Spicing up J-pop with English words

MORE RHYTHMIC LEEWAY: Made popular again in 2001 by Taiwan-based Japanese pop group Sunday Girls, the song Natsu No Tobira (Summer's Door) features the English words: "Fresh! Fresh! Fresh!"


    Aug 05, 2015

    Spicing up J-pop with English words

    SEVERAL years ago, I saw a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine with the caption, "Life without Mozart". The illustration was a dismal, grey shoreline.

    Throughout the world, music plays an important role in the lives of many people as a means of or accompaniment to relaxation, social interaction and physical activity, among other functions.

    For some, it is an indulgence after physical or mental toil.

    For many new learners of a foreign language, studies are "the usual pain" and music in the target language provides a nice respite from wearisome flashcard drills, with the added bonus of the (possibly illusory) prospect that some linguistic progress is being made.

    The first Japanese popular music I ever heard was from a cassette tape of some songs of the Japanese pop idol Seiko Matsuda, which a Japanese friend passed to me in early 1983, a few months before I came to Japan. My favourite was a catchy tune titled Natsu No Tobira (Summer's Door), or as I, with my very limited Japanese, tended to refer to it, the "fresh, fresh, fresh song".

    I called it that because "Fresh! Fresh! Fresh!" began each refrain of the song.

    In 2001, it was made popular again by the Sunday Girls, a Taiwan-based Japanese pop group that covered the song. The group were formed through a contest on Jacky Wu's Super Sunday variety TV show.

    Back in the 80s, I didn't speculate much as to why Matsuda used the English word "fresh" rather than a Japanese equivalent. It was simply a welcome linguistic buoy that bobbed up regularly in the midst of a sea of largely unknown Japanese vocabulary.

    As any casual J-pop listener knows, many songs make use of at least a couple of words of English, though naturally not with the intention of bolstering worn-out students of Japanese.

    Nonetheless, as with any communicative trend, researchers have identified a variety of aspects of the code-mixing inclination. At a nuts-and-bolts level, because the Japanese language pronounces each vowel as a separate syllable, it can take a lot longer rhythmically to get through one word - nice for a ballad, a bit trickier in a zippier melody.

    Enter English, with its prevalence of pithier one-, two- and three-syllable words. In the case of Matsuda's song, "Fresh! Fresh! Fresh!" was no doubt a whole lot easier to trill out than its unwieldy Japanese equivalent, "Sawayaka! Sawayaka! Sawayaka!"

    The use of English grants even further rhythmic leeway, as some artists feel less reticence about mangling a foreign language.

    Sociolinguist Chiaki Ohashi notes that the hugely successful record producer Tetsuya Komuro has remarked that he has no qualms about changing English to suit the music, resulting in lyrics like "I feel dance".

    Keisuke Kuwata of the Southern All Stars tried something more unusual, creating melodies with English-like nonsense words, inserting Japanese phrases rather higgledy-piggledy once the tune was set, then singing fast enough so that no one could really follow the words anyway, as ethnomusicologist Junko Kitagawa observes.

    Rhythmic considerations aside, opting to sing part or all of a song in another language opens up other possibilities of creative expression. Andrew Moody and Yuko Matsumoto, researchers of English in Asian popular culture, note a particular use of English words in Japanese songs that they have labelled "code ambiguation".

    They note that some musicians exploit English and Japanese homonyms or near-homonyms, so that dual meanings can be expressed simultaneously.

    These include the Southern All Stars' use of I/ai (love) and you gotta/yugata (evening), as well as singer Sheena Ringo's wanna/wana (trap) lyrics in her hit song Gibusu (Plaster cast).

    The researchers argue that this code ambiguation is more than just glib wordplay. Through merging the two languages, making it difficult to determine which is being used, they suggest the Japanese language - and Japanese identity - can slip into a wider communicative domain.

    They also draw attention to the songs of the J-pop band Love Psychedelico, in which the lead singer purposely gives Japanese words an English pronunciation, leading listeners to be unsure of which language is being used, and even to assume incorrectly that the singer is not Japanese.

    Unusual language choices offer creative vistas that meld cultures, producing new expressive meanings. And such composition is by no means limited to English appropriation.

    Historian Csaba Toth points out Sheena Ringo's use of rare Chinese characters and made-up archaic-sounding Japanese words, which he suggests "hark back to a long lost, yet never idealised Japan."

    Now that sounds really fresh to me.


    The writer is a professor of English at Waseda University's School of Commerce.

    For more reports on the go, check out the "MyPaper" iOS and Android apps.