May 2, 2010

Traditional Japanese Song

I spent two years teaching English in Japan, and while there, I would pass a great deal of time being entertained by the Japanese staff, students and colleagues. Often, we would sit in a restaurant with soft music being piped in. Once, they were playing "Auld Lang Sine" and one Japanese student turned to me and with a solemn look on his face declared:

“ This is a traditional Japanese song!”. I was in shock and proceeded to explain to him that it was an old Scottish song, not Japanese, but got a blank look in return. Then, I learned that the Japanese called that piece of music “Hotaru” and it was about fireflies flying in the night. A very romantic song, for sure, except that very few of them knew that it was not originally Japanese.

On another occasion, I was teaching a class and decided to present them with my rendition of “Yankee Doodle”. I brought my guitar and thought that I was going to give my students a first hand experience in American folklore. As soon as they heard the notes, they exclaimed in amazement: “This is a Japanese song! It is about traveling in the Japanese Alps!”. They immediately started singing the lyrics in Japanese nodding to each other with nostalgic smiles, and obviously recalling their kindergarten times when they must have learned the song from their pre-school teachers.

It sounded pretty good in Japanese because the language is very musical and has a dynamic staccato-like rhythm to it. However, there was one major flaw that was grating on my ears- there was no rhyme. It went something like:

tata-tita tata-tutu

The Japanese lack Western-style rhyme in their poetry unlike, say, the Arabs who have it and rhyme very precisely. However, while to me it seemed almost sacrilegious not to rhyme that song, they were obviously not aware of its lack and were looking at each other while singing along happily.

On another occasion I was walking in Shinjuku- the equivalent of Manhattan in Tokyo while from the loudspeakers in the middle of a skyscraper, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was blaring all across the place. Again, it was in Japanese and unrhymed.

When I brought the real “Battle Hymn” lyrics to my class and began teaching them along with the tune. I again evoked the same reaction- students looking at each other, nodding and singing it joyfully. In Japanese. As a traditional Japanese song.

So, what happened? I guess at some time in the Japanese history, in the times before there was any copyright issues, the Japanese, in their desire to catch up with the West began adopting Western culture and technology, primarily those from the United States. The historic American songs became part of the Japanese culture and were never truly taught as American songs. Children grew up singing about the fireflies and the Japanese Alps without ever knowing about the true origin of those songs. And on more than one occasion, they will proudly announce to a foreign visitor that these are part of the Japanese musical heritage.

Somehow, the Japanese know that ‘tempura’ is a Portuguese import, but few if any know that Yankee Doodle Dandy is not originally Japanese. I guess no one ever told them that.


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