Music | They're Playing Our Song

The songs that tried to teach Japan to kill

by Dustin Wong

It looks like the 1940s are back, but not in a way you’d expect. Military songs are reportedly becoming fashionable with certain segments of youth.

To get a handle on this trend, I spoke with Masanori Tsujita, an expert on the genre who has been writing about the revival.

“Effective propaganda isn’t forceful,” says Tsujita, speaking in a noticeably quick tempo. “It sneaks into our subconscious and burns its ideas into our brain.”

Military songs have been used recently in anime and smartphone games, a trend referred to as moemiritarī, “moe” being an otaku term used to refer to creepy or obsessive love (sometimes with an anime character). Moe-military characters are often young girls physically merged with military weaponry.

“The Self-Defense Forces recently made changes in their recruiting campaign, which features anime characters now,” Tsujita points out. “It’s apparently doing really well.”

Just over 70 years ago, citizens were encouraged to write their own military songs and financially compensated if the tunes were good. As the war raged, record labels began to take on more radical content, such as the 1941 tune “Bakudan Kurai Te de Ukeyo” (“You Can Catch the Bomb”).

“There have been about 10,000 military songs written since the Meiji Era,” Tsujita says. “Out of that 10,000, around 50 represent the genre very well.”

Tsujita cites “Umi Yukaba” (“If You Go to the Sea”) and “Aikoku Koushin Kyoku” (“The Nationalism March”) as the two best examples of military songs.

“Umi Yukaba” was released in 1937 through state broadcaster NHK. It borrows lyrics from an eighth-century poem and incorporates elements of opera and anthemic fanfare. The first few lines are brutal:

If you go to the ocean,
there is a drenched cadaver.
If you go to the mountain,
there is an overgrown cadaver

Naturally, the beat may be the catchiest element of a military song. “Aikoku Koushin Kyoku” does this by utilizing a stiff up-and-down rhythm that’s so hypnotic you’d be forgiven for ignoring the violent lyrics. I stumbled across one blog that pointed out how “Moyuru Ohzora” (“The Burning Sky”) has a tempo that’s great to walk to and a register that’s low enough for anyone to be able to sing along. Of course, this sonic bait-and-switch is the point of propoganda melodies.

For professional lyricists at the time, writing military marches was a way to get food on the table. It’s uncertain whether they were proud of their work as artists. Yaso Saijo, who wrote the lyrics for the critical postwar track “Reijin no Uta,” was reportedly displeased with his job, but some embraced it. Hakushu Kitahara became a born-again imperialist in his later years and even wrote a song for the Hitler Youth when they visited Japan in 1938 titled “Banzai Hitler Jugend.” Kitahara died before the war’s end, which is when many of his peers turned their backs on military songwriting.

Tsujita says he’s been asked by right wing groups to write about military songs in a positive light, but stresses he doesn’t see the music that way himself.

“I want people to understand military songs as a way to understand this aspect of history — not to glorify the genre or its ideals in any way.”

Toward the end of our conversation, Tsujita alludes to his fears over what a military song revival might bring.

“Let’s say there are five military song fans getting together and one of them is a conservative right-winger,” he says. “It will most likely end up that the other four will adjust their tone for that one guy out of a sense of being polite. That is the danger, those four are now at risk of being pulled into this ideology.”

Can a track like “Aikoku Koushin Kyoku” have that much of an impact? Minoru Torihada reached a level of success as a performance artist in the ’90s. His act blended imperial and nationalist themes with kitsch, but as apolitical parody. In 2014, however, Torihada appeared on a Japan Restoration Party-sponsored poster with Makoto Sakurai, a political activist and director for ultra-nationalist group Zaitokukai. If Torihada’s satire could lead him down that path, who knows where the drum beat of a military march will lead its young, new fans.

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