Sunday, June 12, 2011

Surrendering to the Flow of Time

Teresa Teng - Surrendering to the Flow of Time (1986)
Music: Takashi Miki
Lyric: Toyohisa Araki

Teresa Teng was bigger than Jesus in China. That's actually an understatement, since Jesus has never been all that big in China. She was bigger (and prettier) than Chairman Mao and Confucius combined. If you've spent any significant amount of time in a Chinese restaurant that plays Chinese music, you've heard Teresa Teng. All Chinese people like Teresa Teng. It's the law. (In fact, the law for most of the '80s was that her music was banned in China [just like Jesus!] because she was from Taiwan, but you know how that goes.)

While she was never quite the legend in Japan that she was in her native Taiwan and other Chinese-speaking countries, she was fairly popular, and had a string of major hits with songs written by Takashi Miki and Toyohisa Araki in the '80s, the most notable of which was "Surrendering to the Flow of Time," in which she ponders life without the man she loves:

Moshi mo anata to aezu ni itara
Watashi wa nani o shiteta deshou ka
Heibon da kedo dareka o ai shi
Futsuu no kurashi shiteta deshou ka
If I had never met you,
What would I have done?
Would I have fallen in love with another,
And led an ordinary life?
Toki no nagare ni mi o makase
Anata no iro ni somerare
Ichido no jinsei sore sae
Suteru koto mo kamawanai
Da kara onegai soba ni oite ne
Ima wa anata shika ai senai
Surrendering to the flow of time,
I am dyed through with your color.
For you, I would give up even
My one and only life.
So please stay by my side.
I can no longer love anyone but you.
Moshi mo anata ni kirawareta nara
Ashita to iu hi nakushite shimau wa
Yakusoku nanka iranai keredo
Omoide dake ja ikite yukenai
If I were forsaken by you,
There would be no more tomorrow for me.
I don't need a promise,
But I can't go on living with only memories.
Toki no nagare ni mi o makase
Anata no mune ni yorisoi
Kirei ni nareta sore dake de
Inochi sae mo iranai wa
Da kara onegai soba ni oite ne
Ima wa anata shika mienai wa
Surrendering to the flow of time,
I press my cheek to your chest.
Having become so close to you,
I don't need even my own life.
So please stay by my side.
I can no longer see anyone but you.

Teng also recorded a Chinese version called "I Only Care About You." I don't think I really made this clear in the translation, but I suspect that the lines about giving up her life are not about literally giving up her life, but rather about not feeling the need to live a life independent of her lover, as a sort of rejection of cultural feminism. I don't know enough about the history of feminism in Japan to know whether that's a reasonable interpretation.

Notes on Translation: I was considering just shortening the title to "Surrendering to Fate," but I'm not sure that "fate" is an accurate translation for 時の流れ. Also, most other translations of the song read 綺麗になれた as 綺麗に成れた, i.e., as "Having become pretty." That's never really sat right with me, so I tried out some other なれたs and thought that 綺麗に慣れた, i.e., "having become completely intimate with" made a bit more sense. I'm still not 100% sure, but I think I got it right. I took some liberties with 貴方の胸に寄り添い, since it doesn't acutally say anything about a cheek, but that's the picture I have in my mind, and I'm sticking with it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Yuko Ishikawa - Jinchoge (1979)
Music: Kaoru Nakajima
Lyric: Hiroyuki Hino

Yuko Ishikawa was one of the better acts of the "Idol Pop" genre, which was popular in the '70s and '80s and consisted of pretty girls between the ages of 15 and 25 or so singing pop music. Ishikawa was unusual for the genre in that she wrote most of her own songs.

Her debut single, Jinchouge, was unlike much of her later work, both in that she didn't write it, and also in that it had a much more traditional sound somewhat remniscent of the enka genre. Oddly enough, there had been an actual enka song called Jinchouge released the prior year by Sayuri Ishikawa, who was born the same year as Yuko Ishikawa. To the best of my knowledge, the two Ishikawas are not in any way related, nor were the songs.

The jinchouge is a flowering shrub native to China and Japan. Apparently its English name is "winter daphne." I'd never heard of it, so I just decided to stick with jinchouge rather than using the English or Latin name.

Tsumetai heya de
Chiisa na jinchouge ga
Niau you ni
Anata hiekitta kono boku ni
In my cold room,
Like the little jinchouge,
You have completely
Frozen me out.
Iitarinai hodo no yasashisa de
Atatamete kuremashita
Yurushite hoshii
Kokoro no mazushii kono boku o
With kindness words cannot tell,
You gave me warmth.
Please have pity
On my impoverished heart.
Hiraicha ikenai nikkichou
Karecha ikenai jinchouge
Aa semete semete
Haru ga kuru made
Aa semete semete
Haru ga kuru made
A diary that must not be opened,
A jinchouge that must not die,
Ah, at least, at least,
Not until the spring comes.
Ah, at least, at least,
Not until the spring comes.
Tsumetai heya de
Kaseki ni narou to shiteru
Anata o omou tabi hiraita yo
In my cold room,
I try to turn to stone.
Each time I thought of you,
I opened my diary.
Jinchouge hisoyaka ni
Kono fuyu mo sakimashita
Samishiku naru to
Yokei ni kaoru no jinchouge
This winter, too,
The jinchouge bloomed before I knew it.
Whenever I am lonely,
Its perfume fills the room.
[Repeat chorus]
Ishikawa uses the first-person pronoun boku in this song. In modern usage, boku is used predominantly by males (mostly young boys), but I believe that in this context it's used to express humility and self-effacement rather than to indicate that the character being portrayed is male.

The Flaxen-Haired Maiden

The Village Singers - The Flaxen-Haired Maiden (1968)
Music: Koichi Sugiyama
Lyric: Jun Hashimoto

The Village Singers were a band belonging to the Beatles-inspired genre known as "Group Sounds" in Japan, though they were a bit more folk-oriented than other Group Sounds bands like The Spiders and The Tempters.

"The Flaxen-Haired Maiden" was composed by Koichi Sugiyama, better known in the United States for being the composer of the music for the Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior series of video games. Either that or for his role in the recent "The Facts" advertising campaign denying the culpability of the Japanese Empire in the Nanjing massacre during World War II.

Anyway, "The Flaxen-Haired Maiden" was The Village Singers' biggest hit, reaching #7 on the Oricon chart. It was an even bigger hit for Hitomi Shimatani, whose 2002 cover hit #4. The first recording was actually done by Michi Aoyama under the title "On a Windy Hill" in 1966, but it wasn't actually released until decades later.

Amairo no nagai kami o
Kaze ga yasashiku tsutsumu
Otome wa mune ni shiroi hanataba o
Hane no you ni oka o kudari
Yasashii kare no moto e
Akarui utagoe wa koi o shiteru kara
The wind gently caressing
Her long, flaxen hair,
The maiden clutches a white boquet
To her chest.
Down the hill, like a feather,
Her cheerful song
Sends the fine young man her love.
Barairo no hohoemi aoi sora
Shiawase na futari wa yorisou
Amairo no nagai kami o
Kaze ga yasashiku tsutumu
Otome wa hane no you ni
Oka o kudaru
Kare no moto e
A rosy smile, the blue sky,
Joyous lovers drawing near.
The wind gently caressing
Her long, flaxen hair,
The maiden, like a feather,
Descends the hill
To meet her love.
[Repeat chorus]

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Between the Sky and You

Miyuki Nakajima - Between the Sky and You (1994)
Music/Lyric: Miyuki Nakajima

Another Miyuki Nakajima song today. This time it's "Between the Sky and You," the theme song from the television series Homeless Girl. I don't know much about the series, other than that the main character was a homeless girl with a pet dog. Apparently it was an homage to Hector Malot's Sans Famille. In the song, Nakajima takes on the role of the girl's pet dog. The embedded version is the album cut, which I much prefer, but there's also the synthier, more up-tempo single cut, if you're into that kind of thing. There's also a so-so English cover by Valerie Carter, called "Bitter Rain."

I can't quite put my finger on it, but there's something unique about this song. If I had a better grasp of music theory I could probably identify a specific reason for that, but as it is all I've got is that I really like it.

Kimi ga namida no toki ni wa
Boku wa popura no eda ni naru
Kodoku na hito ni tsukekomu you na
Kotoba ienakute
In your time of sorrow,
I will be a poplar branch.
I have not the words to say
To take advantage of a lonely girl.
Kimi o nakaseta aitsu no
Shoutai o boku ga shitteta
Hikitometa boku o kimi wa
Furiharatta toui yoru
I saw the true nature
Of the one who made you cry
On that long-ago night,
When you held me back and drove me off.
Koko ni iru yo ai wa mada
Koko ni iru yo itsu made mo
My love is still here.
It is still here, forever.
Sora to kimi to no aida ni wa
Kyou mo tsumetai ame ga furu
Kimi ga waratte kureru nara
Boku wa aku ni de mo naru
Between the sky and you,
Cold rain will fall today.
If you would only show me a smile,
I would do anything, right or wrong.
[Repeat Chorus]

Kimi no kokoro ga wakaru to
Tayasuku chikaeru otoko ni
Naze onna wa tsuite yuku no darou
Soshite naku no darou
When men swear lightly,
"I understand your heart,"
Why do women go to them,
And then cry?
Kimi ga susanda hitomi de
Tsuyogaru no wa totemo itai
Nikumu koto de itsu made mo
Aitsu ni shibararenaide
It hurts me so to see
Your eyes steeled in anger.
Don't let yourself be
Forever bound to him by hatred.
Koko ni iru yo ai wa mada
Koko ni iru yo utsumukanaide
My love is still here.
It is still here, so hold your head up high.
[Repeat chorus x 3]

Notes on translation: 僕は悪にでもなる was a bit of a head-scratcher. I suppose it means something along the lines of "I would even do evil," but I suspect that there's some secondary meaning of 悪 that I'm not getting.

For example, one dictionary says that it can refer to the villain in a play. Perhaps this is an allusion to the second verse, wherein the dog recalls the time when he met the man who made his mistress cry. It's implied that he growled menacingly at the man and perhaps even tried to attack him, but that the girl held him back and then drove him off. In this context, he could be said to be playing the part of the villain.

Or maybe I was right the first time. Anyway, I went with "I would do anything, right or wrong."

Country Girl

Hiroko Taniyama - Country Girl (1980)
Music/Lyric: Hiroko Taniyama

Hiroko Taniyama has a very distinctive voice. It's a bit like the sort of voice one might expect from a cartoon character. A lot of her lyrics have a bit of a fairy-tale feel to them (there's actually a Japanese adjective for this: Meruhenchikku, from the German Maerchen, or fairy tale). The subject matter of "Country Girl" is a bit more mundane than the typical fairy tale, but it still kind of feels like one. Taniyama's cartoonish voice doesn't work for all of her songs, but I think it works really well for this story about a country girl in the big city:

Nigiyaka na tokai no keshiki wa
Kawaru mangekyou
Itsu de mo kimi o odorakaseru
Nanairo purizumu
The bustling city scenes
Are an ever-changing kaleidoscope,
Always surprising you,
A seven-colored prism.
Kimi wa ofuro no sukaato
Hajirau you ni
Sore de mo hitomi o kagayakasete
Machi o aruiteta ne
Your secondhand skirt
Embarasses you,
But you walk through the streets,
Eyes sparkling.
Kantorii gaaru kimi no me no naka de
Yuuyake ga moeru
Kantorii gaaru kimi no hohoemi ni
Sougen no nioi ga suru
Suki da yo
Country girl,
The sunset shines in your eyes.
Country girl,
Your smile reminds me of the prairie.
I love you.
Tomadoigachi no kimi no shisen ga
Itsumo oikakeru no wa
Nagai tabako no kiza ni kuwaeta
Wakai otoko datta
Your uncertain gaze
Is always chasing after a young man,
Who smokes a long cigarette
Just for show.
Soitsu ga aru hi kimi ni tewatashita
Aoi fuutou
Tegami no naka ni kakareteita no wa
Konna serifu datta ne
One day, he handed you
A blue envelope
In the letter it contained,
These words were written:
[Repeat chorus]

Aitsu ga kimi wo suteta no wa
Tatta nanokame no koto
Kesshou no umai oshare na musume ni
Sassa to norikaeta no sa
It was only seven days
Until he threw you away.
He quickly traded you
For a fashionable girl in makeup.
Kimi wa kagami ni utsutta
Jibun no kao ni mukatte
Aitsu ga kureta itsuka no kotoba o
Nakinagara tubuyaiteta ne
You looked at the reflection
Of your face in the mirror,
Crying and murmuring
The words he would say to you:
[Repeat chorus]

Boku wa hajime kara owari made
Kimi o mite ita
Makka na ruuju sotto hiite mite
Sugu ni fukitotta no mo
From the beginning until the end,
I have been watching you.
When you first tried on red lipstick,
And then soon wiped it off.
Ima sugu ushiro o furikaere
Boku wa koko ni iru yo
Boku ga kaita ano tegami no kotoba o
Mou ichido kimi ni okurou
Hurry and look behind you,
I am here.
Once again I will speak to you
The words in the letter I wrote:
[Repeat chorus]
This isn't really obvious from the English translation, but it's clear in the original Japanese (which has sex-specific first-person pronouns) that Taniyama is taking the part of a man in the last few verses of the song. All of them, really, but this isn't made clear at the end. This doesn't seem to be all that unusual in Japanese songs. It's quite common for a woman to cover a song written for a man and not change the lyric to make it more appropriate for a woman, even when it could easily be done without messing up the meter. For example, Hiroko Taniyama's cover of Takao Kisugi's "Dream in Progress" is every bit as male-narrated as the original, despite the fact that two lines of the first verse were entirely rewritten.

I can't think of as many examples, but this does happen in reverse as well. Check out Hideki Tokunaga's cover of Akiko Kobayashi's "Fall in Love," in which he sings the line "I'm just a woman, fall[ing] in love" (money shot at 1:35).

It's somewhat less common, I think, for the original version of the song not to fit the singer's sex, but it does happen. I might be able to BS my way through some hand-wavy explanation about how this has its roots in the tradition of Noh plays being performed by all-male casts, but the bottom line is that I don't know why they do it that way.

I don't know what the deal with the letter in the song is. I don't think it's a translation issue; it's just not very clear in the original how it is that the cad came into possession of the letter written by the narrator. Maybe it was a Cyrano-de-Bergerac-type thing?

I love the word mangekyou (kaleidoscope). The literal etymology is "Ten-thousand flower mirror."

Notes on translation: No major difficulties. There were a few expressions that I couldn't translate into English as elegantly as I would have liked, but other than that it was fairly straightforward.

Friday, June 3, 2011


Shinji Tanimura - Pleiades (1980)
Music/Lyric: Shinji Tanimura

I'm fascinated by watching Shinji Tanimura sing. He just stands there in the middle of the stage, moving no more than is absolutely necessary, except to lower his microphone between verses, and occasionally moving his off-hand up to his stomach or down to his side. Between that, the precision of his enunciation and dynamic control, his conservative dress, and the extensive use of natural metaphors in his lyrics, there's something quintessentially Japanese about Tanimura. He's also one of the most talented popular singers I've ever heard.

"Pleiades" is Tanimura's signature song, and his first big solo hit after leaving the band Alice. As an aside, the Japanese title is Subaru, like the car company, which was named for the constellation because its parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries was formed from a merger of several existing firms.

Me o tojite nanimo miezu
Kanashikute me o akereba
Kouya ni mukau michi yori
Hoka ni mieru mono wa nashi
I close my eyes and see nothing.
With sorrow, I open them again
And see before me nothing
But the road leading into the wasteland.
Aa kudakechiru sadame no hoshitachi yo
Semete hisoyaka ni kono mi o terase yo
Ah, stars, fated to shatter one day,
At least shine down quietly upon me.
Ware wa yuku aojiroki hoho no mama de
Ware wa yuku saraba subaru yo
I shall go, my cheeks still pale.
I shall go. Farewell, Pleiades.
Iki o sureba mune no naka
Kogarashi wa nakitsudzukeru
Saredo waga mune wa atsuku
Yume o oitsudzukeru nari
When I take a breath,
Icy winds wail on in my heart.
But my heart grows warm
When I am chasing my dreams.
Aa sanzameku na mo naki hoshitachi yo
Semete azayaka ni sono mi o oware yo
Ah, you nameless, glorious stars,
At least die in splendor.
Ware mo yuku kokoro no meizuru mama ni
Ware mo yuku saraba subaru yo
I shall go, as my heart commands.
I shall go. Farewell, Pleiades.
Aa itsu no hi ka dareka ga kono michi o
Aa itsu no hi ka dareka ga kono michi o
Ah, one day another will walk this path.
Ah, one day another will walk this path.
Ware wa yuku aojiroki hoho no mama de
Ware wa yuku saraba subaru yo
Ware wa yuku saraba subaru yo
I shall go, my cheeks still pale.
I shall go. Farewell, Pleiades.
I shall go. Farewell, Pleiades.
There's also a nice half-Japanese, half-Chinese cover by Teresa Teng here. More songs by Shinji Tanimura here.

Notes on translation: Nothing too tough this time, though I wasn't quite sure how to translate せめて鮮やかにその身を終われよ. I think "At least die in splendor" is more or less correct, though it seems a bit odd. せめて seems to be used in ways that don't quite correspond to "at least" in English. Also not sure about the change from 我は行く to 我も行く. I think it's probably just a change for the sake of variety, but I suppose it could also indicate a second narrator.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Akiko Kosaka - You (1973)
Music/Lyric: Akiko Kosaka

To be honest, Akiko Kosaka doesn't have a great singing voice. It tends to crack, and at times veers into whiny territory. But she is a talented songwriter, and her singing has a certain girl-next-door charm to it. Like Miyuki Nakajima's "Time Goes Around," Kosaka's debut single, "You," won the Yamaha Popular Song Contest and World Popular Song Festival, a few weeks shy of Kosaka's seventeenth birthday.

"You" was wildly successful, selling over two million copies, and has since been covered by many other musicians, including Seiko Matsuda the American jazz flautist Herbie Mann in his 1976 album Surprises. Unfortunately, none of her subsequent songs ever achieved the same level of success and she released only five albums before retiring from recording. It's a shame, as she had a few follow-up songs that really ought to have been big hits. "Longing," for example. But this post is about "You":

Moshimo watashi ga ie o tateta nara
Chiisa na ie o tateta deshou
Ouki na mado to chiisa na doa to
Heya ni wa furui danro ga aru no yo
If I built a house,
It would be a small house
With a big window and a small door,
And an old fireplace in our room.
Makka no bara to shiroi panjii
Koinu no yoko ni wa
Anata anata
Anata ga ite hoshii
Bright red roses and white pansies,
And next to a puppy...
I want you there.
Sore ga watashi no yume datta no yo
Itoshii anata wa ima doko ni
That was my dream.
Where are you now, my darling?
Buruu no juutan shikitumete
Tanoshiku waratte kurasu no yo
Ie no soto de wa bouya ga asobi
Bouya no yoko ni wa
Anata anata
Anata ga ite hoshii
With a blue carpet spread out,
We would live a life of joy and laughter.
Outside the house, a boy would play,
And next to the boy...
I want you there.
Sore ga futari no nozomi datta no yo
Itoshii anata wa ima doko ni
That was our wish.
Where are you now, my darling?
Soshite watashi wa reesu o amu no yo
Watashi no yoko ni wa
Watashi no yoko ni wa
Anata anata
Anata ga ite hoshii
And I would weave a lace.
And next to me...
And next to me...
I want you there.
[Repeat coda]

Monday, May 30, 2011

Time Goes Around

Miyuki Nakajima - Time Goes Around (1975)
Music/Lyric: Miyuki Nakajima

I love Miyuki Nakajima. Hands down my favorite singer-songwriter ever, Japanese or otherwise. I could think of a couple dozen really great songs she's written just off the top of my head, and there are probably a couple dozen more that I'm forgetting or haven't heard yet.

Nakajima's been writing and recording songs for over 35 years now, with 37 studio albums released to date. Whereas many songwriters kind of start phoning it in after the first 5-10 years, she still delivers the goods. For example, she had a pretty big hit a few years ago with "Once in a Lifetime," and more recently "Airship," which she wrote for the band Tokio.

"Time Goes Around" was Nakajima's second single and her first really big hit, winning first prize in the Yamaha Popular Song Contest, and also the World Popular Song Festival. Since then it's been covered many times, most notably by Hiroko Yakushimaru in 1988. There was even an English version by Al Jarreau called "Great Circle Song", though I can't say I care much for it. A bit too frenetic for my tastes; I prefer the calmer, more reflective arrangement of the original.

Anyway, on to the lyric. Note that the intro is intentionally overdramatic and not really representative of the rest of the song, so don't give up on it based on the first thirty seconds or so.
Ima wa konna ni kanashikute
Namida mo karehatete
Mou nido to egao ni wa
Narisou mo nai kedo
Now I am so sad
That my tears have run dry.
I don't think I will ever
Be able to smile again, but...
Sonna jidai mo atta ne to
Itsuka hanaseru hi ga kuru wa
Anna jidai mo atta ne to
Kitta waratte hanaseru wa
Da kara kyou wa kuyokuyo shinai de
Kyou no kaze ni fukaremashou
A day will come when I am able to say,
"There were times like that."
Surely I will say with a smile,
"There were times like that."
So let us not despair today,
But let the winds of time blow as they will.
Mawaru mawaru yo jidai wa mawaru
Yorokobi kanashimi kurikaeshi
Kyou wa wakareta koibitotachi mo
Umarekawatte meguriau yo
Around and around, time goes around,
Repeating joys and sorrows.
Even lovers who are parted today
Will be reborn and find each other once more.
Tabi o tsudzukeru hitobito wa
Itsuka kokyou ni deau hi o
Tatoe konya wa taorete mo
Kitto shinjite doa o deru
Tatoe kyou wa hateshi mo naku
Tsumetai ame ga futte ite mo
Those who go on traveling
Set out believing in their hearts
That even if they should fall tonight,
They will one day return home.
Even if today icy rain should fall without end.
Chorus 2:
Meguru meguru yo jidai wa meguru
Wakare to deai o kurikaeshi
Kyou wa taoreta tabibitotachi mo
Umarekawatte arukidasu yo
Around and around, time goes around
Repeating partings and meetings.
Even travelers who have fallen today
Will be reborn and set out once more.
[Repeat chorus 2 twice, substituting mawaru for meguru]
Although the official English title is "Time Goes Around," the Japanese title is simply Jidai. Jidai means period or era in a broad sense. It can refer to historical eras or dynasties, cultural trends, or, in this case, a stage in one's life. There's no good one-word translation for jidai, though, because it's used in two different senses in the song ("There were times like that" and "Time goes around"), so neither "Time" nor "Times" would work.

Notes on translation: I'm not sure what semantic significance, if any, there is to the use of めぐる rather than まわる in the second chorus. As far as I can tell, the words are more or less interchangeable, so I suspect that it was just thrown in for the sake of variety.

The precise meaning of the verse beginning with 旅を続ける人々は has eluded me for some time, due to the sentence's convoluted structure. In particular, I'd never quite been able to figure out what was meant by ドアを出る. I think now that it refers to the traveler leaving the place where he has taken lodging for the night during his journey. I'm still not 100% certain on that point, but it makes sense.

Update: Another English cover by New Zealand singer Hayley Westenra here.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Before the Love Generation

Shogo Hamada - Before the Love Generation (1981)
Music & Lyric: Shogo Hamada

Today's song is "Before the Love Generation," by Shogo Hamada. Apparently the sunglasses are a bit of an obsession; the Japanese version of the Wikipedia article says that there are no known photographs of him as an adult with his face fully exposed. YouTube search for his name here. I listened to several songs at random, and most of them ranged from decent to good. I like this one the best so far, though:
Ai no sedai no mae no boufuuu no naka
Surikaerareta moroi yume nado kuzureochiteku
In the storm before the love generation
Fragile dreams, stolen, crumble to pieces.
Ruuletto wa mawaritsudzuketeru
Teeburu ni tsumareta kirifuda no kage de
Dare mo minna katsu koto dake o shinjite
Kake o tsudzukeru
The roulette wheel goes on spinning
In the shadow of the betting slips piled up on the table.
Everyone, believing that he can win,
Goes on betting.
Ai no sedai no mae no isshun no hikari ni
Surikaerareta moroi yume nado kuzureochiteku
In the flash of light before the love generation,
Fragile dreams, stolen, crumble to pieces.
Nikushimi wa nikushimi de ikari wa ikari de
Sabakareru koto ni naze kidzukanai no ka
Hatred is hatred, rage is rage;
Why can they not see they are being judged?
Miraa bouru wa mawaritsudzuketeru
Ikutsumo no kodoku na ude ni dakare
Ore mo mata ian no naka de
Munashiku odoritsudzukeru
The mirrored ball continues to turn,
Grasped by countless lonely arms.
I, as well, once again in the comfort it provides,
Continue vainly to dance.
Ai no sedai no mae no boufuuu no naka
Surikaerareta moroi yume nado kuzureochiteku
Ai no sedai no mae no isshun no hikari ni
Surikaerareta moroi yume nado kuzureochiru
Ai no sedai no mae ni
In the storm before the love generation,
Fragile dreams, stolen, crumble to pieces.
In the flash of light before the love generation,
Fragile dreams, stolen, crumble to pieces.
Before the love generation.

According to the Japanese Wikipedia article about the album, this was intended as a protest against nuclear weapons. Having been told that, I guess I can see it, but I can't say it's something I would have picked up on my own. Hamada's explanation of the title was, "Until nuclear weapons are eradicated from the face of the Earth, the true love generation cannot begin." The flash of light referenced in the lyric is a nuclear explosion. I have no idea what the mirrored ball is supposed to be.

The lyric demonstrates an interesting feature of written Japanese that doesn't have any analog in English. The Japanese writing system has two types of characters: Chinese characters, or kanji, which are typically used for their semantic meaning, and phonetic Japanese characters, or kana. There are a couple of thousand kanji in common use, and it takes many years to learn how to read them all.

When an author suspects that some readers will not know how to read a kanji, he will write the pronunciation on top of the kanji using kana. Kana used in this manner are called furigana. For example, you can see this at 0:22 in the video. The kanji in moroi (brittle) is rarely used, so the pronunciation is provided with small furigana above the kanji.

Normally, furigana are used to remind the reader of a kanji's standard pronunciation. But occasionally in poetic contexts they're used to indicate that the kanji are intended to be read in a nonstandard way, often as a word entirely different from the one indicated by the kanji. Essentially, two words are written in place of one. What this means, usually, is that the word indicated by the furigana gives the primary meaning (since it's the one to be pronounced), while the word indicated by the kanji adds nuance.

For example, the word yume (dream) appears four times in the song. The first and last times it's written with the standard kanji. But the second time, the kanji used indicate the word kibou (hope), and the third time the kanji indicate the word gensou (illusion). I tentatively read this as indicating a growing sense of futility, but I'm not really sure why he went back to the standard kanji for the last occurrence of yume.

Also, hikari (light) is throughout the song written with kanji indicating senkou (flash, or glint); hence my translating it as "flash of light."

Note that this information is lost entirely if you don't have access to the written lyric. This isn't in any way conveyed in the actual singing of the song.

Notes on translation: No major difficulties with this song. I had some trouble with surikaerareta yume, as I couldn't think of an elegant way to convey in English the idea of something having been secretly swapped with something else. I considered "counterfeit dreams," but decided to go with "stolen dreams." It gets the idea across, I think.

I'm wondering if there's any semantic significance to 崩れ落ちてく morphing to 崩れ落ちる at the very end. I think it was probably just to shave off a syllable to make it fit better with the coda.

Update: I just realized the futility of protesting nuclear weapons in a language spoken only in a country that not only does not have nuclear weapons, but is constitutionally prohibited from engaging in warfare. Ha!

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Eigo Kawashima - Old-Fashioned (1986)
Music: Koichi Morita
Lyric: Yuu Aku

I don't know much about Eigo Kawashima, other than that he had a great head of hair and that he died from liver failure at the age of 48 back in 2001. I've listened to some of his other songs and found them pleasant enough, but none of them really jumped out at me the way this ode to the virtues of the old-fashioned Japanese man did:

Ichinichi nihai no sake o nomi
Sakana o toku ni kodawarazu
Maiku ga kita nara hohoende
Ohako o hitotsu utau dake
Each day he has two drinks,
Not bothering much with conversation.
When the microphone comes to him,
He just smiles and sings his usual song.
Tsuma ni wa namida o misenai de
Kodomo ni kuchi o kikasezu ni
Otoko no nageki wa horoyoi de
Sakaba no sumi ni oite yuku
He never shows tears to his wife,
Nor lets his children hear a complaint.
A man leaves his grief in a glass
In the corner of a bar.
Chorus 1:
Medatanu you ni hashaganu you ni
Niawanu koto wa muri o sezu
Hito no kokoro o mitsumetsudzukeru
Jidai okure no otoko ni naritai
Not wanting to stand out or make a fuss,
He doesn't get carried away with things that don't become him.
He just keeps watching people's hearts(?).
I want to be an old-fashioned man.
Bukiyou da keredo shirakezu ni
Junsui da kedo yabo ja naku
Jouzu na osake o nominagara
Ichinen ichido yopparau
He is awkward, but not boring,
Simple, but not crude.
Once a year he gets drunk
On fine liquor.
Mukashi no tomo ni wa yasashikute
Kawaranu tomo to shinjikomi
Arekore shigoto mo aru kuse ni
Jibun no koto wa ato ni suru
He's kind to old friends,
Believing their friendship will never change.
Though he has things to do here and there,
He puts himself last.
Netamanu you ni aseranu you ni
Kazatta sekai ni nagasarezu
Suki na dareka o omoitsudzukeru
Jidaiokure no otoko ni naritai
Never jealous, never in a hurry,
He is not caught up in the world's vanities.
He just keeps thinking of the one he loves.
I want to be an old-fashioned man.
[Repeat chorus 1]
Karaoke is big in Asia (in fact, karaoke is a Japanese word), which is why the first verse takes place in a karaoke bar. There's a certain sense of dramatic irony in listening to this song and knowing how Kawashima would eventually die, even if he didn't actually write the lyric himself.

Translation notes:
The song is completely devoid of grammatical subjects, so it was just a judgment call as to how much of the song to ascribe to the singer and how much to the archetypal old-fashioned man whom the singer is describing. The implied subject could be "I" everywhere if the singer were describing the things he himself were doing to be like an old-fashioned man.

I wasn't sure whether さかな refers literally to bar snacks, or figuratively to conversation at a bar. I went with the latter since it seemed a bit less mundane.

I don't really get the penultimate line of each chorus (人の心を見つめつづける and 好きなだれかを思いつづける). These seem really out of place, and I'm wondering if I'm missing something.

Finally, I don't really understand the two lines following the first chorus (不器用だけれど…). It's not clear to me whether these refer to him or to the liquor he's drinking. I don't really have a good handle on the nuances of  白ける. I'm guessing, very tentatively, that it means he's a bit socially awkward, but not in a way that makes others uncomfortable.

Overall, this was somewhat simpler, gramatically, than "Natural," but a bit trickier in terms of the nuances of the vocabulary used. I'm reasonably happy with the way it came out.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Nokko - Natural
Music: Shigeru Umebayashi, Nokko
Lyric: Asako Michiki, Nokko

My memory's a bit hazy since this was well over ten years ago, but I believe that Nokko's "Natural" was the first Japanese pop song I ever heard, aside from Sukiyaki. Definitely one of the first five or so. Nokko was absolutely adorable in her day. Aside from being cute as a button, she has a very distinctively girly voice. A friend of mine called it "mousy," which is better than anything I've been able to come up with.

Back in the '80s, Nokko was in a band called Rebecca. Mind you, Nokko herself didn't go by "Rebecca," and I don't think anyone else in the band did, either. But the band was nevertheless called Rebecca. Just one of life's mysteries, I guess. They were quite good, and I'm sure I'll get to translating some of their songs one of these days. Friends and Virginity are good to start with, if you're interested.

They split after a dozen or so albums, and Nokko went solo. Her first few solo albums were awful, but Colored was pure gold. Next came Rhyming Cafe, which was pretty good if not quite up to the standards of its predecessor. But it did have one stand-out track, "Natural":
Namida wa hoshi yori omoku
Tatteru dake de sei ippai
With tears heavier than a planet,
It takes all my effort just to stand.
Yoake wa yasashiku
Hajimari wa itsumo sunda sora
Mukae ni kita
The dawn comes gently to greet
The sky that always starts out clear.
Kuchibue nante fuitenai yo
Karui furi yori sono mama de
Dakishimeta mune no aoi tori wa
Takaku maiagaru toki o machi
Namae no nai hi ni namae o sagashiteru
Ouzora ni uta o hibikase shizuka ni arukihajimeta
I won't whistle to seem lighthearted,
But rather let the hope in my heart wait for the time
To dance, like a bird, high into the sky.
Seeking a name for a day that has no name,
I send a song resonating through the sky
And quietly begin to walk.
Akichi no jitensha toui mukashi ni kowareta yakusoku
Doushite nante mou kikanai
Kaze no tsuyosa o uketomete
Dakishimeta hikari tokimeku hi wa takaku maiagari
Toki no nai ai o mitsukedashite sukoshi otona ni naru
Ouzora ni uta o hibikase shizuka ni arukihajimeta
Bicycling across vacant land,
A promise broken long ago,
I won't ask why any longer.
Catching the full force of the wind,
The shining, shimmering joy in my heart
Dances high into the sky with the sun.
Having found a timeless love, I have grown up a bit.
I send a song resonating through the sky
And quietly begin to walk.
Couple of points of interest for those not familiar with Japanese music. First, Japanese songs, much more than English songs, I think, tend to have parallel phrasing in different verses. Some of this is lost in translation for the sake of clarity, but note that both verses have something about dancing high into the sky, and also namae no nai hi/toki no nai ai (Day without a name/love without time). There are some English songs that do this (Tim Buckley's Wings, for example), but it's a pretty standard feature of Japanese lyrics.

Also, Japanese lyricists have a tendency to throw the word ai (love) in for no apparent reason. There's no indication that the song has anything to do with love right up until the end, and then she drops the a-bomb, just 'cause. I guess it tested well with focus groups or something.

Notes on translation: I had a lot of trouble with this one, though it became a bit easier when I realized that 青い鳥 and ときめく日 were metaphors for emotions rather than a literal bird and sun. 空き地の自転車 was a bit confusing as well. 空き地 is vacant land. So either it means a bicycle on vacant land, which doesn't make a lot of sense in context...or maybe 空き地 can mean "abandoned" by association? I went with "Bicycling across vacant land," but I'm not sure that that's what was actually intended.

I also had some trouble with 始まりはいつも澄んだ空; I don't think I parsed that correctly, but I don't really have any better ideas. Overall I'm reasonably happy with how the translation turned out, but I think there's still some room for improvement.


English language music has for decades had great popular success in Japan. Sadly, the relationship has not been reciprocal. Only one Japanese language song, Ue o Muite Arukou, better known by the wildly inappropriate but considerably more pronounceable title "Sukiyaki," has ever charted in the Billboard top 10, back in 1963 with the original version by Kyu Sakamoto, and again in 1981 with A Taste of Honey's cover...and again in 1995 with 4 P.M.'s cover. Sakamoto's follow-up single, China Nights, hit 58 on the Billboard Top 100, and no Japanese language song since then has broken into the top 100.

This is unfortunate. As the second most populous first-world country, Japan has a had an enormous pool of talent from which a great deal of superb music has emerged, and while it's enjoyed some measure of success elsewhere in Asia, Americans have missed out almost entirely.

I don't remember quite how it happened, but back in 2000 or so, shortly after I first began studying Japanese, I became vaguely aware that I was missing out on something. Somehow or other I got ahold of an MP3 of a Japanese song that I liked, and started to wonder what else was out there.

But I couldn't get to it. At the time it was pretty much a given that Amazon or some other online retailer would have sample clips from just about any English album you might want to buy, but Japanese retailers lagged years behind on implementing this feature, and I wasn't about to send $25 plus overseas shipping charges for an album I might or might not like. I was able to find a few songs I liked on Napster before it got shut down, but it never really caught on in Japan, so the pickings were slim.

All that has changed in the last couple of years with YouTube. There are videos for just about every hit single of the last fifty years, and quite a few of the more obscure album tracks. At long last, I have easy access to two generations worth of Japanese popular music.

For the most part it ranges from terrible to mediocre, just like American music. Sturgeon's Law knows no borders. Which is where this blog comes in. I'll be sifting through the chaff so you don't have to.

Now, I gather that a lot of people find not being able to understand a song's lyric to be a barrier to enjoying it. Can't say I get this myself, but I'll take a crack at translating the lyrics. Poetic Japanese doesn't always translate well, as it tends to be a bit vague about things that pretty much need to be specified in English, but I'll do my best. Double your money back if you're not 100% satisfied.