BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – Some people recommend watching television to improve your listening in Japanese, but I found I made my biggest gains in 聞き取り (kikitori, listening), 発音 (hatsuon, pronunciation) and リズム (rizumu, rhythm) by listening to 音楽 (ongaku, music).
音楽の好みは個人の自由です (Ongaku no konomi wa kojin no jiyū desu, Music is a matter of personal taste), of course, and the 歌 (uta, songs) you like will differ in テンポ (tenpo, tempo) and 歌い方 (utaikata, style of singing). I prefer ロック (rokku, rock) and パンク (panku, punk) as a matter of taste, but any genre will do as long as it has clear 歌詞 (kashi, lyrics).
歌詞 are the key. I’m used to buying CDs and I have a ton of them by Japanese bands. CDs will almost always include a 歌詞カード (kashi kādo, CD jacket with lyrics) that you can use to memorize the songs and sing along with them. I prefer to write out the 歌詞 into a notebook along with 振り仮名 (furigana, the small hiragana written above kanji) so I would know the correct 読み方 (yomikata, way to read) and 言い方 (iikata, way to say) for the words. Copying them out also helps with memorization.
Follow your notes while you listen to the 曲 (kyoku, song). It’s good to see the kanji in front of you while hearing the word being said. After a while, 読み方を覚えることができる (yomikata o oboeru koto ga dekiru, the way to read [the vocabulary] can be remembered) and that will help your vocabulary. The ultimate test of using these words, however, comes at カラオケ (karaoke, karaoke).
As with songs in English, some lyrics are written in the style of 詩 (shi, poetry), but I’ve found that a lot of Japanese songs are written just like the way people speak, so learning them is a great way to practice set grammatical patterns.
One of my favorites is the song “Lilac” by Lost In Time. Its サビ (sabi, chorus) contains the line, “育った街も 見てきた景色も” (“Sodatta machi mo mite-kita keshiki mo,” “And the town I grew up in, and the landscape I have seen”). Right there, just the term “育った街” illustrates the kind of verb structure that Japanese uses to describe a noun. Other examples would include: 先週行ったレストラン (senshū itta resutoran, the restaurant I went to last week) or 田舎で見た景色は素晴らしかった (inaka de mita keshiki wa subarashikatta, The scenery I saw in the countryside was incredible).
歌手の声が聞き取りやすいから、ロストインタイムが好きです (Kashu no koe ga kikitori yasui kara, Rosuto In Taimu ga suki desu, I like Lost In Time because the singer’s voice is clear and easy to listen to). If the band you’re listening to’s 歌い方 is 聞き取りにくい (kikitori-nikui, difficult to catch), that might mean it’ll be harder to make out what they’re saying. But Lost In Time’s 切ない (setsunai, bittersweet) way of singing makes their lyrics 聞き取りやすい (kikitori-yasui, easy to catch).
Japanese indie music is often filled with 切ない歌詞 (setsunai kashi, bittersweet lyrics) and melancholic vocals that aim to sound like 心の底から歌った歌 (kokoro no soko kara uttata uta, songs sung from the bottom of the heart). Some of my other favorites are モンゴル800 (Mongoru Happyaku), known to many as モンパチ (Monpachi), who has great Japanese songs offering vocabulary dealing with world peace and protecting the environment (check out “矛盾の上に咲く花” [“Mujun no Ue ni Saku Hana,” “Flowers Blooming from Contradictions”]), and テン・フィート (Ten Fīto, 10-Feet), who has both 優しい (yasashii, gentle) and 激しい (hageshii, intense) songs (one of my favorite 10-Feet tracks to sing at karaoke is “雨” [“Ame,” “Rain”]).
Oh, and one more benefit to learning Japanese through music? You’ll impress your Japanese friends when you go out for karaoke sessions.