In June, a new enka star was born at the Asia Diva Audition held in Tokyo's trendsetting neighborhood of all things "kawaii" and cool: Shibuya.
Momoyo Fukuda won the top Grand Prix award from more than 21,000 contestants.
"I will be an artist who will be supported by everyone," Fukuda says.
Fukuda's specialty is "gal's enka," a J-pop subgenre that focuses on sentimental themes, such as a girl waiting for love or suffering because of an unrequited love.
But nowadays, gal's enka singers are turning to more upbeat, positive and exhilarating music to win the hearts of fans.
"Gal's enka" was coined by Kensuke Suzuki, an associate professor of sociology at Kwansei Gakuin University.
According to Suzuki, the definitions of gal's enka are:
1) It tells about bitter experiences in a romantic relationship.
2) It is told in the first person and deals with regret and other introspective feelings.
3) The protagonist must get over those experiences and show her determination to become independent and grow up.
Leading gal's enka singers include Kana Nishino and Miliyah Kato. They present a wide variety of musical styles ranging from full-fledged R&B to ballads in the style of kayokyoku (traditional Japanese popular music). But similar to traditional enka songs, their lyrics are characterized by stereotypical phrases.
Gal's enka music became popular among teenage girls with the widespread use of the music ringtone download service "Chaku Uta" in the late 2000s.
"Listeners became able to instantly download music suitable to their moods through Chaku Uta when they were feeling introspective, and that was a major change," Suzuki says. "And then the circles of sympathy began to expand through blogs and social networking sites."
But how do gal's enka singers differ from J-pop superstar Ayumi Hamasaki, who gained enormous popularity among girls in the early 2000s?
"I had no place to be. I couldn't find one," Hamasaki sings in her song "A Song for xx," released in 1999, to reflect her wandering soul in search of self-esteem.
In comparison, gal's enka songs deal with more realistic problems.
For example, in her 2008 song "Sayonara Baby," Miliyah Kato laments her relationship, saying: "I pretended I didn't know/ Your cellphone is always locked/ You hardly answer my calls."
"If Ayu can be classified as an artist who keeps asking herself questions such as 'Where am I? Who am I?' then gal's enka singers can be described as 'I-wanna-be-happy' kind of artists," Suzuki adds. "Gal's enka artists sing about problems easy to relate to, but hard to solve, like a boyfriend seeing another girl."
"Gal's enka is a musical form of cellphone novel," says Mihoko Nishii, a researcher at Dentsu Gal Labo, a planning and marketing team organized by the nation's leading ad agency, Dentsu Inc. Nishii is referring to stories available on "keitai," many of which are romantic fiction written by novice writers.
"It doesn't give much situational descriptions such as time and place, and emotions like, 'I wanna see you,' are brought to the forefront," Nishii says. "Accessible lyrics similar to text messages exchanged between friends have won the sympathy of the listeners."
"Gyaru" (gal) fashion has many subgenres, but most typically feature girls and young women with heavily dyed hair, excessively decorated nails, false eyelashes and dramatic makeup.
The majority of "gals" in modern Japan are "pa-gal" (part-gals) who sport gal's favorite fashion items including false eyelashes and a straw boater hat. On the other hand, "ma-gal," (100 percent pure gals) love dressing up in makeup and sporting hip fashion items from head to toe.
According to calculations by Dentsu Gal Labo, there are 8.45 million ma-gals and pa-gals in Japan. If ma-gals have played major roles in supporting Hamasaki's popularity, it can be said that pa-gals, whose preferences are more diversified, listen to gal's enka.
Gal's enka has found widespread support, but nowadays it finds itself at a crossroads. With the rapid spread of smartphones, music ringtone download services for phones have been facing tough competition with one another.
According to the Recording Industry Association of Japan, consumers spent 79.8 billion yen ($1.02 billion) on Chaku Uta and other music ringtone services for feature phones in 2008. But the figure dropped to 58.3 billion yen in 2011, dealing a blow to gal's enka music, whose main source of revenue has come from Chaku Uta.
Recently, there are an increasing number of gals who prefer partying with their friends singing "Age Uta" (songs that cheer up people), including those performed by all-girl idol group AKB48.
Gal's enka singers who used to sing about tragic love are now exploring a wide range of themes. In a major departure from their old style, they sing about love for family and friends, and even express feelings for their love interests in a more upfront manner.
"The nature of gals is beginning to change--from having sympathy like 'I know it was heartbreaking for you' in response to listeners' negative feelings--to sharing the moment of 'let's have fun together' to blow off stress," Suzuki says. "I think it is about time for new artists to emerge and usher in a new trend in gal's enka."
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