Marenkov, Tokyo’s oldest nagashi, sits in the corner of Bar Shino, under a light bulb shaded by a plastic bag—the glass shade broke years ago—and strums crisp soft chords on his battered Yamaha guitar. Marenkov is a sprightly 79 years old. “Or maybe I’m eighty,” he says raising bushy eyebrows and grinning widely. His career spans 57 years so far.
Bar Shino is in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, Marenkov’s haunt for almost 40 years. Sometimes called the Montmartre of Tokyo, this warren of some 200 bars is a haven for mavericks, radicals, bohemians, artists, writers, and other free-spirits. It’s a fitting locale for a nagashi. The profession has its roots in the anti-establishment songs sung by young men in the Meiji Period. Its heyday, says Marenkov, was the Taisho period over 80 years ago. Work has been declining ever since.
Unlike a karaoke machine, a nagashi provides musical encouragement and a tailor-made accompaniment for the eager barstool singer. Marenkov is expert at matching the pace and pitch of a melody to each individual. With a soft “hai!” and a nod he signals when you should start singing a verse.
The owner of the bar, Shino-san, a lively, engaging woman of a certain age, is happy not to have a karaoke machine in her establishment. Person to person communication is most important, she stresses, gesturing with an ever-present cigarette. Karaoke would overpower the conversational intimacy of such tiny bars. Marenkov’s guitar, on the other hand, is an acoustic pleasure that adds to the mood.
Nevertheless, karaoke machines have ended most nagashi careers. “Only a few nagashi are still around,” says Marenkov, his voice a hoarse whisper. “There are four in Shinjuku, two in Shibuya, two in Asakusa, maybe two or three in Ikebukuro and a few other places.”
Marenkov’s family name is Kato, and that’s as much as he’ll allow. He started work as a postman, but delivering mail didn’t pay well. “So I took some guitar lessons from a nagashi association,” he explains. “I thought I had no talent and wanted to give up,” he adds, “but I liked the drinking.” Early on someone remarked that he resembled Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s successor. The name stuck.
Marenkov first performed around Shinjuku station, an area which after the war was teeming with cafes. “When I entered a cafe with my guitar,” he says, “five or six girls would always flock around me.”
But paying customers are now scarce. The zashiki, old-style Japanese restaurants, once a sure venue, have almost completely disappeared, and the few remaining can’t afford to pay a nagashi. The going rate is 1000 yen for two songs. “When I started out, I would get 100 yen for three songs, and I had to split that with two other guys, an accordionist and violin player,” Marenkov recalls.
He hesitates to say how much he makes in a week, but he’s been able to support a wife and son. There are weeks, however, when he doesn’t earn much at all. But he’s content just having his guitar and enough money for a meal. “I’ve always managed to eat somehow,” he says with laugh.
A customer at the counter offers Marenkov a beer, but he refuses. He stopped drinking some years ago. “It’s a nagashi’s duty to drink while working,” he says, “but I would get into arguments and have been punched out many times. I’ve fallen asleep drunk outside in the rain, had my glasses, cap, wallet, guitar, jacket and shoes stolen by homeless people. I was lucky I wasn’t killed.”
Another customer chimes in that Marenkov once had his own guitar smashed over his head, but Marenkov waves that accusation aside.
Marenkov still works most evenings except when it rains or when his legs ache. “As long as my fingers move and my legs work, I’ll keep on doing what I do.” He plays a few bars from the St. Louis Blues and smiles.
About 50 meters away, but a world apart, is Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s red-light entertainment extravaganza. Bar Freude, a quiet friendly spot tended for 50 years by two generations of the Hoshino family, is a regular stop for another nagashi, Suzuki Isamu, who performs under the name, Yuji. He’s been at it for only 35 years.
Yuji, 56, is built like a bouncer—stocky with short-cropped hair, thick strong arms, shoulders and neck. His gestures are quick and energetic. With his black shirt, black leather vest and snow-white jacket, he cuts a dashing figure. When he sings, he closes his eyes and his husky voice is soulful and expressive. Sometimes he adds a Latin flourish to the melody line on his nylon-stringed guitar.
“I’m lucky to still be alive,” he admits over a glass of beer. “I’ve had a glass ashtray hit me in the face, beer bottles broken over my head, and once even a thick Pepsi bottle smashed on my head,” he laughs. “My head must be tough.”
Yuji is to the point about why he likes his profession—jiyu, freedom, he says, but quickly adds, “And I like drinking.”
Being a nagashi is “aruku no shobai,” he explains, walking work. Yuji usually starts his rounds around 8pm. and will work until midnight or 1am. “But sometimes I go home early. Sometimes I work all night. It depends on my mood.”
A good singer doesn’t equal a good nagashi, he explains. “It’s not just singing,” he says reaching for his beer, “you’ve got to listen to people’s problems and complaints. Otherwise you won’t do any business.”
He pauses for a moment searching for the right words. “Some people want to release their bad feelings by drinking” he continues, “and they don’t dislike fighting.” Sometimes when entering a new bar, Yuji has been beaten up by irritated customers. Luckily, he says, there are many cops in Shinjuku and they always come quickly.
Work is scarce in Kabukicho too. Most people who like to sing now go to a karaoke club, he explains. A bar with paying customers one night will have none the next. He shrugs, “Taihen da.” It’s tough. “But this is my chosen path. I like it,” he says with feeling. “I like it a lot.”
Yuji has no intention of retiring anytime soon. “I don’t want people one day to realize all the nagashi are gone,’” he says finishing his beer. “Marenkov is now 80 years old, so I’ll have to keep working at least as long as that!”
From the cluttered corner bookcase in Bar Shino, Marenkov takes down a thick, tattered yellowing songbook, the size of a New York City phonebook, and hands it to a customer telling him to turn to song 285. Marenkov starts to play “Akogare no Hawaii Koro”—Dreaming Hawaii Always, a nostalgic tune about taking a slow boat to the tropical paradise, a hit from 1948. One by one the customers along the counter join in until the whole bar is singing together.
Bar Shino 03.3200.8044, 1-1-9 Kabukicho, Shinjuku Ward. Closed Sundays.
Bar Freude 03.3209.6589, 1-8-3 Kabukicho, Shinjuku Ward. Closed Sundays.