Hibari Misora (美空ひばり ,Misora Hibari, May 29, 1937 – June 24, 1989) was an award winning Japanese enka singer, actress, and living national treasure. She is often regarded as being one of the greatest singers of all time, and was the first woman in Japan to receive the People's prize of honour (国民栄誉賞 ), which was awarded for her notable contributions to the music industry. Hibari Misora is also one of the most commercially successful music artists in the world, and at the time of her death, she had recorded around 1,200 songs, and sold 68 million records. Posthumously, consumer demand for her recordings grew significantly, and she had sold more than 80 million records by 2001. Her swan-song "Kawa no nagare no yōni" (川の流れのように) is often performed by numerous artists and orchestras as a tribute to her, including notable renditions by The Three Tenors, Teresa Teng, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, and the Twelve Girls Band.
Hibari Misora was born Kazue Katō (加藤和枝 ,Katō Kazue) in Isogo-ku, Yokohama, Japan. Her father was Masukichi Katō (加藤増吉 ,Katō Masukichi), a fishmonger, and her mother Kimie Katō (加藤喜美枝 ,Katō Kimie), a housewife. Misora displayed musical talent from an early age after singing for her father at a World War II send-off party in 1943. He invested a small fortune taken from the family's savings to begin a musical career for his daughter, and in 1945 she debuted at a concert hall in Yokohama, at the age of eight, as Kazue Misora (美空和枝 ,Misora Kazue), a name proposed by her mother. A year later she appeared on a NHK broadcast, and impressed the Japanese composer Masao Koga with her singing ability. He considered her to be a prodigy with the courage, understanding, and emotional maturity of an adult. In the following two years, she became an accomplished singer and was touring notable concert halls to sold-out crowds. Her recording career began in 1949 at the age of twelve, when she changed her stage-name to Hibari Misora (美空ひばり ,Misora Hibari) and starred in the film Nodojiman-kyô jidai (のど自慢狂時代 ). The film gained her nationwide recognition. She recorded her first single Kappa Boogie-Woogie (河童ブギウギ ,Kappa būgiwūgi) for Columbia Records later that year. It became a commercial hit, selling more than 450,000 copies. She subsequently recorded "Kanashikii kuchibue", which was featured on a radio program and was a national hit. As an actress, she starred in about 160 movies from 1949 to 1971, and won numerous awards. Her performance in Tokyo Kiddo (1950), in which she played a street orphan, made her symbolic of both the hardship and the national optimism of post-World War II Japan. Her third single was from the film and was another hit, "Watashi wa machi no ko".
As a singer, she became known for her performance of enka, a sentimental form of Japanese popular music which emerged during the early part of the 20th century, and was renowned for her live performances, and singing which encapsulated the emotional pain of those who had suffered. Although she did not understand English, she made excellent recordings US jazz standards.
Throughout her career she recorded over 1,401 songs, with her best selling song "Yawara" reaching 1.8 million in sales.
In 1973 Tetsuya Katō, Misora's brother, was prosecuted for gang-related activity. Although NHK did not acknowledge any connection, Misora was excluded from Kohaku uta gassem for the first time in eighteen years. Offended, she refused to appear on NHK for years afterwards.
Health problems also plagued her in her later years. In April of 1987, on the way to a performance in Fukuoka, Misora suddenly collapsed. Rushed to hospital, she was diagnosed with avascular necrosis brought on by chronic hepatitis. She was confined to a hospital in Fukuoka, and eventually showed signs of recovery in August. She commenced recording a new song in October, and in April of 1988 performed at a concert at the Tokyo Dome. Despite overwhelming pain in her legs, she performed a total of 39 songs.
Her triumph was to be short lived. However, decades of heavy drinking had weakened her liver, and her condition worsened. On 24 June 1989, after being confined to a hospital in Tokyo, she died from pneumonia at the age of 52. Her death was widely mourned throughout Japan.
Beginning in 1990, television and radio stations annually play her song "Kawa no nagare no yōni" (川の流れのように ?) on her birthdate to show respect. In a national poll by NHK in 1997, the song was voted the greatest Japanese song of all time by more than 10 million people.
In 1994, the Hibari Misora Museum opened in Arashiyama, Kyoto. This multistory building traced the history of Misora's life and career in multi-media exhibits, and displayed various memorabilia. It attracted more than 5 million visitors, until it officially closed on November 30, 2006, as to allow a scheduled reconstruction of the building. The main exhibits were moved into the Shōwa period section of the Edo-Tokyo Museum, until reconstruction was complete. The new Hibari Misora Theater opened on April 26, 2008, and includes a CD for sale of a previously unreleased song.
Hibari Misora's ancestry is a matter of dispute. There are assertions that she was of ethnic Korean ancestry, and that she and her family held Korean passports. Others dispute these claims and following study of her parents' ancestry, assert that Misora's background is not Korean, but Japanese.