VOX POPULI: If lyrics change, does a song remain the same?
Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.
There are many seemingly Japanese creations such as "kasutera" sponge cake and "konpeito" sugar candy that were actually imported from foreign countries. The children's song "Chocho"(Butterfly) can be traced back to a Spanish folk song, and the composer of the children's song "Musunde Hiraite" (Close and open your hands) is said to be the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).
Let me cite more examples from "Nihon no Shoka" (Japanese school songs) published by Kodansha Ltd. The song "Kogitsune" (Little fox) that starts with the words "Little fox kon kon in the mountains" was originally a German folk song. The Japanese lyrics "It crushes seeds to put on makeup" are sweet. But the words of the original song are completely different. They go something like, "Hey fox, unless you return the goose, I am going to shoot you."
It has recently come to light that "Aogeba Totoshi" (Look up with reverence), a song once commonly sung at graduation ceremonies in Japan, was based on "Song for the Close of School," created in the United States during the 19th century.
During the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the Education Ministry rewrote the lyrics and included the tune in a collection of elementary school songs. However, its origin has remained "the greatest mystery of school songs." The songbook even includes a passage suggesting it was composed by a Japanese.
It was Masato Sakurai, 67, a Hitotsubashi University professor emeritus well-versed in American and British folk songs, who solved the mystery. While looking through old Western school textbooks and hymnals, he found the same music in a song collection published in 1871 in the United States.
But the original song, which sings about the sadness of parting with friends, has no words about "indebtedness to our teachers" and "stand tall and make a name for yourself," words that add a distinct flavor.
Apparently, the Japanese version tried to incorporate the image of a model citizen that the government at the time envisioned. School songs were used as a tool of national policy to encourage students to learn Western culture.
I hear the song has become less popular in recent years because of those very words. Apparently, school officials think it is inappropriate for teachers to make students feel indebted to them and encourage them to climb the social ladder on the occasion to mark the beginning of a new phase of life.
Perhaps they are right. Still, now that it has come clear that it was originally an American song, why not re-interpret it as encouragement for young Japanese people to go after the American dream? Its solemn melody is also good to push students on their back to take a step forward.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 26
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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.