This is another one of the entries from that 1981 Kohaku Utagassen（第３２回紅白歌合戦） that has been stuck in my mind for over 30 years. The first four singers (Toshihiko Tahara, Naoko Kawai, Masahiko Kondo and Hitomi Ishikawa) were the aidoru, but then out came this strapping young man in a white tux, looking like he either got demobilized from the Self-Defense Forces or stepped away from a baseball team. As soon as the music came on, I knew he would be the first enka singer of the long night.
Joji Yamamoto（山本譲二） gave this muscular performance of what would be his trademark song, "Michinoku Hitori Tabi". I wasn't quite sure about how to translate the title. "Hitori Tabi"was easy enough since it means a lone trip. But Michinoku could geographically refer to a whole chunk of Japan's Tohoku (Northeast) region, or poetically refer to the Heian Era's version of the end of the world. Lyrically, it could go either way. In any case, Yamamoto sings about how he would be happy if he died here and pines about a woman that he may have lost. The performance is very much a manly man's approach....how a lot of male enka singers like to portray themselves, whether as pensive hunks in leather jackets stomping through the forest or as salt-weathered fishing boat captains at the bow of their vessels. It's kinda like the Japanese equivalent of cowboys or Marlboro Men.
Yamamoto's life could have been made into an enka song. Born in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1950, he was one of the players on a high school baseball team that made it into the national championships at Koshien Stadium in Osaka. However, his heart was set on becoming an enka singer. So, he went up to Tokyo and went through a whole series of odd jobs, including being a busboy at a nightclub where he had to drink down any abandoned mugs of beer...even though cigarette butts were inside. After damaging his liver, he scampered back home but after getting some tough love from his mother, he returned to the big city for another stab at stardom.
He had been strumming his guitar at a small pub in Tokyo for a couple of years when songwriter Keisuke Hama（浜圭介）, a frequent visitor to the pub, gave him his chance. Yamamoto was given the stage name Haruki Date（伊達春樹） (supposedly as a humourous take on Dirty Harry) and released his first single, "Yogiri no Anata"（夜霧のあなた....Night Fog You) in 1974. It flopped, leaving Yamamoto at a precipice of sorts.
Desperate, he begged enka legend Saburo Kitajima（北島三郎） dozens of times for his help. Finally one day, Kitajima thrust his bag out at him. For the next few years, Yamamoto would become his attendant; in Japanese, that would be translated as "kaban-mochi"（鞄持ち） or bagholder. Presumably, Kitajima in return gave his young disciple the teachings of enka. In 1976, Yamamoto won on a talent contest program 10 weeks in a row while singing songs like "Omoide Misaki"(おもいで岬....Cape of Memories） and "Naka no Shima Blues"（中の嶋ブルース....Internal Island Blues）. But the really big breakthrough hadn't happened yet.
Finally in August 1980, he released "Michinoku Hitori Tabi". Kitajima basically told Yamamoto that if this one didn't sell, Yamamoto should just quit show business. It took a very long while but almost a year later in May 1981, the song finally broke into the Oricon rankings at No. 96. And four months later, it would break into the Top 10 at No. 8 and then peaking at No. 4. Talk about the long way to success! And it actually received the Long Seller Prize at the Japan Record Awards. For 1981, "Michinoku Hitori Tabi"would become the 16th-ranked song, and even the year after, it was ranked No. 69 for 1982.
And of course, there was the Kohaku appearance. At the end of the performance, Kitajima himself comes out to congratulate his young Padawan.