Translations of Japanese Songs into English.

Imjin River by the Folk Crusaders In Japanese and English

Japanese Reading Difficulty

4/12 Could be read and understood by 4th grade level student in Japan

Themes

Partitioning of Korea

Text Type

Songs In Translation

Lyrics

イムジン河水清く とうとうと流る
水鳥自由にむらがり 飛び交うよ
我が祖国南の地 想いははるか
イムジン河水清く とうとうと流る

北の大地から 南の空へ
飛び行く鳥よ 自由の使者よ
誰が祖国を二つに 分けてしまったの
誰が祖国を 分けてしまったの

    

イムジン河空遠く 虹よかかっておくれ
河よ 想いを伝えておくれ
ふるさとをいつまでも 忘れはしない
イムジン河水清く とうとうと流る

The imjin river flows so clear

It flows so strong, it flows so deep oh yes my dear

And the water fowl form flocks and fly

To and fro to and fro

My heart lies in the south

My hope lays at rivers mouth

And the imjin river flows so clear

It flows so strong it flows so deep oh yes my dear

 

From the northern continental planes

The birds they fly in flocks they fly in waves

And Like messengers from freedoms shore

make their way make their way

Who was it that cut our land in two

Gave half to me and half to you

And do they even know just what they’ve done

And do they watch the same great imjin river run

 

Down the imjin river way off far

Theres a rainbow forming in the air

Oh Imjin river tell my love

Look above look above

And tell them that I still know the road

That leads back to my home

Cause the imjin river flows so clear

 

It flows so strong it flows so deep oh yes my dear

Today for we’re looking at a song called イムジン河 Imjin River.

Imjin River runs between North and South Korea, through the ironically named demilitarised zone, where two armies eyeball eachother off across one of the most heavily armed borders on earth. The song about the river was original called Rimjingang and was composed in Korea in 1957 by Ko Jonghan to a poem by Pak Se-yong song. Rimjingang is banned in North Korea, as it uses the Imjin River as a symbol of freedom, flowing with the river north to south. 

The song found its way to Japan in the 1960s, with the Korean diaspora, where it was heard by a young writer in Kyoto names Takeshi Matsuyama. With the help of his Korean friends, Matsuyama translated some of the original lyrics and added two verses of his own. Late 60s Japan was heavily influenced by the folk music movement that was happening in America. A large number of folk acts, mixing Japanese and western folk elements were born, including a group called the Folk Crusaders in Kyoto. The group has some similarities with folk groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary. 

Matsuyama taught his version of the Korean song to group member Kazuhiko Kato. Both thought it was a long-standing Korean “traditional” song, rather than a fairly recently composed song with definite authors. The group arranged it into something quite new and attempted to launch it as their follow up song to the break out, and extremely odd, novelty single 帰ってきたよっぱらい Kaete Kaete Kita Yopparai.

Nagsa Oshima later made a somewhat experimental film of the same name, which you can see here.

Unfortunately, Imjin River was deemed too political by the Japanese government and was effectively banned in that country too.

The song, however, remains popular both in its original Korean form, and its modified Japanese form. It is a powerful statement of the pain felt by the partitioned people of the Koreas. The Japanese version also functions as a symbolic gesture by Japanese youths of the 1960s trying to break down the barriers that were often, and continue to be, placed around Korean communities in that country. Here is the Japanese version of the Folk Crusaders singing Imujin-Gawa.

 

Check out some more Japanese songs in translation here.

This song was translated as part of the Songs in Translation segment on RRR radio program Vital Bits.

Language Learning Program Reviews

Graded Japanese Reading Practice

Hana Kimura, Her Mother’s Petition and The Rigging of Terrace House

we translate an article from the Shukan Bunshun that outlines how Hana Kimura’s mother, Kyoko Kimura, is petitioning Japan’s broadcasting watchdog to examine how the show Terrace House was set up in a way that ultimately led to Hana’s demise.

Along with the text, we read the article in Japanese, then in English, then sentence by sentence in both languages.

Read More »

Japanoscope is a registered affiliate with several online shops and may receive a commission when you click on some of the links within content.

Who is behind this site?

I’m Peter Joseph Head. I lived in Japan for four years as a student at Kyoto City University of the Arts and on working holiday. I have toured the country six times playing music and speak Japanese (JLPT N1).

ピータージョセフヘッドです。3年間京都市立芸大の大学院として、一年間ワーキングホリデーとして日本に住み、6回日本で音楽ツアーをし、日本語能力試験で1級を取得しました。要するに日本好きです。

Japan’s Most Famous Anti-War Folk Song? Wataru Takada’s Jieitai Ni Hairo

Japanese Reading Difficulty

6/12 Could be read by 6th grade level student in Japan

Themes

War, Japanese folk music, Japanese anti-war songs

Text Type

Song Lyrics

First let me give you a short background to the song. 

In the late 1960s Western countries weren’t the only ones protesting. There was strong resistance to the Vietnam War in Japan also. A lot of American folk musicians travelled to Japan including Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte. Japan experienced its own golden age of American folk influenced music, with its own distinct flavour. Dylan’s music was huge, but he didn’t get to the country until 1978, when he played the famous budokan hall with a capacity of 10,000 people and sold it out for a record breaking (for foreign artists) eight nights.

One of the central native folk musicians was Wataru Takada. I first heard Wataru when I went to see him play live in Kyoto in 2004, shortly before his death in 2005. He left a big impression, not least by falling asleep half way through his set – which was not uncommon in his later years. Although he was only 56 when he passed away, he looked like a man who’s life had not left him much fuel in the tank.

 

Born in gifu, mother died at 8, father took him to Tokyo without a plan, they lived in a series of unstable situations, including charity housing. His father died by the time he was in middle school.

He was introduced to American folk music in the mid 60s  and was soon so devoted to the music that he had his English teacher write a letter to Pete Seeger saying he wanted to learn from him. A reply from Pete came a couple of months later giving him some word of general encouragement:

 

Dear Wataru Takada: 

 

Thank youfor your long letters ー I’m sorry that my answer must be so brief. 

 

1) You can learn most from me by my writings in Sing Out magazine, and other Oak Publicaitions ー song book, etc, and from my recordings. 

2) But you can learn more from you own neighbors and friends and from your own successes and failures in your activities. 

3) When you learn English, I would be glad to hear from you again.

4)  Meanwhile, learn to make such good music that people will ask to hear you again and again.

 

Best of luck

 

PS – I’m sorry that I cannot write in Japanese.



When Pete toured to Japan a year later, he gave the young Wataru Takada a front row ticket to his show.

In 1968 he took part in the Kansai Folk Camp in Kyoto, and he moved there the next year to be part of what had become the main folk movement in Japan. He became a central part of the scene along with figures such as Tomoya Takaishi and Nobuyasu Okabayashi. He later returned to Tokyo and again became a major force in the folk scene that would come to be known as Kichijyoji-ha Folk 吉祥寺派フォーク.

 

Origins of the song

 

The song 自衛隊に入ろう Jieitai Ni Hairo is based on a song written by Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger:

 

I want to go to Andorra, Andorra, Andorra,
I want to go to Andorra, it’s a place I adore,
They spent four dollars and ninety cents
On armaments and their defense,
Did you ever hear of such confidence?
Andorra, hip hurrah!

 

Here’s the song as sung by Pete Seeger.

Malvina Reynolds is probably most well known for this her song Little House. Check out this documentary about this amazing woman and songwriter here.

Wataru took the basic chord structure and melody and made a satirical song about joining the self defence force, using the force’s own sales slogans. It’s pretty clear that the song is sarcastic, but apparently he got called up not long after first performing the song by the Japanese self defence force to ask if they could use the song. Clearly, they hadn’t gotten the joke. Later the song was considered for official banning by the Japanese government. It was never officially banned, because they felt it would never be popular anyway, but the song has long been “unofficially” banned by official media for all intents and purposes.


Takada stopped performing the song not long into his career. He has said that performing songs about everyday experience is a more potent form of anti war protest. But the song continues to live on and has been adapted for modern protests such as the anti-nuclear protests in Japan where it the song became “Why don’t you join Tokyo Electricity”:

Lyrics

みなさん方の中に

自衛隊に入りたい人はいませんか

ひとはたあげたい人はいませんか

自衛隊じゃ 人材もとめてます

 

自衛隊に入ろう 入ろう 入ろう

自衛隊に入れば この世は天国

男の中の男はみんな

自衛隊に入って 花と散る

 

スポーツをやりたい人いたら

いつでも 自衛隊におこし下さい

槍でも鉄砲でも 何でもありますよ

とにかく 体が資本です

 

鉄砲や戦車や ひこうきに

興味をもっている方は

いつでも自衛隊におこし下さい

手とり 足とり おしえます

 

日本の平和を守るためにゃ

鉄砲やロケットがいりますよ

アメリカさんにも手伝ってもらい

悪い ソ連や中国をやっつけましょう

 

自衛隊じゃ 人材もとめてます

年令 学歴は問いません

祖国のためなら どこまでも

素直な人を求めます

Hello my friends, are there any there amongst you
Who want to join the army, who want to learn to shoot
If there’s any there amongst you who want to make a name
Well the army is recruiting, come and join today

Why don’t you join the army
The army’s where it’s at
For all of you men’s men
The army is your best bet
Why don’t you join the army
And fall with the blossom

If there’s any there amongst you, who want to be a sportsman
Just say yes sir, and I’ll say now you’re really talking
We’ve got the spears, and yes we’ve got the guns
But really it’s your body, that makes the best weapon

If there any there amongst you
Who take an interest in
Guns and tanks and aeroplanes
Well well, well then
The armys always right here waiting
From the top down to the bottom, well teach you everything

To keep the peace, protect the people of Japan
We need the guns and rockets, we need the boys, we need the men
Mr America he needs a helping hand
To get the baddies there in Russia and beat the China Man

The armys on the lookout
For new personal
Age and education
Can both go straight to hell
The only qualifications that you’re going to need
Are a will to fight for fatherland and an appetite for beans

Language Learning Program Reviews

Graded Japanese Reading Practice

Hana Kimura, Her Mother’s Petition and The Rigging of Terrace House

we translate an article from the Shukan Bunshun that outlines how Hana Kimura’s mother, Kyoko Kimura, is petitioning Japan’s broadcasting watchdog to examine how the show Terrace House was set up in a way that ultimately led to Hana’s demise.

Along with the text, we read the article in Japanese, then in English, then sentence by sentence in both languages.

Read More »

Japanoscope is a registered affiliate with several online shops and may receive a commission when you click on some of the links within content.

Who is behind this site?

I’m Peter Joseph Head. I lived in Japan for four years as a student at Kyoto City University of the Arts and on working holiday. I have toured the country six times playing music and speak Japanese (JLPT N1).

ピータージョセフヘッドです。3年間京都市立芸大の大学院として、一年間ワーキングホリデーとして日本に住み、6回日本で音楽ツアーをし、日本語能力試験で1級を取得しました。要するに日本好きです。

Ii Yu Da Na いい湯だな-英語訳-In English Translation

いい湯だな

いい湯だな

湯気が天井から ポタリと背中に

つめてぇな

つめてぇな

ここは北国 登別の湯


いい湯だな

いい湯だな

誰が唄うか 八木節が

いいもんだ

いいもんだ

ここは上州 草津の湯


いい湯だな

いい湯だな

湯気にかすんだ 白い人影

あの娘かな

あの娘かな

ここは紀州の 白浜の湯


いい湯だな

いい湯だな

日本人なら 浪花節でも

うなろかな

うなろかな

ここは南国 別府の湯

The water feels so good

Oh it feels so good

I feel a cold drop on my back

As the steam falls from the roof

And it feels so cool

Yes it feels so cool

I’m in the north country

Noboribetsu And it’s gonna gonna get you

 

The water feels so good

Yes it feels so good

Who is that singing that

Yagibushi, they make it sound so easy

It sounds so sweet

Yeah it sounds so sweet

Here in jyoshu, kusatsu

Getting my body warm through

 

The water feels so good

Oh it feels so good

Who is that hazy figure

Coming through the white mist

It could be her, it could be yes

It could be her

Oh it could be her

Right here in old Kishu

Hamatsu, maybe there’s someone loves you

 

But it feels so good

Yes it feels so good

I feel so Japanese

Feels like I should be

Singing naniwa bushi yeah

In a low low groan

In a low low groan

Now I’m in the south country

In beppu in my birthday suit

Forgetting me, forgetting you

Interview about the song & Ken Shimura on RRR Radio

メルボルンのラジオで下記のインタービューで志村けん、ドリフターズの話しました。

Here’s an interview I did on Melbourne’s RRR radio, Vital Bits Program as part of the Songs In Translation project.

ドリフターズとモンティ・パイソンを比較
The Drifters Versus Monty Python

イギリスにはモンティ・パイソンがいた。日本にはドリフターズがいた。ドリフターズはこれだけ日本で影響が大きかった。どちらもコント基本のコミックの一座でした。どちらも、音楽だけでなく笑いも重視していました。どちらも、数年ではなく数十年にわたって、コンテンツの作成を継続して行う長期的な文化機関になりました。

 

彼らはそれぞれどれくらい持続しましたか? 1969年から1974年にBBCで放映されたオリジナルの「モンティパイソンフライングサーカス」テレビ番組に対してザドリフターの番組「8時だョ!全員集合」1985年にTBSでなんと16年間(1971年に6か月の休止期間含む)。どちらのグループも、現在に至るまで何らかの形で継続しており、個々のメンバーが独立してプ番組とコンテンツを作成して、断続的に一緒になって作品を共同制作したりしてきました。それは、半世紀以上にわたる、二つの文化を渡る、二つの笑い組が作る天才的な漫才になります。

 

モンティパイソンとドリフターズの主な違いは?ドリフターズの方が面白いです。

In the U.K. there was Monty Python. In Japan there was The Drifters. Such was the influence of the comic group in Japan. Both were skit based comic troupes. Both had a music focus as well as a comic focus. Both became long running cultural institutions that continued to create content, off and on, across not years but decades.

How long did they each last? The original Monty Python’s Flying Circus program aired from 1969 – 1974 on the BBC, and The Drifter’s program 8時だョ!全員集合 (hachi ji da yo! Zenin Shugo – Everyone Roll Up, It’s Eight O’Clock) ran from 1969 – 1985 for a whopping sixteen years (with a six month hiatus in 1971) on TBS. Both groups have continued in some form or other up to the present day, with individual members creating programs and content independently before coming back to create together intermittently. That’s more than half a century of parallel comic genius.

The main difference between Monty Python and The Drifters? The Drifters are funnier.

志村けん英語教える
Ken Shimura teaching English skit

ジョンクリース性教育を教える Jon Clease teaching sex education skit

Notes about the Drifters

ドリフターズについて最初に知っておくべきことは、1966年のビートルズ日本ツアーの前座を務めたことです。確かに、彼らの持ち時間は合計1分15秒しかなかっただが、それでも認められます。コミック音楽が日本を代表するバンドの1つとしてビートルズの前座をやることになった経緯は、直感的ではありません。でもそれは別の時代でした。あらゆるのエンターテイナーの種類の間の境界線は、現在よりも多孔性がありました。歌手の出番は犬とトリックをする大道芸人を演じた後にあって、ダンサーの出番の前にマジシャンがあって、その次はどんな芸能が出てきてもおかしくない時代でした。基本として求められるのは、人を楽しませることでした。上記のすべての芸能が出来たら、さらに良いのです。

The first thing you should know about the Drifters is that they opened for the Beatles on their 1966 tour of Japan. True, their set went for a total of one minute and 15 seconds, but it still counts. How a comic-music act came to be one of the representative bands of Japan to open for The Beatles is less than intuitive. It was a different time. The line between entertainers of all stripes was more porous than it is now. It was twilight years of the variety show where a singer performs beside a magic act who performs before a dancer who performed someone doing tricks with dogs. The main requirement was that you entertained. If you can do all of the above, all the better.

ビートルズを前座するドリフ
The Drifters opening for the Beatles

ビートルズ来日講演
Beatles 1966 Japan Performance

大雑把にいうと、その事情を変えてのはビートルズとそのようなギターバンドでした。ビートルズ自身は両方の世界に同時に存在しました。ラルフハリス(イギリスで60年代から40年大活躍したオーストラリアの芸人)と「タイミーカンガルーダウンスポーツ」を共演するビートルズのこの録音は、その証拠になります。

In many ways, the Beatles and guitar bands were the ones that changed all that. But the Beatles themselves very much had foot on both stages. This recording of the Beatles playing Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport with Ralph Harris is evidence of that 

ビートルズとロルフハリス共演 The Beatles riffing with Rolf Harris

ドリフターズはこの頃までにほぼ10年の間何らかの形で活動続けて来ていたが、ビートルズの前座をしたことで彼らを本格的に日本全国的に有名になりました。 1956年、マウンテンボーイズと東京ウエスタンボーイズの2つのグループが合併して、The Driftersの原始版を形成しました。彼らは笑い中心というよりは音楽グループとして始めました。

 

この時代の風習は芸能グループしばしばメンバーが変わったりして回転ドアのようなものでした。初期のドリフターズは例外ではありませんでした。ドリフターズの初期版の1つでは坂本九が含まれており、坂本九は後に「向いて歩こう」、日本国外で「すき焼き」というわけがわからない題名で、で初の本格的海外でクロスオーバーヒット果たしました。この曲は、ヨーロッパ以外の言語で、米国のBillboard Hot 100チャートをトップになった最初の曲です。

 

初期のドリフターズは、歌謡曲から民謡、笑いの歌、さらには軍歌に至るまで音楽を演奏することで知られていきました。最初の大ヒットは、日本の五音階的なメロディーとピンクパンサー系のデカ番組に出てきてもおかしくないような強力なインパクトのあるズンドコ節でした。恋人・妻・恋人の重なりをほのめかしているような歌詞の歌です。1970年に演奏した映像はこんな感じです:

The Drifters had been going in some shape or form for nearly ten years by this time, but opening for the Beatles was what really brought them to national prominence. In 1956 two groups, the Mountain Boys and the Tokyo Western Boys joined forces to form the primordial version of The Drifters. They started out as more of a music group than playing for laughs. 

Acts in this era often featured something of a revolving door of members coming and going, and the early Drifters was no different. One version of the group included Kyu Sakamoto, who would later have the true Japan-Western cross-over hit of all time with 上を向いて歩こう, strangely marketed under the name Sukiyaki outside of Japan. The song was the first song from a non-European language to top the Billboard Hot 100 charts in the United States.

Early drifters were known for doing music ranging from kayo 歌謡 songs, to Minyo 民謡 traditional folk songs, comic songs and even military songs. There first big hit was Zundoko-Bushi, which is a somehow-potent mix of Japanese pentatonic melody and Pink-Panther style who-done-it-jazz, tells the story of several stages of love from across a man’s life, several of which seem to hint at an overlap between lover-wife-lover. Here’s them performing it in 1970:

ドリフターズズンドク節 The Drifters Zundoku-Bushi

ドリフターズは日本でトップ10ヒットをいくつか放ち続けましたが、時間が経つにつれコメディへとだんだんに転向しました。個々のメンバーはそれぞれ、長いキャリアを渡って、グドリフターズ外で音楽を制作し続けました。

The group went on to have several top 10 hits in Japan, but turned more towards comedy as time went on. Each of the individual members would continue to produce music outside of the group for much of their careers.

志村けん Ken Shimura

Ken Shimura was the latest Drifter to join the group at the age of 24. He became well known for doing the festive Higashimurayama Ondo. Anyone who has been to a Bon Odori will recognise the hypnotic, thudding rhythmic style of this one.

志村けんは24歳でグループに入った最新のドリフターでした。彼が歌う祭りっぽいの「東村山音頭」が有名になりました。盆踊りなどに行ったことのある人なら、この催眠的にドンドンとリズミカルに鳴るスタイルになじみはあるでしょう。

けんさんは世界打撃を打つ、まあおそらく日本を打撃を打つ、ドリフターズのテレビ番組の時期を経て、「けんさんはバカ殿様」や「変なおじさん」や、「志村けんのだいじょうぶだぁ」などというような人気番組も制作しました。

けんさんは、ドリフターズの仲間とともに、モンティパイソンは多くのイギリス人にとってと同じように、まさに国民のヒーローでした。

彼の死でさえ日本人の最後の奉仕となりました。 2020年3月20日に彼は肺炎で入院しました。 3月23日、けんさんCovid-19陽性であることが世界に発表されました。彼は3月29日までにこの世を去ってしまいました。

着実に増加しているが、Covid感染の数が比較的少ない日本では、志村けんさんの死は日本人にとって大きな打撃でした。志村けんは、3世代の日本人が共に育った面白いやつでした。今度は、この病気は日本国民の実際に知っている人を奪いました。今度は、この病気は本物になりました。志村けんさんの死は、来たる危機に対する日本の意識の大きな転機となりました。この記事の執筆時点で、4月8日であり、日本は緊急事態を発表しています。志村けんの最後の行動は、日本の「炭鉱の中のカナリア」になることでした。

それはMonty Pythonが受け取ったがない不幸な賞ではあります。

After a world beating, okay, maybe Japan-beating, period doing live performances and TV with the drifters, he went on to create highly successful alter-ego characters including バカ殿様 (Baka Dono Sama – Sir Idiot) and 変なおじさん (Henna Ojisan – Weird Old Guy). He went on to create other popular shows such as 志村けんのだいじょうぶだぁ (Shimura Ken no daijyoubudaa – Ken Shimura’s It’s Okay).

Ken Shimura, along with his Drifters companions, was truly a people’s hero in the same way that many members of Monty Python went on to be in the U.K. 

Even his death served as a final service to the Japanese people. On the 20th of March 2020 he went to hospital with lung inflammation. On the 23rd of March, it was announced to the world that he had Covid-19. He was dead by the 29th of March. 

In a Japan that was seeing steadily rising, but relatively low numbers of Covid infections, Ken Shimura’s death came as a major shock to the Japanese people. Ken Shimura was the funny guy  that three generations of Japanese had grown up with. Now the sickness had taken someone they knew. Now the sickness was real. Ken Shimura’s death represented a major turning point in Japan’s awareness of the coming crisis. On the writing of this article, it is the 8th of April and Japan has just announced a state of emergency. Ken Shimura’s final act was to be the canary in the coal mine of the Japanese psyche. 

There’s one credit no Monty Python member has ever had the misfortune to claim.

 

いい湯だな Ii Yu Da Na

60年代初頭、ラジオのアナウンサーであり作家である永六輔と作曲家の泉拓はかなり野心的で、ひょっとして楽しいアイデアがありました。彼らは日本中を旅し、あらゆる地域についての歌を書くことしました。その半世紀後ぐらいに、インディーのソングライターであるSufjan Stevensは、彼と似たようなプロジェクトに着手していることを世界に発表しました。それはアメリカのすべての州をうたったアルバムを書くことです。 前述と後述の2つのプロジェクトの主な違いは、スフジャンは50枚の州のアルバムを執筆するというの中でミシガン州とイリノイ州の経った2枚のディスクでやる気がなくなり、エイとタクのプロジェクトでは、日本の47都道府県ごとに1曲ずつ、さらに5曲追加して、見事に完成しました。

 

彼らはアイデアをどこからともなく引き出していたわけではありません。日本にはご当地ソングというジャンルがあり、各地の歌を歌っています。もちろん世界中のソングライター、自分の家や自分が知っている場所について書くことは、ごく普通の行為です。ウッディ・ガスリーは「あなたが実際見た光景を書け」というぐらいです。ほとんどの人が実際に見ている風景はの自分の住んでいる場所です。しかし、日本は町、地域、地域の間で言語、食物、文化の違いが特に顕著であります。日本の音楽の中には「地元」をうたったポピュラー音楽や民謡や歌謡や、あらゆるジャンル数多くあるのは理解しやすいです。アメリカにはホームランどロックがあり、日本にはご当地ソングがあります。

 

日本の芸能文化にはまた、続き物、シリーズを作成する傾向があります。北斎の「富嶽三十六景」または広重の東海道五十三次のように。

 

「いい湯だな」は、ご当地ソングのシリーズから生まれました。この曲は、19年回の紅白歌合戦に演奏されました。 「日本の歌」サイクルの他の曲も、17、20、22回目の紅白に登場しました。それはかなりの偉業です。

 

元々、この曲はデュークエースによって歌われました。

 

その後、ドリフターズはそれを引き受け、毎週修正版の曲で「8時だよ全員集合」の番組を閉めました。この歌は、毎週、年中無休、1億人以上の日本人の居間に浸透して行きました。それほど大衆に親しまれる機会があった歌は他にないでしょう。

 

In the early 60s radio announcer and writer Rokuseke Ei and composer Izumi Taku had  a pretty ambitious, and potentially very fun idea. They would travel all over Japan and write a song about every area. Half a century later, indie-orchestral songwriter Sufjan Stevens would announce to the world he was embarking on a similar project – to write an album for every state in America. The main difference between the two projects was that Sufjan’s motivation to write 50 state albums lasted for two discs, Michigan and Illinois, and that Ei and Taku’s project produced 42 songs, one for each prefecture of the 47 prefectures in Japan, plus a few for good measure. 

They weren’t pulling the idea out of nowhere. There is a whole genre of songs in Japan called ご当地ソング (gotochi song), which are songs about different local regions. Of course, writing about your home and the places you know is pretty much a no brainer. Woody Guthrie struck the string in the right place when he urged people to just “write what you see”. And what you see is where you live. Yet, Japan is a place with particularly pronounced differences between towns, areas and regions, for language, food and culture.  You can see how it could easily sustain a whole subsection of popular and folk music devoted to paying homage to the local. America has Homeland Rock, Japan has hometown folk. 

Japanese culture also has a penchant for creating series in their arts -think Hokusai’s 36 views of Mount Fuji or Hiroshige’s Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō.

Ii Yu Da Na started out its life as one of these songs. This song featured at the iconic 紅白歌合戦 kohaku uta gasen, song competition, in it’s 19th year.  Other songs from the “Songs of Japan” cycle also appeared at the 17th, 20th and 22nd song competition. That’s quite a feat.

Originally, the song was sung by the Duke Aces.

Later the Drifters took it on, and would close their “Roll Up It’s 8 o’clock” show with a modified version of the song every week. The song infiltrated the lounge rooms of 100 million Japanese, weekly for a decade and half. There’s not many songs that get that kind of opportunity to commune with the masses.

 

Japan was also producing some very strange and wonderful guitars during this period of history. We’ve written about some of them here.

Japan was making pretty cools guitars like this one around this time

翻訳ノート Notes On Translation

表面的には「当地」に焦点を当てている曲の割に、いい湯だなのメッセージは普遍的なものです。リフレインの「いい湯だな」とは単純に「お湯が気持ちいい」という意味です。温かいお風呂のぬくもりを味わう感覚とは無縁の人は世界でも少ないでしょう。しかし、この歌の表現は明らかに日本的です。日本語には英語で2つの単語が必要となる一言はあります。「湯」です。元の日本語は単純であるためこそ、英語に翻訳するのが難しくなります。私は「お湯」の「暖かい」意味を放棄することを選択し、「waterはとても気持ちがいい」にしました。お風呂で「the water feels so good」といった時に、事情からwaterの温度はどんな感じか言わなくても分かるでしょう。

言語の翻訳で最も楽しくてやりがいのあるところは、日本語の地名を英語で韻を踏むことでした。 2つの言語の韻を踏むことは、いやらしい感じしました。いい意味で。寝室でいたずらにするような感覚で。

英語は日本語に比べて音節が非常に少ないという実態も、歌を翻訳する機会を与えてくれます。より短時間で多くの情報を伝えることができます。その結果、言葉で遊ぶ時間が余るということです。この曲では、「余分な時間」を使っていくつかの言葉の勝手な遊びをしました。

Yet, for a song that ostensibly focuses on the local, it’s message is simultaneously parochial and universal. The refrain いい湯だな means something like “the hot water feels so good”. There are few people in the world that cannot relate to the simple sensation enjoying the warmth of a hot bath. Indeed, here at Japanoscope, we are big bath people and have given our opinions about how to get a Japanese bath into your home. But the way it is expressed here in song is distinctly Japanese. It is telling that the Japanese language has a word that takes two in English. 湯 yu. The simplicity of the original Japanese presents a problem for translating into English. I chose to relinquish the “hot” part of “hot water” and went with just “the water feels so good”. If you’re in a hot bath exclaiming how great the water feels, hot is probably going to be clear from context.

The most fun and challenging part of translating the language was rhyming the Japanese place names with English. Rhyming two languages feels perverse. In a good way. It’s the linguistic equivalent of getting naughty in the bedroom. 

The fact that English has so many fewer syllables than Japanese also gives you opportunity when you translate songs. You can get a lot more information in a shorter time. Which means you’ve got time to play with. In this song, I used this “extra time” to take a few liberties.

 

ここは北国 登別の湯  

「ベツ」と「Get you」を韻を踏みました。私は登別に行ったことありませんが、居間まで行った日本の温泉のほとんどが僕の心をゲットしました。

I’m in the north country Noboribetsu, And it’s gonna gonna get you

I rhymed betsu with “get you”. I haven’t been romanced by Noboribetsu, but just about every hot spring I’ve been to in Japan hasn’t failed to “get me”.

ここは上州 草津の湯 の湯  

Here in jyoshu, kusatsu

Getting my body warm through

Threw this one, we had the space so why not?

ここは紀州の 白浜の湯

「誰かが愛しているかもしれない」は前の詩の意味を拡張したもので、「湯気にかすんだ 白い人影あの娘かな」の延長です。あの娘は誰なのかわからないがきっと誰かお母さんとかではないでしょう。

Right here in old Kishu

Hamatsu, maybe there’s someone loves you

“Maybe there’s someone loves” extends out the meaning of the previous verse, which has hinted at seeing a “figure in the white mist” and wondering if it is “that girl”. Who that girl is we don’t know. I’m pretty sure it’s not your mum.

 

ここは南国 別府の湯

元の曲には「Birthday suit」のような言及がないこと認めます。「Birthday suit」とは俗語的な言葉で「生まれつきの服」としての意味で「裸」という意味です。なんとなく「別府」と響きが似ていてついに韻を踏んでしまいました。別府に恐れの気持ちでいっぱいです。
オリジナルには「Forgetting me, forgetting you」、「あなたを忘れて、私も忘れられる」というものもありません。しかし、この曲に、一人でお風呂に行って、次回行った温泉でもやの中でお風呂に入っている女を見て、希望を抱き、恋に失敗して、結局お風呂の温もりに戻ったといった誰かの物語が埋もれているではないかと僕は解釈しました。エイとタクが承認してくれるでしょうか。

In beppu in my birthday suit

Forgetting me, forgetting you

Okay, so the original doesn’t have a reference to “birthday suit” and I guess I owe the whole region of Beppu an apology for rhyming that one with them. Sometimes these things just come out in the process. 

The original doesn’t have the “forgetting me, forgetting you bit” either. But I feel this gives the song a bit more of a story arc of someone that has maybe gone to a bath alone, then seen someone at a bath in the haze, got their hopes up, failed in love, and gone back to the hot bath for solace once again. Hopefully Ei and Taku would approve.

 
 

Who is behind this site?

I’m Peter Joseph Head. I lived in Japan for four years as a student at Kyoto City University of the Arts and on working holiday, have toured the country six times playing music and speak Japanese (JLPT N1).

ピータージョセフヘッドです。3年間京都市立芸大の大学院として、一年間ワーキングホリデーとして日本に住み、6回日本で音楽ツアーをし、日本語能力試験で1級を取得しました。要するに日本好きです。

Castle In The Sky Laputa: Analysis and Theme Translation

To commemorate the new availability of Hayao Miyazaki & Studio Ghibli films on streaming services, we present an analysis of the movie Castle In The Sky and the theme song Kimi Ni Nosete.

We do a monthly segment on the Vital Bits program on Radio RRR in Melbourne where we present Japanese Songs In Translation.
We’ve also got galleries of Studio Ghibli Posters, Plushies
and socks.



Kimi ni nosete Japanese Version

Kimi Ni Nosete English Translated Version

MP3 Version of song
MP3 version of full radio segment

About the Movie

I’m going to assume you’ve seen the movie already. And that you know that it is about a girl from a mysterious race of people trying to get back to a mysterious world in the sky, Laputa, with the help of a peasant boy, whose father was also looking for the same mysterious land. So much mysterious.
I won’t go into detail recounting the whole adventure and each of the sprawling cast of diabolical, larger than life characters. But let me touch on a few of the things I think are interesting.

Hayao Miyazaki

Image by Thomas: https://www.flickr.com/photos/t_p_s/

Movie Themes

Flight

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tranquangdinhtue/

Laputa is one of many of writer/director Miyazaki Hayao’s films that deal with flight. There’s probably not a film of his where someone doesn’t take to the sky at some point. If you don’t believe me, watch this cut-up of flying scenes from Miyazaki films put together by Fandor:

In the video, you also see footage of Miyazaki playing with model airplanes. It’s nice to see that this notorious workaholic, who creates fantastic worlds for children, really is a kid at heart. Included in the models is the (in)famous Mitsubishi Zero (a 零戦 Reisen in Japanese). These planes struck fear into the hearts of many allied citizens and soldiers, not least of which when these flying machines were used as Kamikaze suicide bombs. 

Mitshubishi Zero

Martial heland / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Hayao Miyazaki’s father was an engineer who worked on the Zero fighters.
You can see how the aeroplane, and flight more generally, has influenced his work and become such a major motif. 
In the Fandor video above, there is an excerpt of Miyazaki talking about his own, his family’s, and indeed humanity at large’s, relationship with the aeroplane. Flying machines were, and are, a symbol of humanity’s ability to transcend its surroundings. Bill Bryson vividly describes in his fantastic book One Sumer: America 1927 how, when Charles Lindbergh completed the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris, he was greeted by no less than 100,000 parisians. It was as if an alien hand touched down from Mars.
In the Fandor video, Miyazaki also talks about how the technology of flight, developed by those with noble intent, inevitably gets swept up in the prevailing winds of the time and ends up being used for evil. Evil, like the aeroplanes that his dad worked on were used for. 

For the Miyazaki, the struggle between innate human ingenuity and human depravity is personal. 

This yin-yang style dark and light human coexistence is perhaps even parralled by the darker, Nazi sympathising tendencies of global aviation hero Lindbergh himself.

So in Castle In The Sky Laputa, as in many of his films, flight becomes a symbol both of man’s ability to transcend his mortal surroundings, and of technology’s shocking abilities to unleash man’s basest violent instincts.

Filial Piety

Image of Filiel Piety by Kan no buntei

This family connection leads into another major theme in Castle In The Sky, the relationship between child and parent. The idea of filial piety, which wikipedia defines as a virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors is seen in the loving affection that main characters Pazu and Sheeta hold for their deceased parents. Indeed, Pazu is driven by the desire to vindicate his father’s life mission, to prove the existence of the mythical land of Laputa. Pazu is out to redeem his father’s honour in the eyes of the world. 
Sheeta’s memories revolve strongly around the teachings of her mother and the desire to do right in her eyes. The idea of a mythic people who are guardians of a magical other world is connected to the Confusian ideals of respect, even deification, of ancestors. The ancestors even have a magical stone that they pass down through the generations that functions as a special ticket to their exclusive world. How does it get you there? Through the medium of flight of course, this time pure and unadulterated by the need for mechanical devices, technology or gadgetry.
The ticket only works if you have the right blood though. Ancestors, families, look after their own.

Mothers

Motherly figure of Nausicaa, inspiration for Miyazaki’s first film

By Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton – Art Renewal Center – description, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1669517

Castle in the Sky Laputa was released around two years after the death of Miyazaki’s mother. Maternal themes and mother figures permeate the film. It is hard to imagine that Miyazaki wasn’t using his art to work through his own personal loss at this time.
Take a look at the character of the boss-mother of the pirate gange in Castle in the Sky. How much of Miyazaki’s own mother’s character can be found here? Captain Dola, is strong and commanding, but also compassionate and warm. 
Miyazaki’s mother is said to have been of weak constitution, and had spinal tuberculosis in the post-war years 1947-55. This means Hayao’s mother was gravely ill for much of his formative childhood years. Perhaps it is not surprising that orphan characters feature prominently in this and other of his films. Hayao has first-hand experience of the fear of being a motherless child from a young age.
Through this prism, we can perhaps start to see Castle In The Sky as being something of an elegy to his long suffering and recently departed mother. 

Environment

The environmental themes that feature strongly in this film and other Miyazaki themes also delve into the concept of Mother-Earth. Miyazaki seems to be mourning not just for his own mother’s loss, but for the loss of the innocence of the world. I’m reminded of the sentiment in songs such as Bill Callahan’s “Oh do I feel like the mother of the world, with two children fighting”. Would Miyazaki agree with Bill when he drops “God is a word, and the argument ends there”?

There is a not-so-subtle reference to the ultimate symbol of man’s unhealthy obsession with technology, the nuclear bomb. Towards the end of the film we see a mushroom cloud that has tremendous cultural and historic resonance and power for a people the victim of two atomic bomb attacks. In this way, Miyazaki continues a strong tradition of referencing, unpacking and analysing nuclear and apocalyptic themes in Japanese films and storytelling. Godzilla was created by nuclear testing in the oceans, Akira features an apocalyptic explosion destroying Tokyo and Tezuka Osamu returned to themes of war and technology throughout his career.

About the song Kimi wo nosete 君をのせて 

Translation

Original Lyrics Literal Translation Singing Translation
あの地平線 輝くのは
どこかに君をかくしているから
The reason the horizon shines is that it hides you out there somewhere. Out on the horizon
There’s something shining bright
In the place you try to hide
In someplace and in sometime
たくさんの灯がなつかしいのは
あのどれかひとつに 君がいるから
The reason the lights are nostalgic is that you are there There are so many lights
And the warmth I feel inside
Is there because there’s one
Out there that’s yours alone
さあ でかけよう ひときれのパン
ナイフ ランプ かばんにつめこんで
Put a piece of bread, a knife and a lamp in your bag and let’s depart. Put into your bag
A knife and put a lamp
A piece of bread, I’ll meet you there
It’s time for us to go

父さんが残した 熱い想い
母さんがくれた あのまなざし

The burning thought left by the father.
The look the mother gave.

The burning love
That your father left
That gentle gaze, shows your mother is not dead

地球はまわる 君をかくして
輝く瞳 きらめく灯

The Earth turns and hides you
The shining eye, the twinkling light

The world it turns around
It hides you from me now
The shining of your eyes
In the sparkling of the lights

地球はまわる 君をのせて
いつかきっと出会う ぼくらをのせて

The Earth turns around and carries you.
It will carry us, who will one day certainly be united.

The world it turns around
You ride it through the night
Sometime we’ll meet again
And we’ll ride together

さあ でかけよう ひときれのパン
ナイフ ランプ かばんにつめこんで

Put a piece of bread, a knife and a lamp in your bag and let’s depart. Put into your bag
A knife and put a lamp
A piece of bread, I’ll meet you there
It’s time for us to go

父さんが残した 熱い想い
母さんがくれた あのまなざし

The burning thought left by the father.
The look the mother gave.

The burning love
That your father left
That gentle gaze, shows your mother is not dead

地球はまわる 君をかくして
輝く瞳 きらめく灯
地球はまわる 君をのせて
いつかきっと出会う ぼくらをのせて

The Earth turns and hides you
The shining eye, the twinkling light
The turns around and carrys you.
It will carry us, who will one day certainly be united.

The world it turns around
It hides you from me now
The shining of your eyes
In the sparkling of the lights

The world it turns around
You ride it through the night
Sometime we’ll meet again
And we’ll ride together

Castle In The Sky Producer Isao Takahata

Boungawa / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

So if we are going to see the film Castle In The Sky as ode to a dearly departed mother, it makes sense to analyse the song Kimi Wo Nosete through the same prism.
Producer of the film and long time Miyazaki collaborator Isao Takahata has said that the song lyrics were made when he and composer Joe Hisaishi asked Miyazaki to give them some rough notes on what the song was about:
“When we looked over the scrawled notes, we were amazed to find the words seemed to just fit with the music we had”. And even though the composer and producer did some nipping and tucking of the words here and there, the lyric credit goes to Miyazaki himself. We can assume that the words are something of a personal, direct expression of what Miyazaki wanted to express in the film overall.

Ambiguity of language

One of the challenges of deciphering the words to the song is the ambiguous nature of Japanese expression. The Japanese language, as a matter of everyday usage, leaves out subjects and objects, vital bits of information, in a way that is inconceivable in English. Usually, this is information that is obvious from context. To give a simple everyday example:
熱いね Atsui ne would be translated as It’s hot.
More literally though, this sentence would be translated as “Hot, eh?”
What’s hot? You, me, that thing over there, this thing here? No, the weather is hot. Which is obvious from the context. 
Yet this same inherent ambiguity can be exploited for artistic means. How many times have you heard a songwriter say “it’s open to interpretation”?  The phrase is a cliche. 
Kimi Ni Nosete leaves plenty of room for interpretation.
First of all, it’s not clear whose perspective the song is written from and two, who are the singer and singee in songwriting parlance. 

The chorus is impossible to translate into English exactly as it is written in Japanese.

Fathers and Mothers

父さんが残した 熱い想い
母さんがくれた あのまなざし

Even a rendering such as this:

The burning thought left by the father.
The look the mother gave.

Says too much. We don’t know if it’s Your father, my father, our father, their father, the father or a father. The Japanese language doesn’t force us to specify, and the lyric chooses not to. Ditto the mother.

Given the context of the song with the film, I think it is safe to say that the main suggested perspective for the song is of Pazu singing to Sheeta. Which still leaves open possibilities for interpreting the father and mother of the chorus being those of either of the two main characters. Or perhaps one of each? Given the highlighted relationships in the film, it would seem valid to say that the “burning thought” in question is Pazu’s father dream of proving the existence of Laputa and that the “look the mother gave” is the watchful gaze of Sheeta’s mother looking down from the heavens.
Yet there are other interpretations. If we are saying that the film is Miyazaki’s ode to his parents, and especially his mother, then we could take it that the father and mother of the chorus are his own. Or we could go more universal and link in with the environmental message of the film. Perhaps the father and mother are the elemental father and mother of the world?
I like to think that it is a combination of all these things rolled into one. Even if the songwriters didn’t write it that way, it is possible for songs to take on extra layers of meanings as they unfold, especially as they intertwine and interact with the melody and harmony of the music.

Light

There is a strong Light motif running through the song. That’s “Light motif” rather than “leitmotif” for you music boffins. Kanji with fire radicals appear in the song seven times. We’ve got the loan word for “Lamp” in there. We’ve got words meaning shining, sparkling and burning. 
The light theme in the song highlights similar, perhaps less prominent, themes in the movie. We have the shining flight stone, beams of light crossing the sky showing the way to the promised land, the devastating beams of light let forth by the fallen robot of Laputa, the fires caused by the battle between the robot and the forces of humanity. The film itself is drawn in bright, summery tones. But the song seems to be all the more luminescent in its imagery. Was Miyazaki trying to bring out the brightness of the film using music? Perhaps he felt it wasn’t shining enough? It is interesting to note how bright the mise-en-scene is really, considering some of the themes of loss and lonesomeness the film addresses.
We’ve written more about Japanese lighting here

Castle In The Sky Laputa Robot. Image: Peter Head  https://japanoscope.com https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0

Image: Peter Head  https://japanoscope.com https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0

The song takes a bird’s eye, perhaps god’s eye view, of the film. Whoever is singing the song is looking at the horizon, the turning of the earth, the lights of the world. What better perspective is there to bring to a conclusion a film with such universal themes. 

Who wrote and sang Castle In The Sky Laputa’s theme song Kimi Ni Nosete?

Joe Hisaishi

Hayao Miyasaki

Azumi inoue

The music for Kimi Ni Nosete was written by Hisaishi Joe to words by Hayao Miyazaki and was sung by Azumi Inoue. Azumi also sang classic Ghibli songs such as the theme and walking songs from the My Neighbour Totoro and Meguru Kisetsu from Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Hisaishi Joe is a classically trained composer, conductor and producer. Watch this video of him playing the Kimi Ni Nosete with a choir of 800 voices and try not to feel a lump in your throat:

 

Castle In The Sky Merch

There’s some pretty cool Ghibli stuff around the place. Here’s a few that the dedicated fan might need…
We’ve also got a whole page devoted to our favourite Studio Ghibli Posters here.

 

Studio Ghibli Socks

Massive gallery of Studio Ghibli Socks with links to merchants. Life’s too short for boring lower legs. So get some anime on your ankle already.

Read More »

Studio Ghibli Posters

Welcome to our gallery of Studio Ghibli posters! These posters have been put together after scouring the web and online stores for the best selections available.
To make all of this a bit easier to navigate, we’ve searched across outlets and arranged what we’ve found by movie catogories, store. They are also generally arranged from higher end to lower end items.

Read More »

Japanoscope is a registered affiliate with several online shops and may receive a commission when you click on some of the links within content.

Who is behind this site?

I’m Peter Joseph Head. I lived in Japan for four years as a student at Kyoto City University of the Arts doing a Masters Degree, have toured the country six times playing music and speak Japanese (JLPT N1). I’ve written songs in Japanese and have released several albums through Tokyo label Majikick Records.

ピータージョセフヘッドです。4年間京都市立芸大の大学院として日本に住み、6回日本で音楽ツアーをし、日本語能力試験で1級を取得しました。要するに日本好きです。

Tenniscoats Korin in translation

 And musings on art, party tricks, volleyball, trains, rivers and nothingness in Japan

Korin Lyrics by Takashi Ueno. Translation by Peter Joseph Head

光輪

あぁもう ぜんぶやめたいな

ねぇいっしょに帰ろう

最終電車にのれば

もうもとに戻れない

すごい汚い川も

夜はきらきらしてる

ねぇ このままずっと

ねぇ時間がきても

あぁもう すべてはきっと

なんの価値もないんだよ

Halo

I, I wanna give it all up

Let’s, let’s go home together

If if we get on the last train

Then no-nothing will be the same

The dirty river

Sparkles in the night

Hey, hey let’s stay stay this way

Hey, hey no matter how times change

I’m sure, I’m sure that we can say

There’s no-nothing that matters anyway

The Party Tricks of Takashi Ueno

Takashi Ueno from Tenniscoats
Ueno-san demonstrating advanced Japanese T-Shirt wearing techniques to my son.

My children talk about Takashi Ueno, Halo songwriter, as the guy that breaks chopsticks in half and shoves them up his nose. Levered between his mouth and his nostrils, and combined with a too-much-biiru flushed red face, he makes a convincing demon. 

Here’s a few of the party tricks that I’ve seen Ueno do.

  • Peeling back his eyelids and flaring his nostrils to make a goblin face. 
  • Flicking a ten yen coin with the index finger to set it impossibly spinning.
  • Magically “bumping” said coin from one fist to the other.
  • Twisting a waribashi chopsticks in fists so that it goes from the top of the hands to the bottom without ever being released.

He’s got more than that, but that’s what I noted down in my Japan-travel diaries playing shows with Tenniscoats over the last few years. 

Art & Stunts 

These party tricks are called “Gei” 芸 in Japanese. You already know the word gei. It’s the first half of the word “geisha”. I first looked up gei in the metal-coloured, electronic dictionary brickette I carried proudly with me everywhere as a student, and Japan-newb, at the Kyoto City University of the Arts in the early 2000s. I got something like this:

  • 芸 【ゲイ】 art, craft, accomplishment, artistic skill, technique, performance

But don’t be fooled like I was. 

The Art of Volleyball

The Kyoto City University of the Arts Volleyball Club I had joined was organising it’s bi-yearly camp. I had been informed that I should prepare a gei for performance to the rest of the group. 

I knew how to play and sing a few things on the guitar. I had written some stuff. The logical thing seemed to be to play them one of my original, predominantly introspective, plaintive folk numbers. I tentatively pitched this to a couple of my club mates. They were upbeat, but suggested a couple of small tweaks to my act to make it more impactful and fit for purpose. The song would be better, apparently, if I performed it dressed in a Japanese school-girl uniform. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, but deferred to their native advice. 

My actual performance at the event has mercifully almost entirely been expunged from my memory. I do remember the penny-drop that I had completely misjudged the request that had been made of me for a display of “art”. I should have read on to the second listed dictionary meaning of gei, namely, trick or stunt.

Enkai

BEFORE: The traditional runway of an Enkai gathering
AFTER: Better bring a mop

Image: Josh Berglund from Richardson

My volleyball gei performance was part of the unique situation that is the Enkai. Enkai means party, but once again, beware the dictionary translation. An enkai has its own unique rhythms and mores. Most representatively, you’re in a large, spartanly furnished tatami mat room with several lines of shin-high tables stretching down it’s length, like raised lacquer runways. 

The pristine clean lines of the tatami edge brocade and the tables are punctuated by bubbling hot pots on propane gas burners, a boggling quantity of small plates, soup bowls, bottles of booze – the universal social lubricant. The group is soon busily engaged in a warmly ritualised dance of angled glass holding and “I’ll pour you, no, no let me you, no, no I’ll pour you”.

There is only so long a group of people can be in such close proximity, exhibiting such politeness on their knees, in such minimal environs before entertainment becomes a necessity. 

In the hallowed tea houses of high society Japan, I picture the geisha with her, shamisen, refined dance moves, or wistful season-referencing poetry. But that’s not what I’ve seen cross-legging it with the hoi polloi. The enkai-gei of my experience is more in the realm of the sung burp than the recited haiku. 

In my university volley-ball club camp context, I remember a group of students painted white, in singlets and underpants, with beer cans stuck to their crotches. The cans were hotted-up with tubes so that they could be squirted out like piss. They chose members of the audience to get on their knees and drink the quasi-urine. Delicate gaijin-flower me was shocked. 

Kyoto City Univeristy of Arts Volleyball Team Performing Gei in Japan
Kyoto City University of the Arts Volleyball Club Camp

Other than forced wee drinking, there were people with various oddball abilities, double jointed limbs and the like, cultivated who-knows-when, and offered up as fun-fodder for the group. This was not the realm of the reflective singer songwriter. Art ain’t Art. If you’re going to sing a song, it better be upbeat, zainy, a humorous spoof on a song people already know. Failing that, you are going to have to be a genuinely Edith Piaf-level singer to make the gei-grade. By any honest assessment, I met none of the requisite criteria.

Tenniscoats Takashi Ueno would, however, have been in his element. Not in his capacity as an astute observer of the human condition, keenly expressed in plaintive ballads such as Korin, but as a master of the bawdy, an enkai gei blackbelt. His moves utilise all the relevant props of the wafu beer hall; the toothpick and the chopstick, the napkin and the warm shibori hand wipe, the togarashi spice shaker, the 1000 yen note and the 10 yen piece. 

It’s hard to reconcile this side of Ueno with his artistic side. There’s the grandstanding, disheveled, mop-haired, folk strumming, guitar hero, half of Tenniscoats, alt-art-folk Ueno, and the light-your-fart Ueno. But, aw shucks, it’s a loveable duality.

Halo

Ueno & Saya from Tenniscoats in Hokkaido うえの さや テニスコーツ
Ueno & Saya at festival in Hokkaido. In korin the person delivering the message is not author Ueno, but Saya.

Contrast the above catalogue of skills with Halo. Halo is, I think, a plaintive, melancholy reminiscence on being, blending the achingly mundane & the human with the grandly, terrifyingly existential. It juxtaposes the everyday and the numinous. It contrasts an abject state of mind, and a flare of the heart, in an intensely personal, possibly romantic, moment of reaching out to another human. It’s about looking for mutual solace in a physical world. That’s not something you hear sung so often. I find it totally recognisable, real. 

Notes on the lyrics 

Here’s my line-by-line take on the song.

あぁもう ぜんぶやめたいな

I want to give it all up

けんたま/KENTAMA

That’s a heavy dump of a way to start. Right at the moment you’re trying to get the audience in. It’s unapologetically bleak.

Saya has said in an interview that she still doesn’t really understand the song that she sings. She suggests that maybe it’s easier to sing a song that way. No need to be embarrassed by your own personal revealings. Each phrase is its own artefact. It’s karaoke, where people skim over the heartbreak, the existential howl, and the unbreakable rock of humans sadness, as easily as they might skip a pebble across a lake. 

“I wanna give it all up” starts the listener at rock bottom. 

But it immediately gives a sliver of hope and a little drama in the next line;

いっしょに帰ろう

Let’s go home together

Well, now that’s something a little more saucy to go with the existential angst. Where are we going with this? 

最終電車にのればもう,もとに戻れない

If we get on the last train, then nothing will be the same

Isn’t that beautiful? Aren’t those decisions in life something? The ones where there’s no going back. The finality and fatalism of choice is often symbolised by rail in songs. Think Tom Waits’ “It’s a train took may away from here, but a train can’t bring me home”.

The last train looms large in Japanese culture, especially in the mega-cities of Tokyo and Osaka. Many people’s lives run to the tight schedule of the metropolitan train line. I once went to the opening ceremony for my son’s Japanese saturday-school in Melbourne, a hemisphere away from Japan. A Japanese consular official came to do a speech. Unexpectedly jovial, he related how as a school boy in Japan his teacher had made his class memorise every stop on the Yamanote line, the central circular loop of the inner tokyo area. 50 years later, he was able to stand before a crowd of children and parents on the other side of the earth, hold a picture of the rail network map above his head and recite every station with eyes closed. 

The mighty Yamanote line.

Image: Brancacube [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

The train timetable likewise governs the rhythms of musical events, partying and nightlife. If I had a 100 yen coin for every sprint I have taken through an underground train station complex, running through kilometres of corridors that feel like they are growing longer with each desperate stride in your effort to make it through the staut plastic hands of the entrance gate, down the steps, and through the sliding metal door of the unstoppable Last Train. This train will be around midnight, sometimes later, sometimes earlier, so the majority of Japanese merry-making happens pre the Cinderella hour. 

As a standard gig start time will be about 7pm, and usually a fairly punctual 7 as opposed to the loping, skulking, must-we-really-start-the-show of, say, a Melbourne pub. You may not have long to make that decision about whether you’re going to go home alone or with a companion. Maybe you will have to make the decision in a split second on a train platform, with the sound of the hissing air, the rumbling engine and the beeping door signalling time’s up. Ah, the mechanised, hurtling deadline of the city has no mercy.

“If we get on the last train” hints at the small moments and decisions we make that have huge effects on our lives. I think here also of the  Billy Bragg line, “The most important decisions in life are made by two people in bed”. Sometimes, the most important decisions in life happen between two people on the subway platform. 

すごい汚い川も夜はきらきらしてる

“The dirty river sparkles in the night”

There’s a dirty river flowing through your central business district. It could be the magnificent historic Kamo river in Kyoto, or the Yodo in Osaka, perhaps Sumida in Tokyo. But it’s there somewhere.

Sumida translates as Black Ink Rice Field. It doesn’t get much more murky than that.

Like the train lines of the modern age, the importance of the river in an earlier time can be seen in the pre-modern name of Japan’s capital, “Edo”, which means “River Door”. The modern name “Tokyo” reflects a more pragmatic sensibility meaning “Eastern capital”. But it could be any modern river in any modern city. As Paul Kelly says “Every fucking city feels the same”.The rivers are all dirty these days. And they all still shine in the night. Perhaps you’ve noticed your own city’s polluted tributaries twinkling in the city lights? There’s hope for us mucky sinners yet. It’s a message from above.

ねぇ このままずっと ねぇ時間がきても

“Hey, let’s stay this way. No matter how times change”

The word “Hey” doesn’t quite capture the familiar, softly feminine inflection of “Ne” in the Japanese original, especially as delivered by Tenniscoats’ Saya. “Ne” is more endearing, like a gentle hand touching your arm, beseeching. 

Who hasn’t felt the desire to hold on to a beautiful moment? To cast it in stone so that it can’t get worn away by time, the elements, the shifting ground and the changing of the seasons. This is a heartbreaking and universal. It is also an enduring mainstay, to the point of cliche, of Japanese aesthetics. 

The most famous symbol of the transitory is the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossom. The blossom season is the target of millions of tourists  to Japan from around the world. The irony of this is that the flower of any fruiting tree anywhere in the world is no less or more beautiful than the cherry blossoms of Japan. In a way, the real source of this tourist phenomenon is the Japanese appreciation of the Cherry blossom, rather than the blossom itself. Did you know they announce the percentage of flowers in blossom in different locations across the Japanese archipelago as part of the weather segment on the news? 

 “Hey let’s stay this way” is also made more poignant, I think, by the context of when & where the song was made. Halo first appears in recorded form on disk one of Tenniscoats’ 5 disk magnum opus “Music Exists”, track two. This set of music was recorded in the years after the 20th anniversary of the existence of Tenniscoats as a duo.  Around this time, they were also involved in intensively collaborating with different artists from around the world to make albums such as Yaki-Laki (2013) with Estonian folk artist Pastacas, and far left of centre albums with  Maquiladora 2015 and Jad-Fair & Norman Blake (2017). With “Music Exists” It seems as if they went to the opposite extreme; going inwards instead of playing with people from around the globe, tackling the extremes of genres from Eastern European trad music to Glaswegian power pop, improvising, responding to foreign inputs, giving, looking outwards. The Music Exists albums were recorded mostly just the two of Saya and Ueno in their home in the suburbs of Tokyo. The press release for the album plays up the at-home-ness of the recording style, highlighting the 10 tatami mat size of the room that it was recorded in, how Saya did the mixing herself, how they used analogue equipment, kept it simple. Music Exists is deeply personal, its Tenniscoats as a unit, partners in music, partners in life. 

I visited Tenniscoats house around the time they were making the Music Exists albums to record a song I had written with Saya on one of my annual Japan tours. The house certainly wasn’t glamorous, but it seemed homely, if fairly remote from downtown Tokyo city. I picture the two of them hunkering down and getting creative during this period, out in the burbs, amidst the little market garden plots and dirty concrete primary schools.  It must have been intense. Did they get cabin fever amidst the tatami and the XLR cables?

A year or so later, I was confused when Saya told me at a gig we played together at Kyoto’s Urbanguild, that she had gotten married since I had seen her last. But not to Ueno from Tenniscoats. Instead, to a young artist I hadn’t yet met from Osaka. 

I wonder if the creation of the five album music Exists contributed to the breakdown in Ueno and Saya’s non-musical relationship? This is speculation on my part, but it does add perhaps a certain poignancy to the lyrics of Halo.

But the kicker in the “Halo” comes at the end, and compared to what has come before, it is existential and totally impersonal, and presents no evidence for our perception of a wistful universe:

あぁもう すべてはきっとなんの価値もないんだよ

“I’m sure that we can say, there’s nothing of value anyway”

Not relationships, not love, not running for the last train, not nature’s beauty, not pollution, not the sparkling reflections of city lights.

Last Word

This is a real downer of a song to sing live. I can attest to that. I’ve sung this song, usually as a duet, many times with several different people. It works as a duet, I think, because I see it as essentially a love song with existential intentions. Two of the people I have sung this song with have felt the need to negate the last line of the song by saying something like “well, there could be value too”.

I can understand this need. I also feel the last line doesn’t necessarily have to be taken as nihilistic. If nothing has value, then everything has value. Existence is a glass half full, half empty. There is something of a buddhist/hindu world view of meaningful/meaninglessness. Yin & Yang, Ah and Un, Alpha & Omega, they’re all false dualisms. Outline and silhouette. Inseparable. Just vocab. Bill Callahan sings it best, “God is a word and argument ends there”. Some strains of buddhism also describe six levels of existence: God, Demon, Human, Animal, Hungry Ghost, Hell, as being representative of six states of mind. I definitely feel like I’ve felt a fair selection of them. On the more simple system of the judo-Christian heaven/hell duopoly, I wonder whether this is just another way of describing a half full half empty mindset. People often interpret an atheistic universe as an inescapable abyss of existential terror. Which it is. As well as an unending paradise of substance and wonder. Only a mind can choose between these two worlds at any given moment. Over and over again. For ever and ever. We live on an eternal life’s edge. 

It also tells us that chance plays a role, along with the mind. Indeed, perhaps the mind is only a result of chance. Heaven and Hell can be the difference between one minute before and after the last train departs.

Here’s Tenniscoats and I playing Korin 2018 at Iyoyaka Onsen:

This song was translated as part of the Songs In Translation project. There are some other videos of translated songs here on Youtube here:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHryXPh2u0Su9_XjGM-3iNw?view_as=subscriber

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