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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

The curious history of Western martial music in Japan

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Tomorrow morning I will stagger out of bed around 5:00 a.m. OK, maybe 5:30. I will slip into the uniform: white dress shirt, green V-neck sweater, navy blue trousers, white tennis shoes. Must not forget the heat-tech underwear. I am headed to Shinjuku, where at 7:30, I will join the other members of the Roppongi Men's Chorus Club. As we do each year, a hundred or so of us will gather to sing Kimigayo, Japan's national anthem and a series of three fight songs to cheer on the runners at the start of the Tokyo Marathon. But what are these songs we sing and where did they come from?

The words to Kimigayo are from a Japanese poem included in the 10th century anthology Kokinshu. Translated by British Japanologist Basil Chamberlain (1850-1935), the lyrics read as follows,

Thousands of years of happy reign be thine
Rule on, my lord, till what are pebbles now
By age united to mighty rocks shall grow
Whose venerable sides the moss doth line.

The words were first set to music in 1870 by John W. Fenton, a British military band master. The tune was replaced by a more dignified melody composed by Hayashi Miromori, selected by a committee formed by the Imperial Household Ministry. Kimigayo is now controversial in Japan, with right-wing politicians insisting that it be sung on public occasions and left-wing teachers unions refusing to sing it as an act of resistance to what they see as a renaissance of pre-war militarism.

Izatate "Stand Up!" This song began as a bloodthirsty Protestant poem written in German during the religious wars that racked central Europe during the 17th century. The poem was translated into English then set to music written by James McGranahan, one of 19th century America's most prolific composers of evangelical hymns. Carried to Japan by Christian missionaries, it was translated into Japanese in a manner that strips out most of the original blood-of-the-lamb, onward-Christian-soldiers imagery. The chorus can be literally translated "Righteous God/gods preserve us." The word kami can be translated as God but could also be the plural, gods, an ambiguity that may have made the lyrics more acceptable during the period before World War II. When I first heard it, I thought it might have been a Japanese soldiers' song with no particular Christian implications.

The second is U Boj, from the Croatian opera Nikola Subic Zrinski by Ivan Zajc. How it got to Japan is a very curious tale, indeed. It began with the Russian Czar, who on the eve of World War I, recruited mercenaries from central and southern Europe to form the Czech Legion. They were recruited to fight the Germans, but following the Bolshevik Revolution joined the White armies and retreated eastward. For a time, they controlled much of the Trans Siberian Railway. Having fought a running battle with Trotsky and the Red Army across the whole length of Siberia, their remnants wound up in Vladivostok, from which they were evacuated by ships belonging to their former British and American allies. But one of those ships, carrying a large group of Croatians, had engine trouble and put into the port of Kobe in Japan for repairs. While the repairs were being made, the Croatians made friends with members of the Kansai Gakuin University Choir, one of Japan's first Western-style choral groups. The choir members heard and loved U Boj and made it their standard encore number. It then spread throughout Japan.

The third is the "Soldiers' Chorus" from the opera Carmen by Bizet. How it got to Japan, I do not know. But along with Izatate and U Boj, it has become a standard number in the Japanese choral repertoire. All are marches, all have a strongly military flavour all lend themselves to mass choral singing in what I think of as Red Army style. Now the question changes. How did martial musical style of Western choral music take root in Japan, whose native musical traditions, featuring instruments like the koto (a thirteen-string harp) and the shakuhachi (the Japanese bamboo but-blown flute) have a radically different sound.

According to Saegusa Shigeaki, the Japanese composer who is also the oyabun (parent-leader) of our chorus, the introduction of Western choral music into Japan goes back to the bombardment of Kagoshima (also known as the Anglo-Satsuma War) in 1863. This bit of gunboat diplomacy followed the Namamugi incident in which samurai from the Satsuma domain attacked a party of British merchants killing one of them. In the diplomatic style of the day, following the bombardment, the lord of Satsuma was invited to dine on one of the British ships, where he might be further impressed by British might. Later that lord, an enthusiastic adopter of Western military technology, was one of the leaders of the Meiji Restoration. The entertainment on the ship had included a band and chorus, and when the decision was made to model the Japanese navy after the British navy, the chorus and the kind of music it sang were part of the package. Like the Prussian-style school uniforms still worn by Japanese middle and high school students today, the music became a prescribed part of the Japanese school curriculum. It was seen as an essential part of the modernization of Japan.

Now more than a century later, these songs are known and sung throughout Japan. One might even argue that they are, like Mt. Fuji, cherry blossoms, and Pokemon part of what it is to be Japanese. The art music scene to which these songs belong is, however, only one of numerous genres influenced by non-Japanese models. The first songs called enka, a genre studied by Christine Yano, were expressions of political dissent associated with the Freedom and People's Rights Movement during the Meiji period. Post WWII, these sentimental ballads became Japan's indigenous "country" and are now associated with conservative political leanings. Jazz, R&B, rock, reggae, Western style classical music, even bagpipes all have their Japanese fans.

Now more than a century later, these songs are known and sung throughout Japan. One might even argue that they are, like Mt. Fuji, cherry blossoms, and Pokemon part of what it is to be Japanese

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Kimigayo, the national anthem of Japan. By Sakurambo, CC-BY-SA-3.0.
Kimigayo, the national anthem of Japan. By Sakurambo, CC-BY-SA-3.0.