I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The First – Kita Sakaba (Francium)

Many thanks to J-Canuck for extending an invitation to me to contribute to this series of articles on the special first songs that brought us into the fascinating world of music from Japan. I enjoyed very much all the posts on the topic. My experience is a little different, for me it was a distinctive moment with one particular song.

Kita Sakaba was probably one of the more popular songs from Japan in the eighties. It has already been reviewed on this site and also mentioned in a number of other articles I’ve seen here. I don’t think I need to say much about the song itself since it is one of those ubiquitous kind of song, and most would have heard the original or the numerous covers whether in Japanese or other languages. Rather, I would like to share my little story about the very first time I heard this song almost thirty five years ago (!) and how it created a lasting impression on me.

 I can’t quite recall the actual year when it started, but back home in Singapore all those years ago, the Kohaku Uta Gassen was shown on our local TV, not live, but as an edited show lasting around two hours, a few weeks after the actual New Year’s Eve broadcast in Japan. Due to the language factor, Japanese drama or songs  were traditionally not found much on our mainstream entertainment channels, so the telecast of the Kohaku was quite a novelty.

Around the start of the eighties ( if my memory serves),  there was this “invasion” by Japanese artists on our local entertainment scene. Japanese TV drama started to be shown during prime time and became very popular.  I remember Momoe Yamaguchi’s  Akai Giwaku took the audience by storm, and how my classmates and I were gripped by the tragic love story between the leukemia stricken Sachiko (Momoe’s character) and her love interest (I can’t remember his name) played by her regular co-star and later real life husband Tomakazu Miura. Looking back, the story line was rather cliché but back then that TV series was really popular and kept audience like me and my friends enthralled. As an aside,  and this probably sounds strange, I always thought of Momoe as an actress and not so much a singer, since my first exposure to her was on TV. On the music scene, singers like Hideki Saijo, Hiromi Iwasaki, Kenji Sawada, and later on, aidoru like Seiko, Matchy, Toshi  (I can never tell these two boys apart) and Akina, were featured regularly in the entertainment news section of newspapers and magazines. They became increasing well known, with many young fans idolizing them.

With the popularity of Japanese songs and drama, it was not surprising that the annual Kohaku made its way to Singapore. To make it easier for the local audience, there was Mandarin commentary dubbed over the dialogues, while still retaining the spotlight on the singing in Japanese. While I could not understand a word of the songs being sung,  I remember dutifully sitting through the whole show or at least most of it. There was something quite fascinating about watching all these singers belting out their best song, dressed in their finery, in a friendly  “boy team” vs “girl team” type of competition. The show usually started with the younger ones, always good looking and full of bouncy energy, dancing and singing some catchy number, albeit sometimes not quite pitch perfect. As the evening progressed, the line up turned to more mature singers, often clad in splendid kimonos, who were usually more solemn and even on the verge of tears, their songs soaring with powerful and emotive voices (back then I had no idea what is enka, or the other genres of Japanese kayo, and to be honest, I still don’t). It was all very interesting, very new and curious to me. Yet, I couldn’t say that there was any particular singer or song that I really liked. Until a particular moment at  the 1982 Kohaku, that is.

Unfortunately I can’t remember very much of that year’s Kohaku as a whole, I think I might have spaced out a bit during the show, since it was shown at night. Luckily for me, I was watching the later segment of it. This was usually the time when the heavyweights appeared and things got serious. But instead of some stern looking singer appearing, there was this cheery music sounding, or to borrow a term used by J-Canuck, which I think describes the song perfectly, a jaunty tune came on TV rather unexpectedly.  Out on stage came this guy dressed in a white tux, looking all charming and smart, who started singing in a pristine yet warm voice. The song title appeared on screen 北酒场(Kita Sakaba), followed by the singer’s name in Chinese, 细川贵志(细川たかし Takashi Hosokawa). Not that the song title or singer’s name meant anything to me at that time, even though the Chinese forms are the same as in Kanji, as I had never heard of either the song nor the singer. But within moments of hearing him sing in his melodious voice,  I was going like “who is this?!”, “what is he singing about??”.

Here was finally (in my young school girl mind) someone who checked all the right boxes, someone could really sing and looked pretty darn cute too! I know it is very hard to associate the veteran enka singer with anything like cute in that sense, but back in the day, he was quite a handsome, good looking chap compared to the other male enka singers (in my eyes anyway).  In an instant, I was captivated, both by the singer and the song too, which sounded so happy and delightful. I had no idea what the lyrics meant, which was just as well, since the words were not quite suited for a pre-teen anyway, but the whole song and the delivery of it was so bright and brimming with cheerfulness that was positively infectious.

The performance was over in a couple of minutes but it resonated within me long after the show ended that night. I remember trying really hard to make sure I memorized the name and the song title correctly . Back in the day with no internet or social media, it was not quite as easy as googling for the name to find out who someone was and where to buy his records. Besides, even if I knew where to get it, I didn’t have any money to buy anything. But I think I did manage to find out more, possibly through some local newspaper article that actually featured him (a rarity since I don’t reckon he was the “in” type of singer)  and at least got to know his name for sure. I also remember summoning up the courage to ask some relatives who mentioned that they had recordings of the Kohaku to borrow the tapes and was made to solemnly promise that I would take good care of their prized possession. It was a good thing that I didn’t spoil the video tape by constantly rewinding to a particular part of the show!

With my very limited means, the only other thing I could do was eagerly look out for this singer in the subsequent years’ Kohaku. I remember being touched watching a visibly emotional Hosokawa graced the finale in the next year’s show, as well as the following year’s rather hilarious but endearing moment when he forgot the lyrics right at the beginning of Naniwa Bushi Dayo Jinseiwa. Alas, my memory of him and the Kohaku stopped there, because I don’t recall watching the subsequent years of the show, whether it was because they stopped screening it on TV, or I was just distracted by other things that came my way, I am not sure. Nevertheless, that first time watching Takashi Hosokawa sing his famous Kita Sakaba had always remained a fond memory within me.

I’m really glad to be able to find a video of this particular performance on youku which allows me to relive this special moment

Watching this I was once again impressed by the joy that permeated the performance. There was such a happy atmosphere and a nice feel of camaraderie with the guys from the white team singing and dancing to the song, and even the ladies from the rival team were also clapping and singing along. It was much later that I found out that this song won the grand prize at the Japan Record Awards, just earlier the same evening as the Kohaku. I guess there was indeed very good reason for the jubilant mood  as that was his moment of triumph, after a slump in his career just the year before when Hosokawa was hospitalized for a long time due to a serious injury sustained during filming and he was staring at the possibility of a pre-mature end to his singing career which started so brilliantly just a few years ago.

Another video that I came across was at the  Japan Record Awards itself, when Hosokawa was receiving the grand prize for Kita Sakaba. In contrast to the happy Kohaku performance just hours later, here it was all tears and emotion as he sang the song that brought his career back on track again.

In the ensuing years, sad to say I did not listen to many Japanese songs. The good thing though is that I have recently picked up from where I left off. I guess I’m now at the age when one gets rather nostalgic and sentimental about the good old days, and it was one of those moments when I suddenly remembered about this singer whom I was so fond of so long ago, and then proceeded to find out all I could about what happened to him through the years. The difference now is obviously with the web and all the content that is available, it was not hard at all to catch up even though the gap was more than thirty years. This was actually also how I found this excellent site, when I stumbled upon Noelle’s article on her visit to the Hosokawa museum in Hokkaido.

I have been sort of binge watching all the videos on youtube and other channels that I could find. Along the way I rediscovered some of the other singers that I have hazy memories of and found new ones to admire too. I also looked around to see where I could buy Hosokawa’s songs, but could only find a few on ITunes and none on Spotify, which resulted in me getting my first CDs in years. I ordered the box set of his fortieth anniversary commemorative CDs from Amazon Japan and it only took four days to reach me here in the States. I’ve saved the songs into the music library on my phone so I can bring it everywhere with me. After missing out for so many years, this one’s not getting away from me any time soon.

Compared to my first experience over thirty years ago, it is indeed so much easier now to get access to things that were not so readily available then, and I am truly  grateful for all the advancements in technology that have such a big impact in not just how we listen to music, but in all aspects of our lives. Nevertheless, in my nostalgic mood, I sometimes reminisce on the old times. Perhaps it is through rose-tinted glasses of the good old days especially now that I am so far away from home, but moments like my first view of that jubilant performance of the Kita Sakaba all those years ago will always be something special for me, like a little touch of magic that I will always remember with great fondness.


  1. How I remember who's Toshi-chan and Matchy: The former dances well like a jumping jelly bean and sings like he's got mashed potatoes in his mouth. The latter kind of spazes around and yells a lot - how does he not get a sore throat?!

    Anyways, nice article on your first experience with Japanese music and how you got to know Takashi Hosokawa - now I get to see the full story behind your love for him. Interesting how you gravitated to Hosokawa instead of the aidoru guys... Well, but he can sing. He also was indeed awkwardly cute back in the 80's, and he was one of the better looking enka singers at the time - Hiroshi Itsuki was "meh" and Mori Shinichi had seen better days.

    I have heard about the Japanese Invasion from my parents and relatives, and their stories of how their friends used to be crazy over Toshi-chan and the lot. Man, I wonder how it was like to be living in that time in Singapore. Perhaps it was like the Korean craze that still seems to be ongoing today. At the same time, it seems like the second J-Wave is coming/has arrived as there's now a whole barrage of Japanese restaurants available island-wide (ain't complaining) and a local Japanese channel where I was able to watch "Tokyo Love Story" and "101st Proposal" in their entirety - no kayo shows though, so I still stick to my usual NHK World Premium.

    It'll be nice to be able to see the old Kohakus shown back then (with Mae-Kiyo and some of the Yonin Shu!) with the Chinese dub and finally be able to understand more of what they're saying - at the moment, my command of Chinese still is (ever so slightly) better than my Japanese in terms of comprehension. But at the same time, I would also think it sounds weird.

    1. Hi, Noelle.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Great tip with the difference between Matchy and Toshi. Think you got them to a T ;)

      Yeah, it is indeed strange that I never had any inclination towards them or any of the other idols. I was definitely of the right demographic to be a fan at the time when they were at their height of their popularity and were omnipresent. Then again, my taste in music has always been for the old stuff. Before being hit by the Hosokawa lightning bolt, the singer I sort of rooted for at the Kohaku was Haruo Minami. Think it might had been because he was always smiling and looked very kind, plus his singing, like Hosokawa's, is of the crystal clear type, something which I infinitely prefer to gravelly gruff kind of singing.

      Some bits that I remember back in the day of the J-pop craze was how the Japanese stars took over the entertainment news and magazine covers. I used to walk to school as a kid, and there was this little store selling magazines which I always passed by. I recall seeing Hiromi Iwaski with her beautiful long hair gracing the cover of the weekly TV guide. In those days, it was the indication of popularity to be on the cover of such magazines. Then later, the media coverage was dominated by the likes of Seiko and her clones, Matchy, Toshi and Akina. I've not gotten into the K-pop craze but I reckon there were some parallels to how it was. The cute idols dominating the airwaves and media, and also some hugely popular TV drama, like Momoe's Akai's series and the Oshin drama, much like the Korean drama with the first female palace physician (can't remember the name) that kicked started the K-craze.

      As you said it would be pretty interesting to rewatch old editions of the Kohaku televised in Singapore. I can't remember much of how it was with the Chinese dubbing, but I found an except from the 86 Kohaku which has Cantonese commentary from Hong Kong Sounds pretty fun.

      I was also reading some old articles on the 80s Kohaku in the e-archives of Singapore Chinese newspapers. Some links are below. It gives a good feel of the local take of the show. They had to edit the show to fit a two hour slot and unfortunately the ones who got cut were mostly the enka singers. Also the broadcasting limits were really strict back then!

      1983 Kohaku红白歌会&QT=红,白,歌,会&oref=article-related

      1982 Kohaku红白歌会&QT=红,白,歌,会&oref=article-related

      1984 Kohaku红白歌会&QT=红,白,歌,会&oref=article-related

    2. Hi, Francium.

      Thanks a lot for those articles on the Kohaku and the Cantonese dubbed video, much appreciated. For the video, now that I know how the Kohaku was dubbed, I think I'll stick to the raw version - the Cantonese overlapping the Japanese commentary was disorienting. Also, hearing the names singers I'm familiar with in Cantonese was really weird. As for the articles, despite struggling a bit to read, it was fascinating to be able to see pictures of those like Hosokawa in Singapore newspapers. Hmm, but the 1982 coverage labelled Mae-Kiyo & The Cool Five as Itsuki.... :/ Yeah, I did notice that the cut in the older bunch of enka singers to fit into the time limit. Can't have the cake and eat it too, I guess. What a time it must've been, though. The only place where one can find magazines with aidoru now is at Kinokuniya's Japanese entertainment magazine section. It's filled with Johnny's and AKB48 stuff. There was only this one time I was lucky enough to get an enka magazine (had Masako Mori on the cover) off the shelf - probably an extra they had lying around from the pre-orders.

      I think the Korean drama you mentioned that started the K-Wave is "Da Chang Jing" or something like that (in Chinese). There was a short period where everyone at home was into Korean dramas on TV, but I lost interest after I realised that the story lines were all pretty much the same and way too drawn out.

      Anyways, I look forward to meeting you (and Karen too) sometime.

    3. Hi, Noelle.

      It is indeed fascinating to read old articles in the locals newspapers about the Kohaku back then, even if I lived through that time, I couldn't remember a lot of it. As you said, they could definitely improve on the accuracy of the reporting though. You can also find other old articles on various Japanese artists, like their "new" releases, concerts, gossip and other stuff by searching for their names. No prizes for guessing who I searched for but I read some on others as well and found some pretty interesting info (like someone's manager actually punched an awards show producer because that singer didn't win any major award at that particular show. The scandal!)

      Ah, yes, that is the Korean drama that attracted a huge following. I didn't watch it but remember seeing bits of the show when they featured some really fabulous looking dishes that were created for the imperial family. Maybe that was why it was so popular in Singapore, given our obsession with good food!

  2. Hi, Francium, and thanks very much for your First article! It looks like you and I share some aspects about how we got into Japanese music. Like yourself, my Kohaku experience also began with the show coming out to Toronto a few weeks into January instead of right on New Year's Eve.

    Also, my start of my love of Japanese pop music started in a whole number of genres within the music: aidoru, City Pop, technopop, etc. But from the enka/Mood Kayo department, I have to say that "Kita Sakaba" was the representative song. That intro was just infectious and I had no idea what Hosokawa was singing at the time; it was just a fun song.

    As for Toshi and Matchy, to this day, it still takes me a second or so to distinguish the two. I frankly thought that the Tanokin Trio was chosen since the three of them would look like triplets!

    Anyways, it's good to read that the Singapore wing of "Kayo Kyoku Plus" is doing well! :)

    1. Hi, J-Canuck.

      You are most welcome, it is my pleasure!

      The Tanokin Trio, wait, there were three of them? I have to google to see who is the third one, but now that you mentioned it, I do recall seeing pictures of 3 guys like peas in a pod grinning from the pages of magazines all those years ago. Then again, I might have confused them with the Shibugakitai or maybe it was the Shonentai :D When it comes to the aidoru and the boy & girl bands, I'm afraid I'm a big fail.

      The Kohaku is such a great showcase of the different genres of Japanese popular music and was a fantastic intro for me to something that was very new at that time. I love watching the 70/80s Kohaku shows, obvious bias on my side since my faves are there. I really wish NHK will release these old gems in some HD format, I'm sure there will be a very healthy demand for it.

  3. Hi Francium, I'm Karen (the other Singaporean ;-;). After reading your article, I went to watch the videos of Kita Sakaba, and I really enjoyed the song- I can see why it caught your attention. On the "Japanese wave", I wish it was happening now, because I'm not that big of a K-Pop fan and it would be nice to have Japanese dramas airing here... I remember my mother telling me how nice Oshin was, and I searched it up, only to find that the female lead married Sawada Kenji. This was interesting news for me, as a partial Sawada Kenji fan. Technology is certainly great ;-;

    Also, to be fair, Yamaguchi Momoe was great. I love her songs, and I can't express how envious I am that you got to watch her dramas then!

    1. Hi, Karen!

      Thanks for your comment! It's great to hear from you.

      I'm glad that you enjoyed Kita Sakaba. To me, it's such a happy song (irregardless of the lyrics) and even now after so many years, I still feel perk up whenever I hear it.

      Oshin was indeed very popular back in the day. Apparently Singapore was the first amongst many other countries outside Japan that broadcasted the show. I didn't know that the actress playing Oshin married Kenji Sawada! She has this very special radiance and aura about her and I remember liking her quite a lot.

      Momoe's Akai Giwaku was the one that started the craze for Japanese drama, if I remember correctly. I think they subsequently showed another one from that series with her as a detective. Can't remember much of that though as I don't think I watched much of it.

      Yeah, like you, I'm not into the K-wave thing either, but it has been going for a whole time, hasn't it? Guess they do have their charms, but I don't really get it. I don't listen to the songs and haven't seen much of the Korean drama. For me, maybe it's partly because I find the Korean actors looking rather meh, while Japanese actors like Masatoshi Nakamura, Tekuya Kimura, Takashi Kaneshiro look more natural and cuter. But it's just my personal bias :)


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