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The tune that Japan wanted after the war

by Dustin Wong

Special To The Japan Times

Michiko Namiki (1921-2001) was a fresh face in the Japanese entertainment industry when World War II came to an end. She had lost her father and brother during the fighting, her mother in the Tokyo bombings and her first love was killed on the front lines. Her story wasn’t dissimilar to that of many other Tokyoites at the time, but following the war it was her voice that provided hope for a broken nation.

Namiki’s “Ringo no Uta” (“Apple’s Song”) was the first pop-music hit following the end of World War II. A standard pop song in 3-4 time, it was composed by Tadashi Manjome who reportedly had to coax Namiki into singing with a sense of joy even though she was still in mourning.

As a musician myself, I confess that I don’t spend too much time focusing on the lyrics of a song. In the case of “Ringo no Uta,” however, it was the words that struck me. Think about it, as a singer, what do you say to a population that has suffered so much loss? Apparently, the simple experience of enjoying a piece of fruit is comforting enough:

Bringing the red apple to my lips
Staring at the blue sky in silence
The apple says nothing
But I understand what the apple feels
The adorable apple
The adorable apple

Lyricist Hachiro Sato was a well-known writer of children’s songs at the time, but was still considered by many to be an eccentric. Listening to his words, I try to see what he sees: a red apple surrounded by silence, which I see as white. “I understand what the apple feels,” we’re now picturing the Japanese flag. Isolating the colors — red, white and sky blue — we’re presented with the colors of the United States, the occupational force that will influence Japan (willingly or not) for years to come.

Apples were a rare and costly treat following the war. The one place they were sold was the yami-ichi (black market) — initially at more than 30 times their normal price. One such market was the Aozora Yami-Ichi — the Blue Sky Black Market — in Tokyo’s Ueno district.

In “Ringo no Uta,” Namiki sings about “staring at the blue sky” while eating an apple, possibly one purchased at Aozora. She’s not looking upward, but straight ahead. The apple itself is internalizing the place it came from and where it is going, a complicated emotion. During a time of hardship, eating an apple was a potentially gaudy gesture. If the fruit was purchased at the black market, it was also tainted with corruption, and now that Namiki has the apple in her hand there has to be a sense of deep gratitude infused with some guilt.

Whenever Namiki performed “Ringo no Uta,” she would finish with the charitable act of tossing apples out into the crowd.

The lyrics are an interesting mixture of melancholy and joy, but the musical influences on “Ringo no Uta” seem to predict nothing but hope. There are elements of big-band jazz, Latin and Continental tango, German polka, French chanson and Broadway show tunes hidden in these notes.

To get a different perspective on the song, I visited Masahisa Segawa, a respected critic of jazz and musicals, at his home in Tokyo. He was born in 1924 and told me that during the war, music produced by Japan’s enemies (the United States, Britain) was banned while music produced by its allies (Germany, Italy) was permitted.

“However, before the war a lot of classical music and music from around the world flooded the country,” Segawa said. “A lot of traditional Japanese songs were then sung on top of these new genres and styles. So this trend saw a revival after the war ended.”

While the lyrics sympathize with Japan’s recent past predicament, the music is clearly focused on the future and embracing new ideas and styles. The introduction and the interlude in “Ringo no Uta” features a sequence of two distinct types of melodies, presented almost like a call and response. It begins with a melody that’s reminiscent of a traditional Japanese children’s song, which then melts into something that sounds like Argentinian tango. We get two distinct melodies from the East and West, trying to coexist within the context of a song — the world Japan found itself in once again after the war.

This is the first part in a five-part series about the music the Japanese were listening to at the end of World War II.