The Evolution of Japanese Text Setting in Western Idioms

Conference paper abstract

As the Japanese language has completely different syntax, vocabulary, accent patterns, and sounds from European languages, setting Western musical genres in Japanese text is not a simple translation exercise but requires consideration of phrase length, melody, rhythm, and semantics. In European languages, stress accents are often set on strong beats and higher, longer pitches. Japanese lacks stress accents; instead, each mora, or shortest prosodic unit, is spoken with the same duration. This characteristic results in a series of equally timed notes, which many composers try to vary but heavy metal artists exaggerate to simulate a machine-gun-like sound. Traditional Japanese music deals with these rhythmic issues through free rhythm, melismatic singing, and heterophony, which are often not compatible with most Western genres. Furthermore, Japanese contains pitch accents; if the melody veers too far from them, it can render the words not only awkward to sing but also unintelligible, given the large number of homonyms. When the linguist Kindaichi first heard the wartime song “Uta de yamaji no,” he mistook it for “Singing a song as I walked along the mountain path” rather than the text, “We will not stop fighting until we win,” because the composer had set the wrong morae on higher pitches.

While the impact of linguistics on traditional Japanese music has been studied by Takahashi (1932), Bekku (1977), and Koizumi (1980), there are far fewer studies on the impact of Japanese text on Western musical genres; most studies are historical (e.g., Eppstein and Miller on school songs) or ethnographic.

This paper will trace the establishment of Japanese songwriting practice in Western idioms in the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-26) periods. Christian missionaries arrived shortly after Commodore Perry, encouraging congregations to sing hymns in hastily translated Japanese. Similarly, when the Ministry of Education decided to educate Japanese schoolchildren in Western music, Scottish, German, and American songs were sung in translation. These hymns and school songs paid little heed to linguistic features, going against the natural pitch accents of the language. By the early 1900s, several Japanese musicians, most notably Yamada Kōsaku, had received musical instruction in Germany. Yamada set forth the practice of reflecting the natural pitch accent of the Japanese language in its melodic and rhythmic setting, following it to such an extreme that his songs often changed meter to accommodate the 7-5 mora structure of many Japanese texts (“Karatachi no Hana” and “Kono Michi”). Yamada used German Lied as his model, quoting Schumann in “Akatonbo,” despite the stark difference in the structure of the language to Japanese.

This text-setting style remained dominant until the rock era, which stimulated new debates about the suitability of Japanese in Western-style music. New methods of setting text to syncopations were developed by Happy End and Southern All Stars. The paper concludes with a consideration of measures taken by Japanese rappers, who not only had to contend with rhythmic issues but also invented ways to rhyme.

Noriko Manabe Contact nmanabe at gc dot cuny dot edu