Music

Sending Japan's 'Paprika' out to the world

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Many J-pop artists spend their whole career trying to land a spot on NHK’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen” end-of-year televized music extravaganza. The five members of Foorin team E, however, got the call-up the same day they properly debuted.

“Before we’ve even done our first proper concert, we are right on the biggest show in Japan,” Len, 12, says, adding with a chuckle, “I think we have a lot of pressure.”

He and the other four children in the outfit — Clara, 6, Corban, 8, Jasmine, 10 and Evangeline, 12 — are speaking to me a few hours ahead of making their live debut at NHK Hall as part of the annual Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union Television Song Festival. They join the original Japanese-language Foorin group to perform the hit song “Paprika,” gracing the same stage as some of the continent’s biggest acts, including Japan’s Hey! Say! Jump and South Korea’s Twice.

“It’s a surreal situation, being able to walk by all the artists that you dream about seeing. … Clara, she’s 6, and she gets to have this experience,” Evangeline says, as Clara sits nervously next to her. While Foorin team E may have a few nerves ahead of debuting live in front of 3,000 people, its members retain a sense of silliness.

“I’m feeling excited and … like, what are the artists going to do while we are dancing?” Corban asks, before someone explains the situation to him. “I thought they were going to paint us, because they are artists,” he jokes afterward. Laughs all around, tension eased.

Interviewing both Foorin squads can feel a little bit like stepping into a job as an assistant language teacher — all 10 members spend around 15 minutes huddled together outside the room, game-planning what they’ll try to say, while the actual conversation utilizes a raise-your-hand-and-be-called-on system.

Most young students, however, aren’t flanked by music industry types hours before performing in front of a crowd. Your average preadolescent also can’t lay claim to being part of a massive hit loved by everyone from age 3 to 93. “Paprika” appeared in mid-2018 as part of NHK’s 2020 “Support Song” project — people working at the national broadcaster stress this effort is technically separate from the Olympics, which perhaps warrants a raised eyebrow — and the original Japanese version has earned more than 147 million views on YouTube at the time of writing. Numerous versions featuring NHK talent and even a Foorin Orchestra add millions more.

Stats undersell it, though. No song is more ever-present in daily life, playing on TV and in-store speakers across the nation, a fact all the more impressive given how fragmented music in Japan has become. Fuzzy characters have delivered covers, piano players tackled it and YouTubers have imitated how various cartoons would approach the song. If you have a young child, work in a school, or happen to walk by a local sports day, you’ve heard “Paprika.”

“Before I even knew I’d be in this group, nine-tenths of the people in my school were singing ‘Paprika’ all together. Like ‘1, 2, 3 Paprika!'” Jasmine says. “A few months later, when I became part of Foorin team E, I heard this song and was like ‘What … seriously? Is this a dream? Is this real life? Mom, pinch me.'”

“Did she pinch you?” Corban interjects.

“She did,” Jasmine responds.

Songs aimed at children have often transformed into crossover hits, including B.B. Queens’ “Odoru Pompokorin” and the 2011 track “Maru Maru Mori Mori” by Kaoru to Tomoki, Tamani Mukku. “Paprika,” however, was written by Kenshi Yonezu, arguably the biggest name in J-pop today. This fact explains how a song about memories of playing in the woods with childhood friends has also connected with so many young adults (with the melancholy coming across even clearer in Yonezu’s own version).

Foorin, though, has helped bring it to life with its all-together-now vocal delivery and a dance that’s well choreographed for all ages with plenty of room for improvised flailing. You can do it in a group, but with your own flair added in. “Paprika” has become omnipresent, to the point that Takeru, a member of the Japanese Foorin, says members of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters baseball team approached him for a photo during batting practice when Foorin traveled north to sing and dance at Sapporo Dome.

“The other day I was in the supermarket with my sister and ‘Paprika’ came on the radio,” Evangeline says. “I was thinking, ‘Wow I know them.’ I see them every week and it’s so cool to know people so famous, who appear on Spotify and in stores.”

Foorin team E, meanwhile, offers the chance for the pop power of “Paprika” to reach an English-language audience ahead of a year in which Japan will be squarely in the global spotlight. The initial interactions between the two Foorin groups shows how it could work.

“I don’t speak English so I wasn’t sure how we were going to communicate with Foorin team E,” Takeru says. “But some of their members speak Japanese, and when I saw their dance, I realized that even though Japanese and English are different, it’s clear that we’re all having fun.”

“Japan talks about diversity and inclusion, but they don’t do that on TV,” Nelson Babin-Coy, a singer-songwriter who wrote the English lyrics for “Paprika,” says. “This song could lead to so many Japanese kids becoming interested in English. I think Foorin team E could help Japanese kids change their perception of what it means to be inclusive.”

The two teams perform well at NHK Hall, coming together to put on a playful performance full of charm. It’s a good start, though “Kohaku Uta Gassen” looms large for the Foorin children. The Japanese members appeared on last year’s edition, but as a special guests, so being a featured act motivates them to do even better, according to Chise, a member of the original group. Evangeline’s family originally had plans to be in the United States for the new year, but now she’ll rush back to Japan early for the show.

“It’s crazy! I’ve been watching ‘Kohaku’ for about six or seven years, since I was 3 or 4 years old. Whenever I go back to my mom’s hometown, we would always stay up until dawn. I would always say, ‘Mom, put the TV on, it’s ‘Kohaku.’ Hurry, hurry!'” Jasmine says. “I want to go up there on stage, it will be so fun. It’s like a dream come true.”

“Kohaku Uta Gassen” airs on Dec. 31 from 7:15 p.m. on NHK G. For more information, visit www.nhk.or.jp/kouhaku.

From singing at home to translating lyrics in Japan

Nelson Babin-Coy has been covering J-pop songs on acoustic guitar since college. The 34-year-old singer-songwriter has tried his hand at numbers from the likes of Exile and Mr. Children among many others, all delivered in Japanese.

“Eventually I got tired of just singing Japanese songs,” he says. “So I decided I’d try translating these Japanese lyrics into English, and keep the melody. It was a challenge for me.”

The Tokyo-based performer’s English interpretations of huge Japanese hits assisted him in finding his niche — helping to write English-language lyrics for Japanese artists such as Sekai no Owari and The Bawdies. Most recently, he wrote the words for the English version of “Paprika” for Foorin team E.

Born in Burbank, California, Babin-Coy says his first interaction with Japan came when he was 15, via a two-week exchange program with a sister city in Gunma Prefecture. This sparked a deeper interest that pushed him to study the language and relocate.

It also guided Babin-Coy, who was raised on classic American rock, toward Japanese music, thanks to his exchange partner urging him to watch the 2000 film “Battle Royale.” He says the end credits song by Dragon Ash “opened my mind to search out and see what I could find,” leading to a love of all sorts of acts.

“I had just come to Japan, and a friend told me about an audition to be on-air talent at Space Shower TV,” Babin-Coy says. He won, and got the chance to work for the station, including on a show introducing up-and-coming acts.

His YouTube channel — which showcases his skills at translating J-pop lyrics into English — also helped, and led to Kenshi Yonezu’s agency reaching out to have Babin-Coy help add English subtitles to the artist’s YouTube uploads. This, coupled with frequent work at NHK, made him a natural fit for Foorin team E’s debut.

“Yonezu’s melodies are so ‘Japanesey,’” he says, pointing to the chord structure. “And the lyrics are avant-garde … and (‘Paprika’ is) a kids’ song. It’s about reliving those childhood memories, and when you look at older Japanese nursery rhymes, a lot of them have similar flowery language.”

Writing the English version of “Paprika” required Babin-Coy to simplify the lyrics a little, though they mostly stay intact. One word in Yonezu’s original, however, didn’t stick — “hallelujah.”

“NHK, like a lot of Japanese companies, is very considerate about everybody. It doesn’t want anybody to be offended,” says Babin-Coy. While he personally thinks it could have stayed, he understands why the decision was made. And overall, he thinks “Paprika” can be a good thing for promoting diversity and English in Japan.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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