Posts Tagged ‘Music’


May 15, 2010

Good grief, it’s been three and a half months since I’ve written anything here.

I’ve been distracted.  As of mid-February, I’ve returned to the realm of full-time employment.  Yay for positive cash flow!  But now that I’ve settled into work, I want to show my poor, neglected blog some love.

In my last post, I said I would write more about kanji and hiragana, but I have no idea what I had intended to discuss.  That’s what I get for saying “Next time, I’ll write about X.”  Foolish.  My dispatches would be less random as far as getting written if I went back to making them more random in terms of content.  In that vein, this post has nothing to do with the Japanese writing system, although it is language-related.

Recently, I was poking around YouTube, looking for decent enka music, which is in much shorter supply than bad enka.  In doing so, I came across Aiko Moriyama (森山愛子, Moriyama Aiko), whose work falls into both categories at once.  Which is to say she’s a talented singer, but her songs tend toward melodramatic fluff.  But the most notable thing about her is the enormous contrast between her speaking voice and her singing voice.

In conversation, Ms. Moriyama affects a ridiculously cutesy voice.  It’s a good example of the phenomenon in modern Japanese society called burikko (ぶりっ子), in which women adopt artificially cute voices and behavior in an attempt to be appealing.  Basically, in the same way that American society tells women that they need to be sexy, Japan prizes cuteness.  The voices and mannerisms encouraged by the pressure to be cute range from subtle to grating.  Moriyama’s speaking voice falls in the latter camp, but at least her behavior isn’t that bad.

Here’s the YouTube video in question.

I wonder if she talks like that just to make it a shock when she starts singing.

It’s beside the point, but here’s an attempt at translating the conversation and the song.  The song is called Tokyo Banka (東京挽歌), meaning “Tokyo Elegy.”

Host:    Ms. Yuki Nishino, thank you very much.  Now to our next guest.  Ms. Aiko Moriyama.  Welcome.

Aiko:    I’m glad to be here.

Host:    Is this by any chance made from a kimono’s sash?  It is, isn’t it?

Aiko:    That’s right.  This is an obi turned into a dress.

Host:    Isn’t that clever.

Aiko:    Isn’t it?

Host:    Ms. Aiko Moriyama, you grew up in the town of Utsunomiya, is that right?  Do you have any memories of summer in Utsunomiya from when you lived there?

Aiko:    Well, Utsunomiya is surrounded by nature, so when summer vacation came, I’d go to the forest with my older brother who’s closest to my age, and we’d catch beetles.  Or also, when we stayed at my grandmother’s house, we’d go to a river near by and catch crayfish. That sort of thing.

Host:    Isn’t that nice!  That’s the sort of summer you’d dream of.  Now then, on to your new song.

Aiko:    Yes.

Host:    The title is “Tokyo Banka.”  What sort of song is it?

Aiko:    This song depicts someone who has left her hometown and moved to the capital to follow her dreams.  And of course I also moved to Tokyo at age 18, right after graduating from high school, and worked to become a singer, although I did part-time jobs and took voice lessons first, but anyway it’s a song where I can superimpose myself over the character.

Host:    I see.  Well without further ado, we’ll have you sing it for us.  This is Aiko Moriyama with “Tokyo Banka.”  If you please.

Should I visit home, before the festival?
It’s not far, but it feels so distant
Right now even my grandfather
wouldn’t let me rub his shoulders

Ha~ e~ the madder red sky
Wiping away a tear
Tokyo Elegy

White moonflowers, bottle gourd flowers
They would be blooming now and shaking in the rain
To follow my dream, I walk on alone

Determination is tomorrow’s milepost
Ha~ e~ it’s so lonely
But damned if I’ll give up
Tokyo Elegy

Notes:  I think the line “Right now even my grandfather wouldn’t let me rub his shoulders” implies that she left home against her family’s wishes and expects that she’d get a cold welcome if she visited them.  I’m not sure how to interpret “determination is tomorrow’s milepost,” but that’s a direct translation.  As for the conversation, the host and Aiko don’t actually say “Welcome” and “I’m glad to be here.”  They both use a set phrase (yoroshiku onegaishimasu) that means something like “Please treat [me/it/them] well.”  It’s used when you meet someone for the first time, when you’re working with someone, or when you’re placing someone or something in another person’s care.


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.


March 24, 2009

After the last post, I’d been considering doing an introduction to Japanese music, but if that ever happens – even if it’s only a very brief overview – it’ll be quite a while from now, as really, I’m not up to speed on the subject myself.

But in my efforts to become more informed, I’ve been digging around in YouTube, and I thought I’d share some songs I found.  Or rather, a song.

Hibari Misora was a very popular singer, from the time of her 1949 recording debut at age 12 to her death in 1989.  She sang enka, a genre of Japanese music that was born around World War II and is characterized by melodramatic ballads sung in a particular vibrato-heavy style, with orchestral accompaniment that includes rock and roll and jazz influences and flourishes of traditional Japanese sounds.

This is Hibari Misora singing “Kurumaya-san.”  The title means “Mr. Rickshaw Man” (as in someone who pulls rickshaws for a living).  She released the song in 1958, but I would guess that this video is from the ’80s.  I should also add that this song has much more of an early rock and roll bent than most enka.

My attempt at a translation:

Wait just a moment, Mr. Rickshaw Man
I have a favor to ask of you
This letter
Deliver it secretly
Get the reply secretly
And bring that back secretly
Could you do that for me?

Listen, as for the recipient’s name
It would be boorish to even ask
There’s a line from a song, isn’t there?
A cad who gets in the way of other people’s love
Finds even the moon through the window hateful
Do you understand, Mr. Rickshaw Man?

What happened, Mr. Rickshaw Man?
You are of absolutely no use
What a person
You delivered the letter secretly
Got the reply secretly
And brought that back secretly
But where did you deliver the letter?

I’m leaving out the last verse, because I’m uncertain about some phrases, but the gist is that the woman calls the rickshaw man a fool for delivering the letter to the wrong person (or maybe she’s saying that the unintended recipient has been made a fool), but then says that she herself is the greater fool for writing the letter in the first place.

So that’s the original version.  This is a  live cover from 2005, by a band called Tokyo Jihen.

Quit a contrast, eh?

Tokyo Jihen – or “Tokyo Incidents,” as the official translation goes – was formed in 2004 by its vocalist, Ringo Shiina, who started as a solo act in 1998.   “Ringo” means “apple” in Japanese, and isn’t Shiina’s actual given name.

I like how the vocals still use the enka style but are delivered with very un-enka-like aggression.   It’s like Shiina’s woman is a yakuza moll instead of Misora’s old-fashioned, well-to-do housewife.


March 22, 2009

Last Friday was, I think, the end of the school year in Japan, and graduation ceremonies would have been held the week before.  These are always emotional affairs, at junior high schools as much as at high schools.  In the US, graduating from junior high is a non-event, but in Japan it’s a big deal.  While enrollment at public elementary and junior high schools is determined simply by home address, high schools have competitive entry, such that getting into a “good” school requires a high score on entrance exams.  So students go to school with the same people up through 9th grade, and then they’re scattered.

Sakura – flowering cherry trees – bloom around spring break, and while they’re generally associated more with the beginning of the school year than with the end, there’s a Japanese pop song that likens their scattering blossoms to friends going their separate ways in life.  The song, “Sakura,” by Naotarō Moriyama, is often played at graduations.

This is Moriyama performing a version with piano accompaniment.

It’s a bit sappy, but not outright maudlin.

Christmas and Kotos

December 23, 2007

. . . have nothing to do with each other, but I haven’t had time to finish the post I was writing and I’m flying home for Christmas today, so here’s something in the meantime.

Kazue Sawai, a famous koto player, performing “Midare.”

Midare means “disorder.”