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Song about Grandchildren an Unlikely Hit

March 17, 2000

Enka is a traditional form of Japanese popular music which, while appealing to those with highly polished singing skills, seldom produces any hit songs these days and accounts for a mere 3% of music sales. Recently though, to the relief of those in the world of enka who have been wondering sadly if the end might not be nigh for their music in Japan, a long-awaited hit song has emerged. Its title is "Mago" (grandchild).

Savior of Enka?
Today's pop charts in Japan are filled with songs by artists like Hikaru Utada and Morning Musume, which might best be described as Western-style pop music with Japanese lyrics rather than authentic Japanese popular music. Proponents of enka complain that the meanings of these songs are difficult to grasp, the names of many current groups are not Japanese and are therefore hard to remember, and the songs are almost impossible to sing at karaoke. It is not surprising then that these same people have warmly embraced "Mago," which many are hoping will be enka's savior.

"Why are you so adorable?/My grandchild you are my treasure." The performer who sings in this unabashed way about the unbearable cuteness of grandchildren is Itsuro Oizumi of Yamagata Prefecture. Oizumi is a national-champion folk singer who runs his own music school. He composed "Mago" as a tribute to the adorable nature of his own first grandchild, who was born in 1994. The song was included in an independently produced CD that went on sale in 1998. "Mago" was released nationally in April 1999 by a major record company after the president of a talent agency saw the audience's reaction to it at an amateur concert in which Oizumi performed.

The big break for "Mago" came in May 1999 when an amateur participant performed it on the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) television show "Nodo Jiman" (NHK Amateur Singing Contest). After the broadcast, NHK and local record shops began receiving a flood of inquiries about the song. Thereafter it rose rapidly up the charts and became a certified hit. As of January 24, 2000, the song was at number four in the charts. While enka songs with sales of 100,000 are considered a big hit, "Mago" has boasted remarkable sales of 600,000 copies in nine months and is still selling well.

Irresistible Appeal
In spite of his new-found popularity, Oizumi, 57, still lives in Yamagata, where he works cultivating cherries. Even when promotional work for the song takes him to Tokyo, he returns to Yamagata as frequently as time allows.

Although "Mago" was not written with big sales in mind, it nonetheless contains a sales-luring device. Japan's older generation is the main supporter of enka. As the country's population continues to age rapidly, this agegroup, the nation's wealthiest, is experiencing explosive growth in numbers. Few grandmothers or grandfathers can resist a song like "Mago" that sings about the "cuteness of grandchildren." The song opens with a child's voice calling "Jiichan! Baachan!" (Grandpa!, Grandma!), which serves as another way of catching the listener's attention.

Striking a Reflective Chord
"Mago"'s lyrics contain the phrase "Consumed with work/The role of a parent I couldn't fulfill/I play instead for my grandchild." This refers to grandfathers who were so consumed with their work in the prime of their lives during Japan's period of high economic growth that they were unable to give due attention to their children. The song is a straightforward ode to the justness of these people doting as much as possible on their grandchildren in order to make up for this lost time. The song also strikes a pensive chord with the generation of these grandchildren's parents, who sometimes think "my parents didn't devote enough attention to me," another reason for the strong sales of the CD.

Oizumi is taking the opportunity his newfound fame gives him to speak about bone-marrow banks and transplants during promotions and concerts. In 1995 his son was diagnosed with leukemia but was able to recover thanks to a marrow transplant from Oizumi. As a result of this experience, the singer is spreading word of the existence of marrow banks and asking as many people as possible to register as donors. These efforts also seem to be contributing to the popularity of "Mago."

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.