Naomi Chiaki’s album shines light on long-hidden gems

Naomi Chiaki is still well known and remains popular since disappearing from the public eye about 30 years ago.

Thirty years since Naomi Chiaki stopped making appearances on the showbiz scene due to the death of her husband, her latest album topping the charts is proof of the singer’s enduring popularity.

“Zanei” (Sunset glow) reached No. 1 on the weekly Oricon rankings in the “enka and kayokyoku” song category on Oct. 31, after a collection of long-hidden gems from her bygone days was released by Teichiku Entertainment earlier that month.

Debuting in 1969, Chiaki received the grand prize of the Japan Record Awards in 1972 for her megahit “Kassai” (Cheers) released that year.

Chiaki became popular for her ability to sing any kind of musical composition — kayokyoku, enka, chanson — and infuse the songs with her own style.

Enka is a traditional-style popular ballad, and kayokyoku is a form of popular music that developed during the Showa era (1926-89).

Singer Naomi Chiaki’s latest album “Zanei”

The work she has released in recent years has sold well, despite a general sluggishness in the CD market. For example, about 60,000 copies of her greatest hits album, released in 2013, have been sold, while her concept album “Bigin” (Singing in a soft voice) has sold about 40,000 copies since its release in 2019.

Sales of her albums are said to increase whenever her songs are featured on TV and other media, because her songs are not distributed through music streaming services that charge subscription fees.

So, why are so many people today attracted to Chiaki’s songs?

“It’s definitely because of her singing ability and the distinctive world she has created,” producer Akira Higashimoto said. “Naomi Chiaki is second to none.”

“She’s been a person of few words since the early days of her career. When she came to the office, she would stand in the hallway and not enter the room,” Higashimoto recalled of the days he worked with Chiaki as a director at a record company.

“She used to talk to the people she needed to talk to, and then left for home as soon as things were done,” Higashimoto said. “She never curried favor with anyone to make a name for herself. She was that kind of person.”

“Zanei” is a concept album that features themes such as a couple’s passion for each other and lingering affection.

The album comprises a wide variety of tunes, including the first track, “Tsutawari Masuka” (Can you tell?), which is arranged in a Japanese “city pop” style, as well as enka, chanson and “Tokyo Sabaku” (Tokyo desert) a cover song. The album gives listeners a chance to explore Chiaki’s appeal more deeply.

“There are hidden gems that should be uncovered among her songs,” Higashimoto said. “I thought it was time to shine a light on such songs once more.”

Amid the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is much gloom in the world today. But, he is convinced of one thing: “In good times and bad, we’ve always got songs.”

Higashimoto said Chiaki was “satisfied” and she “had no objection” to the content of the latest album when he told her about it.

Although three decades have passed since Chiaki stopped making showbiz appearances in 1992, Higashimoto wavers when asked about whether she will resume her role in the spotlight.

“Maybe she won’t, but maybe she will. I think it’s better not to give an answer [to that question]. One day, she might think, ‘Let’s get started again.’”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Producer Akira Higashimoto