Home > Opinion
  print button email button

Monday, March 25, 2002


Lighthearted songs for the heaviest of times

NEW YORK -- My colleague Jeff passed on to me a writer's query posted on the Internet. As it happened, the inquiring writer was a novelist of whom I am a fan, and the subject on which he sought help was intriguing. He wanted to know about Japanese popular songs -- especially popular military songs -- in December 1941.

The first thing that came to mind when I decided to respond to him was the talk kabuki expert Faubion Bowers gave in 1995. That year my office invited a few Americans to come to our monthly lunch meetings and reminisce about their war experiences. Bowers, whom I had the honor of knowing in his last years, was one of them. To reconstruct his talk from memory, he began this way:

"In 1940 I fell in love with Japan. At the time the most popular songs were 'Ginza no Yanagi' and 'Shina no Yoru,' and the most popular movie stars were Rikoran and Kazuo Hasegawa. The most popular military song was 'Umi Yukaba.' It's a beautiful, wonderful song."

Bowers, who after the war would serve U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur as aide-de-camp and personal interpreter, happened to find himself in Japan when "the waves of the Pacific Ocean were rising high," as the Japanese would put it. A Julliard student, he decided he wasn't good enough to make it as a concert pianist and headed toward Java to check out the music in that part of the world.

But the Japanese ship he took deposited him in Yokohama and gave him a week of free time and a free train pass (to promote tourism). One day he walked into what looked like a temple. It turned out to be the Kabuki Theater. The rest is history -- which you can read in Shiro Okamoto's book, "The Man Who Saved Kabuki: Faubion Bowers and Theater Censorship in Occupied Japan" (University of Hawaii Press, 2001).

Each of the three songs Bowers recalled as having been popular during the months before Japan's assault on Pearl Harbor seem to reflect the times in its own way.

"Ginza no Yanagi" (Willows on Ginza) was composed in 1932 to celebrate the planting of willows on Ginza, and begins: "Glad they've planted them, the willows on Ginza. / The light green is an Edo legacy. / Blow, spring wind, red umbrellas, parasols."

Its lyrics were written by the professor of French literature turned songwriter Yaso Saijo, and its music by Shimpei Nakayama. The song was an extension, so to speak, of "Tokyo Koshinkyoku" (Tokyo March), which the duo had launched three years earlier. "Tokyo March" was no march; it was a lighthearted love song, and so was "Willows on Ginza." Like the United States, Japan was in the grips of a depression, and people obviously yearned for some lightheartedness.

"Shina no Yoru" (Night in China) was a smash hit in 1938. The China Incident had occurred the previous year and the war was going nowhere. Oppressive warmongering and patriotic posturing hung heavy over the land. It was at that juncture that the song came along: "Night in China, oh, night in China, / lights in the harbor, the purple night. / Junks sailing upstream are dream boats. / Ah, I can't forget the sound of the lute. / Night in China, night of dreams."

"Night in China" not only remained popular, but was made into a film of the same name the year Bowers arrived in Japan. And the two stars he mentioned played the lead roles: the Manchurian-born actress Rikoran (Li Xiang-lan in Chinese) and the kabuki female impersonator turned movie actor Kazuo Hasegawa.

The movie, set in Shanghai, was a variation on the theme of "Pygmalion" (later, "My Fair Lady"): An urbane Japanese gentleman rescues a wayward Chinese virgin. After Japan's defeat, China tried Rikoran as a traitor because of her role in "Night in China." Adopted by a Chinese general when young, she spoke perfect Mandarin and the Chinese were convinced she was one of their own. She was acquitted only when her Jewish-Russian friend came to the court with papers that showed she was, in fact, Japanese.

To our inquiring novelist, the most interesting song may be the third one Bowers cited, "Umi Yukaba" (Seafaring). The novelist himself quoted a few words from it in his inquiry. As Bowers said, it is a military song ("gunka"), but it is a very solemn one, and little wonder. It was initially a song composed in 1880 to be used for naval ceremonies. Only a little longer than Japan's national anthem, it may be translated in its entirety: "When seagoing, we become watery corpses, / mountain-going, corpses for grasses to grow from. / Our wish is to die by our Sovereign's side / with no looking back."

These words, which appear in a poem by the Man'yo poet Otomo no Yakamochi (716-785), were originally the military clan's oath of loyalty to the Emperor.

Citing these words, I realize how in Japan death was regarded as an inherent part of any military campaign, any soldier's life. This may be true of the military tradition of most other countries, except perhaps the posture of the United States today. I remember reading somewhere how an European commander of NATO, dismayed by the American reluctance to create any casualties among its soldiers during the Kosovo War, said something like, "We soldiers are paid to be killed."

Japan, with the tradition of regarding not getting killed in battle as unworthy of a samurai, may have gone to the other extreme. Indeed, it is sobering to see death as a theme run through many military songs. This was even true of "The Navy's Song for the Greater East Asian War," a winner in a contest sponsored by the Asahi Shimbun. Published in July 1942, and designed to celebrate Japanese victories at Pearl Harbor and off Malaysia and Java, it nonetheless spoke of soldiers turning into "watery corpses" and "scattering like young cherry blossoms."

The "Seafaring" that Faubion Bowers heard as "a beautiful, wonderful song" in 1940 was probably not the navy's ceremonious song but the one newly set to music by Kiyoshi Nobutoki, famous for his collection of Western musical scores, in 1937. Nobutoki's composition, which was equally solemn, was adopted as a threnody in 1943 and played when the annihilation of a military unit, referred to by the euphemism "gyokusai" ("jewel-shattering"), was announced on the radio.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.