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Linguistic choices can be an artistic or cultural statement for Japanese musicians

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

On May 14, singer-songwriter Satoru Ono released a vinyl single titled “All My Colours.” Anyone who knows Ono’s work would have found themselves on familiar ground with the two tracks, in their mix of 1980s U.K. indie and ’90s Japanese neo-acoustic pop, delivered with a classic pop craftsman’s hand.

The difference is that Ono’s back catalog has been predominantly sung in English, while these new tracks feature him singing in his native Japanese for the first time.

The English lyrics often found in Japanese music can sometimes seem baffling to native English speakers. When sung imperfectly (which is often the case), I find listeners tend to think of them as either charming or annoying. However, for Japanese musicians, this linguistic choice can be a serious one, with both cultural and artistic implications.

Rock ‘n’ roll, pop and jazz are styles rooted in the English language, so as their influence spread and inspired musicians around the world, it was only natural that early practitioners also adopted English as their language of choice. As rock and pop became more popular, and record labels and radio started to take an interest, the commercial need to reach a wider audience put stars under pressure to start producing music in their native language.

It wasn’t a smooth process though. Listen to the Group Sounds genre (Beatles-influenced rock ‘n’ roll) from the ’60s and the Japanese words often fit awkwardly into the rhythm of the music, while those songs sung in English often sound hopelessly naive. Groups such as the Jacks were pioneers of original and uniquely Japanese rock music, but credit for making the Japanese language work for rock and pop is usually given to Keisuke Kuwata of Southern All Stars, who — along with the “new music” generation of the ’70s that also included Yumi Arai (later Matsutoya), Miyuki Nakajima and all three members of YMO — are seen as the founders of modern Japanese rock and pop.

This process of finding a way to make rock work in your own language is an important part of any nation finding its own musical identity. Parallels with Japan’s ’70s generation can be found in as exotic a location as the Soviet Union, where despite heavy state censorship, musicians such as Andrei Makarevich of the band Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine) developed a Russian rock vocabulary at roughly the same time.

This process is an important role in opening rock up to anyone, regardless of language skills. Naoki Ogawa of postpunk trio Tacobonds, while a fluent English speaker, states that, “Japanese is still the language I know best. It’s my native language, so it’s easiest for me.”

Where Tacobonds do employ English, it tends to be in sloganeering phrases, which is something he feels English is well suited to. Minimalist psychedelic rockers Extruders, who I interviewed recently, say singing in Japanese is important to them, but the lone English phrase “I will steal your heart” is the one that adorns their T-shirts.

There’s also the danger that language can be a restriction on an artist’s right to express his or herself in their own way.

“Perhaps it’s the impact of the earthquake,” suggests Minami Yamaguchi of indie duo She Talks Silence, “but recently you get a lot of people praising music sung in Japanese and criticizing Japanese bands who sing in English.”

It certainly makes sense that in the aftermath of a crisis, people would take comfort in feelings of shared bonds with those around them, and music is still an important part of bringing people together under a shared experience. The problem for artists who sing in English, such as Yamaguchi, is in allowing the notion of “Japanese music sung by Japanese people” to become dogmatic. As Yamaguchi points out, “You say these things, but you’re wearing a T-shirt with an English logo or you’re eating a hamburger.” Where do you draw the line?

For Yamaguchi, it’s a simpler matter: “The music that has the deepest impression on me is usually sung in English. So to me, that’s the natural language to sing in.”

For Ono, the experience of recording 2010′s “Tales from Cross Valley” with Scottish producer David Naughton forced him to pay much closer attention to the meanings of the words he was singing and was an important factor in him moving toward Japanese lyrics. In this sense, there’s an irony in the way English is sometimes used.

“It’s more difficult to write in Japanese,” Ono explains, “because the lyrics’ meanings and nuances get through directly to Japanese listeners, while their understanding of English is more rough.” In other words, despite the (misguided) stereotypes of English as a direct language and Japanese as a more subtle one, English can be used by Japanese songwriters to soften and cloak the meanings of songs.

Perhaps the key to the issue lies in the balance between communication and expression, and the emphasis an artist puts on each. The process of developing a vocabulary for rock and pop music sung in the Japanese language has clearly been an important step in the evolution of music, and is a valuable tool in pop doing its job of communicating shared experiences, but we are surely way past the stage where Japan needs to feel threatened by foreign-language music. Allowing artists to express themselves personally, in whatever language suits them best, and not allowing native language lyrics to become a kind of nationalist totem is the true mark of a music scene that’s secure with itself.