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.