Archive for May, 2009

Ōtone Mujō

May 22, 2009

Translating songs is hard!

When I visited Ise Shrine, I bought a CD with a few songs related to the shrine.  You can listen to the first 45 seconds of each of the three songs at the CD’s page on’s Japanese site.  Click on the picture below to go to the CD’s page and scroll down a little to find “Listen to Samples.”

Nihon no Inori

The first song extols Ise Shrine as the spiritual heart of Japan, the second track is a karaoke version, and the third track is a festival parade song for the Okihiki festival, in which logs for the shrine’s reconstruction (conducted every 20 years) are carried through town and to the shrine.

The CD is a reissue of a 1967 release by Haruo Minami (三波春夫, Minami Haruo), who was a giant of enka music.  Minami, whose real name was Bunji Kitazume, was born in 1923.  He fought in Manchuria during World War II and spent four years as a POW in Russia before returning to Japan and resuming his career as a singer.  His talent made him very successful and he remains particularly famous for performing the theme song for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, for the phrase “Customers are gods,” and for always performing in a kimono.  He died in 2001.

YouTube has a number of old videos of Haruo Minami and I thought I’d share one.  It’s from the 1969 episode of the annual New Year’s Eve “Red and White Song Battle” on NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting station.  The song battle is a competition between two teams of musicians, a red team and a white team, in which the musicians perform songs one by one and are scored on their performances, with the winner being – of course – the team with the most points.

The song is “Ōtone Mujō” (大利根無情), which means something like “The Great, Heartless Tone.”  The Tone (“toh nay”) is a river to the northeast of Tokyo.

The song is sung from the perspective of Hirate Miki, a real person who lived during the first half of the 19th century.  Hirate was apprenticed to a master swordsman in Edo (Tokyo), but was expelled from the dojo for drunken violence.  As he wandered to the northeast, his heavy drinking ruined his health.  He was eventually taken in by a yakuza boss, receiving food, medical care, and a home in return for training yakuza in swordsmanship and serving as the boss’s bodyguard. Hirate planned to cut his ties with the gang and return to Edo as soon as his health was restored, but before that could happen, he died in a battle with a rival gang, alongside the Tone River.

The song, with its two spoken-word verses, recalls enka’s roots in traditional narrative music, although the instrumentation is in pure enka style.  This is my attempt at a translation.

Announcer: “To speak of 1959 is to think of the marriage of Her Imperial Highness (to the emperor, who was then the crown prince), the welcome beginning of economic recovery, and the song first sung that year, ‘Ōtone Mujō’!”

The Tone, the Tone River’s breeze,
and the reed warbler’s voice
coldly assail my body
So this is the “Floating World”
If I look where I mustn’t look, to the western sky,
To Edo, to Edo – a rose madder brush stroke of clouds

“I can hear the Sawara festival music
It really takes me back…Chiba Dojo, by Jewel Pond, eh?
Heh…and now I, Hirate Miki, am a yakuza bodyguard
A dead leaf in the back alley of life, eh?”

Duty, exposed to the night wind of duty
Moon, I bet you want to cry too
My heart in disarray,
plucked pampas grass clenched between my molars,
A man’s, a man’s tears – my sword hanging limply at my side

“Stop me not, Master Myōshin
No matter how low I have fallen,
I, Hirate, am still a warrior
I know when my end is near
I must go.  I must go!”

My eyelids, wetting my eyelids
So many dreams washed away in the Great Tone
If I hold my breath
And drink cold sake to speed myself to hell,
The bells, the temple bells ring, ring – at Myōen-ji

There are all sorts of tricky passages in this song.

The Floating World (“ukiyo,” like in ukiyo-e) refers to the urban lifestyle that grew out of the political stability and burgeoning cash-based economy of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868).  In particular, it refers to the red-light and theater districts, with their pleasure-seeking detachment from daily cares (hence “floating” world).

Sawara festival music refers to a style of festival music that was born in the region where Hirate died, but that had spread as far as Edo.  So even though Hirate hears the music at its birthplace, it must have been common back home, thus it makes him nostalgic for Edo.

“My sword hanging limply at my side” is a loose translation of a single word, otoshizashi (落し差し), which my dictionary defines as “wearing a katana improperly, with the end pointing straight down.”  Apparently, a katana should be worn horizontally, so that one can unsheathe it and strike a blow in one movement.  The song is saying that otoshizashi is a man’s tears.

For “I know when my end is near,” the song actually says “I know man’s chirigiwa.”  Chirigiwa (散りぎわ) is when a flower’s petals are just about to fall.

Alright, enough talk.  Here’s the song.