Kitajima Saburo

(Hokkaido, 1936- )

Kitajima Saburo The Japanese entertainment world (geinokai) has a very clear and strict hierarchy. The grand dames and elder statesmen of the geinokai are always treated with great respect, even subservience. They get to do the grand finale performance at the year's biggest TV concert, the Kohaku Uta Gassen (Red/White Song Contest shown every New Year's Eve). Their opulent and often over the top lifestyles are indulged and they are never, ever made to look foolish - not without their consent anyway.

Kitajima Saburo, or Sabu-chan as he is affectionately known, is one of these grandaddies. He is one of the kings of enka, Japanese soul ballads that dominated the music world in the first half of the 20th century. Coming from a Hokkaido fishing family and being the eldest of seven children, Kitajima was familiar with the struggles of the working man. This combined with his masculine voice was to make him popular with the common man as well as a successful actor in gangster roles.

Inspired as a teenager by the great Misora Hibari, after leaving high school Kitajima came to Tokyo to become a singer. He worked for six years as a nagashi, a kind of wandering minstrel who accompanied themselves on guitar or accordion, until he was introduced to the famous composer Funamura Toru. After two years as his student, Kitajima made his debut in 1962 and the following year went on to win the New Singer award.

Enka hardly ever makes a serious dent in the music charts anymore but it continues to be popular on TV, especially NHK. Singers like Kitajima, Itsuki Hiroshi, Ishikawa Sayuri and Fuji Ayako regularly grace the screen and occasionally manage to cross over to the popular mainstream for a hit song or commercial. But to see these veterans in all their glory, you have to tune in to the New Year spectacle or visit one of their regular theater appearances. The Koma Gekijo theater in Shinjuku, Tokyo is one of the most famous, though it was anounced in spring 2008 that even that famous venue was to close.