Several years before I was taught to read and sing the traditional song 「さくら、さくら」(“Sakura, sakura“) in introductory Japanese class, I recall driving my father’s 1963 Ford Galaxie and humming along to the melody of Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki Song,” broadcast over WFAY AM radio in North Carolina.

Who would have thought that just a few years later I would be transplanted to another continent, where I learned that 「上を向いて歩こう」(“Ue wo muite arukō,” “I look up as I walk”) was the real title of Sakamoto’s song. An entertainment writer in Newsweek magazine once scoffed that naming Sakamoto’s song “Sukiyaki” was analogous to changing the name of “Moon River” to “Beef Stew.”

I fully confess to not having a pleasant singing voice, but for me Japanese popular songs have been, and still remain, a valuable and enjoyable springboard to learning the language.

Before karaoke made its appearance, record companies in Japan printed songs’ lyrics on the reverse side of 45 RPM vinyl records’ dust jackets. When I didn’t know the reading for an unfamiliar character I could lean over and ask the nearest available native speaker.

Song lyrics not only helped me to add new vocabulary; they also put me in touch with a wide range of emotive expressions — happiness, misery, loneliness, regret, love and so on — that I couldn’t easily pick up in the course of 日常会話 (nichijō kaiwa, day-to-day conversation). And at some point the sentiments being expressed by songs’ lyrics began to resonate emotionally, which probably meant the language was permeating the level of my 潜在意識 (senzai ishiki, subconscious).

Cultural assimilation has its limitations: To this day I can’t follow the rhythm of 演歌 (enka, Japanese ballads). I suppose for most foreign ears, the easiest tunes to master are in the genre called 歌謡曲 (kayōkyoku, popular songs).

During the 1970s, フォーク・ソング (fōku songu, Japanese-style modern folk tunes) enjoyed popularity among the 団塊の世代 (dankai no sedai, the postwar baby boom generation). One example of this style of music would be the hit song 「神田川」 (“Kandagawa,” “The Kanda River”), recorded in 1973 by the male folk trio かぐや姫 (Kaguyahime).

Sung as a solo by Kosetsu Minami, the lyrics begin 「あなたはもう忘れたかしら」 (“Anata wa mō wasureta kashira,” “I wonder if you’ve already forgotten”).

In the somewhat mournful ballad that follows, the singer relates nostalgic images in a stream-of-consciousness style:


(Akai tenugui mafuraa ni shite, I’d use a red hand towel for a muffler)


(Futari de itta yokochō no furoya, the bathhouse on the side street we walked to together)


(Issho ni deyō nette itta no ni, Although you said “Let’s leave together”)


(Itsumo watashi ga matasareta, I was always made to wait)


(Araigami wa shin made hiete, With my washed hair chilled to the core)

If this song has a tone of being 本格的 (honkakuteki, authentic) it’s because it was inspired by a true story, as I learned from a recent article in Sunday Mainichi magazine (May 11-18) titled GWに訪ねたいあの歌の原風景 (GW ni tazunetai ano uta no genfūkei, the original scene for that song that we want to visit during Golden Week).

“When I was a student at Waseda University, she was living in an apartment overlooking the Kanda River,” recalls Makoto Kitajo, the song’s composer. “It was about 100 meters from Takadanobaba Station, at the point where the Arakawa tram line makes the turn from Omokage-bashi towards Gakushuin-shita.”

「お風呂がなく、トイレも共同で、西早稲田にあった銭湯「安兵衛湯」によく行きました」(“Ofuro ga naku, toire mo kyōdō de, Nishi-waseda ni atta sentō ‘Yasubē-yu’ ni yoku ikimashita,” “There was no bath, and the toilet was communal, and we often went to the ‘Yasube-yu’ public bathhouse in Nishi-waseda”), Kitajo says. 「古本屋街をずっと歩いてね、いい散歩道でした」 (“Furuhonya-gai wo zutto aruite ne, ii sampomichi deshita,” “We’d walk all the way along the street of used bookstores, it was a nice stroll”).

Once at a wedding reception I attended years ago, I felt a lump in my throat when one of the guests serenaded the newlyweds with the song 「乾杯」 (“Kampai,” “Cheers”), a big hit for composer/performer Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi in 1980. The song’s chorus goes: 乾杯!今君は人生の大きな 大きな 舞台に立ち (Kampai! Ima kimi wa jinsei no ōkina ōkina butai ni tachi, Cheers! Now you are standing on a big, big stage of life), 遥か長い道のりを歩き始めた君に幸せあれ! (Haruka nagai michinori wo aruki hajimeta kimi ni shiawase are! To you, who have begun walking a distant and long journey, let there be happiness!)

Even if you’ve got a tin ear for music, like I do, karaoke can be an effective and enjoyable language learning tool.

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