Kôhaku Uta Gassen, or “Red-White Song Battle,” is what Japan does for New Year’s Eve. Tens of the biggest acts in Jpop and enka get together, in two teams, and perform for about four hours in a spectacle that, while it may sound kind of corny and silly on the surface, is easily as grand and expensively put-together as, for example, the musical performances at the Oscars.
I still owe you guys (owe myself?) a rundown of my thoughts on this latest Kôhaku.. Hopefully I’ll get around to it before the end of January. Most of my friends – including Japanese friends – think it silly, corny, or absurd that I should want to watch such a thing (imagine someone getting genuinely excited about watching Dick Clark / Ryan Seacrest’s New Year’s Eve show). But, in addition to being purely entertaining, Kôhaku is a great opportunity to learn about what songs are (were) hot in Japan in the past year – to discover new favorites – and also to see your favorite bands/singers perform.
I made many discoveries this time around; one of which was that the band HY is Okinawan (named after, apparently, their hometown of Higashi Yakena). The song they performed on Kôhaku, “Toki wo koe” (時をこえ) or “Extending/Moving Across Time,” has been stuck in my head ever since, and so I feel I want to share it with you.
Overall, I feel it has a very standard pop-rock-alternative sort of sound, something perhaps particularly Japanese, but on the surface not particularly Okinawan. Yet, underneath that, there is very much that feel, that flavor, that atmosphere of the Okinawan sound. The distinctive sound of the sanshin is there, not blatantly and obviously, but just subtly contributing to the Okinawan feel of the song. I never cease to be amazed at how distinctive such a thing can be – how much an instrument can sound so very different and distinctive as to mark a piece of music as definitively Okinawan, simply through something in the quality of the strings and the body of the instrument, and the way it is played. … The melody, while again seeming very much standard on the surface, seems to contain elements of Okinawan music, elements that remind you subtly, sub-consciously, of Okinawan folk music even as the sound more generally just seems modern and either Japanese or aculturally global. And, finally, there are the lyrics, and the sad but hopeful nostalgic tone of the song overall, which reminds me very much of the story behind this video, which I have linked before (it’s clips from the movie “Nabbie no koi,” which does not originally have anything to do with the song ‘Okinawa ni furu yuki’ to which it is set here); I think these same visuals would go really well with HY’s “Toki wo koe.” Then, of course, there are the eisa drums and chanting, and uniquely Okinawan phrases in the lyrics, but those don’t come in until later.
Sure, there are plenty of nostalgic songs from every culture – Japan not least among them – which speak of memories of grandparents and honoring their hard lives and sacrifices. But somehow I feel something special, something unique, in the way Okinawans remember and honor their grandparents; I guess it connects in to the devastation of Okinawa in the war, and the combination of terrible sadness and brilliant hope and optimism coming out of that.
Sorry for the overly lengthy introduction and rambling on…
Getting down to it, here is the song itself, “Toki wo koe” by HY, with my translation of the lyrics.
曲がる腰 細い足 おばぁーの生きてきた証
その笑顔 その言葉 変わらぬものもある…
昔、昔に繋がる この命 大切に生きなさい
だから僕達は この歌にのせてさ 届けなきゃあなたへ
I heard the stories of long ago // Even loving freely was not allowed
Grandma married crying, crying // Having not told her beloved* of their parting
I heard the stories of long ago // Sparks fell like rain
Even so Grandma ran // Worried about the life of her beloved
Her bent back, her thin legs // The evidence that Grandma had lived [to the fullest] up to this point
That smile, those words // There were also things that never changed
Engrave it upon your heart // Your heartbeat [thinking of this]
This life, connected to long, long ago // Live with importance**
I heard the stories of long ago // She worked from the age of 14
Separated from family, living alone // In order to live without tears flowing
Telling of that time // I heard Grandpa’s stories
Even his wrinkled face // was filled with pride
His cheeks softly tell // Seeing warm tears, I thought
Someone has to tell it // We need to tell it
Family first // People of the past said
The phrase “Life is a Treasure” especially // is something that cannot be forgotten
Today one more // forgotten memory
Therefore we // placed into this song // that which must be conveyed, to you
I heard the stories of long ago // Next to Grandma who was laughing
The glistening tears of Grandpa // I discovered something for which there is no substitute
*Ano hito literally just means “that person,” but most often implies the idea of “his/her beloved”.
**Taisetsu ni, literally means something like “take it as important,” “treat it like it is important.” It’s one of my favorite phrases in Japanese that I wish we had something direct and easy for in English.
(I tried to put the lyrics & translation next to one another in columns, but it got too skinny and just didn’t look right. I hope this arrangement is to people’s liking…)