the Western instrument would more than make up for that. He had a musician tune his fiddle and mark the strings with black ink, so he would know where to stop turning the pegs. The sounds he produced made his audience jeer, but he was right in assuming that people would stop and listen.

Soon others followed his example. Some wore a bowler hat and Western shoes to enhance the image of exotic sophistication. Others donned the garb of impoverished students. A few of them where real students, for whom performing sentimental love songs became a popular night job. The violin, they hoped, would enhance their chances with the ladies. But enka singers were a mixed bunch, including some less than savoury characters, and that some of them took up the violin did nothing for the instrument’s image.

Untrained as most of them were, their playing style was pretty rough, but it did develop from unison accompaniment of the singing to a more elaborate playing style with prelude, interlude and postlude, as can be heard in recorded examples from the 1920s. The heyday of the vaiorin enkashi did not last long. They disappeared from the streets of Tokyo after the Great Kantô Earthquake in 1923, although they apparently could still be heard in the small variety theatres known as yose, where enthusiasts could enjoy various more or less traditional forms of entertainment generally perceived as lowbrow if not downright vulgar. Certainly not something most Japanese would want foreign visitors to see and mistake for “Japanese culture” if they can help it.

But what was this guy doing in the open in 1999 then? It took me another ten years to find out. I had started to write Not by Love Alone and a sabbatical at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton meant I had more time and freedom for my research. It occurred to me to surf the internet to try and determine the identity of the performer who’s act, vulgar or no, had been one of the inspirations to write about the violin in Japan. I only had a poor-quality snapshot to go on, but I think it may have been Fukuoka Utaji. If so, he is still going strong.

Here is a link to Fukuoka explaining and demonstrating what he calls “Taishô enka” (enka of the Taishô era, 1912-26) including remarks about his clothes (if you want to fast-forward, the song starts at about 1:15).

And here is another one where he is performing outdoors.

Fukuoka’s repertoire is not limited to “Taishô enka,” as the comic performance here shows. As the pompous visiting virtuoso “Utajinsky” he pokes fun at several fetishes in the world of classical music: touring superstars, Stradivari violins and Carnegie Hall: the latter in a word play with the word “negi” (onion or leek) you can buy easily and then toss aside (hôru).

Fukuoka is not the only one to perform vaiorin enka today. On Youtube you can find videos of contemporary performers as well as historical recordings; for example, the playlist at this link:

Or try searching by pasting the Japanese characters from my title above. You’ll find that many of the performers in the videos feel a need to explain the historical significance of the genre to their audience.

Perhaps, if the vaiorin enka becomes sufficiently acceptable as “Japanese culture” to be performed publicly at festivals, the Japan Foundation will soon start sponsoring performances abroad?

Posted on November 7, 2014 at 5:20 PM

I believe that "violin" is written as "baiorin" in Romanized Japanese. Obviously this doesn't affect your nice article at all.

From Michael Fox
Posted on November 7, 2014 at 5:29 PM
Wow! Fascinating stuff. One of my favorite things about the violin is how amazingly versatile it is - how many different traditions have adapted it and found a place for it in their musical styles.

Thanks so much for showing me a whole other side to the instrument. :)

Posted on November 12, 2014 at 12:18 AM
At traditional Irish music festivals in Ireland I've sometimes met some very good Japanese (and Chinese) folk fiddlers who really get immersed in the Irish traditional music. Their intrest in folk music doesn't surprise me.

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