Four years ago, I took a break from history and linguistics to do a two-part series called the Top 10 Japanese Songs of Summer. The posts had links to YouTube videos that have long since been taken down[i]. But in four years a lot can change… and a lot can stay the same. Flavors of the month will come and go, but some timeless songs that celebrate the season may never change. In that spirit, I thought I’d make a new list of some of my favorite Japanese songs. There are some from the old list[ii], as well as some new additions. Also, there’s no particular order here, just a smattering of fun music to help you beat the heat and humidity.
I suggest just going to the videos to listen to the music, but if you’re into reading and stuff, there’s a little text accompanying each entry.
This traditional song and its lively dance became popular in the early Edo Period in Tokushima Prefecture. After WWII, it became a nationwide phenomenon as areas hit hard by the war turned towards 夏祭 natsuri matsuri summer festivals as a way to revitalize local business and tourism, as well as boost a sense of civic pride. In the case of Tōkyō, which had expanded massively after the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake and the firebombing in 1945, urban sprawl meant building new neighborhoods which had no connection to ancient history or powerful shrines and temples. Many such neighborhoods invited teams of dancers to perform the Awa Dance to the tune of Awa Yoshikono. Since then, the sounds, styles, and atmosphere of this frenetic music has become synonymous with Japanese summer. To me, cicadas and Awa Yoshikono are the official soundtrack of the season.
Denpagumi Inc are a six-membe female idol group developed in the heart of Akihabara. They developed a devoted fan base in their early days, but exploded into the mainstream in 2015-2016. And when I say mainstream, I mean… well, I’m not sure what I mean. They’re goofy, nerdy[iii], cute, awkward, “accidentally sexy,” and quintessentially Japanese. Well, not just Japanese. They’re quintessentially Tōkyō, to the point that they were[iv] the official idol group of Tōkyō Metropolis for domestic tourism. Their 2015 video Otsukare Samā is a play on words that toys with the phrase お疲れ様 o-tsukare-sama “thanks for all your hard work” – a throw away phrase people use when you finish work or some task. The lyrics have tons of twists of phrases that are great for anyone learning Japanese. But I love this video because each member becomes an iconic part of the city. Areas represented are Odaiba, Asakusa, Ameyoko-chō, Ueno, Tōkyō Tower, Ginza, Harajuku, Takeshita Street, and Shinabashi. In keeping with the theme of Tōkyō summer, you’ll see fireworks, ukiyo-e references, yukata, rickshaws, a jet ski ride around Tōkyō Bay featuring all the prominent buildings, and discovering you’ve won a prize after eating a popsicle on a stick. Other cultural references are terms like リア充 ria-jū actually going out rather than living online at home, using the LINE app to chat with friends, waving towels (something done by fans when the Tōkyō Giants score a run), and of course, Mt. Fuji and Hachikō. There’s so much crammed into this song and video.
Some of you may already know, but baseball is huuuuuge in Japan. And while most people in the world think of baseball as an American sport, the Japanese took to the game like a fish to water. If sumō is the national sport of Japan, baseball is a close second. Tōkyō Giants’ shortstop and All Star player, Sakamoto Hayato, has this song played in the stadium when he’s up at bat. Total summer classic.
Interestingly, GReeen could have used kanji for the title of the song, which would have made the meaning clear, but they didn’t. Instead, they spelled the word out phonetically in katakana. As such, the meaning is unclear. Just have a look, all of these can be read as “kiseki”:
- 奇跡・奇蹟 miracle, wonder
- 軌跡 traces of the past, path taken
- 貴石 foundation
- 奇石 rare stone
- 貴石 gem, jewel
- 鬼籍 list of dead people bound for hell (rather than reincarnation)
(Pretty sure GReeen was all about the dead people ferried off to hell[v])
Not sure what to say about these girls. They covered an old pop song called Natsu Matsuri (Summer Festival) in August 2000 and from that day forward, that single was not only the definitive version of that song, it was also their biggest hit and made the name Whiteberry synonymous with summer. In the video, they wear yukata… but like mini-skirt yukata… while they’re rocking out on their instruments.
At any beach or outdoors area with streaming music, you’re bound to hear this classic in the background. And if you go to karaoke in Japan, there’s a good chance you’ll hear it emanating from a room almost all year long[vi].
The title means Goldfish Fireworks and you probably already know, Japanese summer is all about festivals and fireworks. This tradition came about in the peace of the Edo Period when people had more leisure time. Because cities were made of wood, the Tokugawa Shōgunate and other local governments restricted fireworks to open spaces like rivers and lakes[vii] to prevent horrific conflagrations. Goldfish are a common prize at summer festivals and traditional decoration for yukata. The image of fireworks, water, and goldfish are highly evocative of summer.
Shimanchu nu Takara
The title is not Japanese, it’s Okinawan, a language related to Japanese. Before being annexed by the Japanese Empire, Okinawa was known as the Ryūkyū Kingdom – a culturally and linguistically distinct country with close ties to Taiwan, China, and Japan. Although the main language is now Japanese and the islands are fully integrated as a prefecture and operate within the administrative framework laid out in the post-WWII Japanese Constitution, Okinawa is still very unique, very proud, and pretty much summer all year long. Wubba lubba dub dub!
I’ll put it like this, if anyone in modern Japan knows how to do summer, it’s the Okinawans. Begin released this song, which means “Treasure of the Islanders[viii],” in 2002 and to this day it serves as a kind of pop anthem for natives of the Okinawan islands. The song features Okinawan instruments, some Okinawan words, and most recognizably, call and response phrases ripped straight from traditional Okinawan festival dances that are still performed today.
So, while we’re on the topic of traditional Okinawan dance, I’d be a dumbass if I didn’t bring up Eisā, the traditional summer music of Okinawa. I’m not an expert on Okinawa. In fact, I know very little about it, to be completely honest, but no matter what the roots of Eisā are, no one can argue that after the first Japanese tourism boom that occurred after WWII, all kinds of local dance forms began gaining notoriety in Japan. After the Bubble Economy, and Japanese tourists began looking for domestic options, Okinawa was seen as a particularly exotic destination. You could speak Japanese, but visit a beautiful island with a distinct cultural tradition and people who looked kinda different and ate different food. It’s at this time that this unique music and dance found popularity in Tōkyō.
Sure, many Okinawans came to the capital for work, but with abundance and variety of summer festivals to choose from in Tōkyō, Okinawa’s impressive Eisā became a niche selling point for secular neighborhood festivals. In particular, Shinjuku Ward and Nakano Ward embraced this combative and lively music that features aggressive drumming and exotic instruments and refrains from the southern islands.
By the way, the video I shared was shot at the Shinjuku Eisā Festival[ix] and features the Nakano Group, which is made up of Okinawans living in Nakano and other locals who love this music. I used to live in Nakano, so I may be biased, but the Nakano Group is the best. Seriously. They rock it every time.
Thanks for Reading. The Article is Finished.
But if you’re still reading, you may remember our second video, which was by Dempagumi.
Recently, Dempagumi fans were dealt a big blow. On August 6th, 2017 最上もが Mogami Moga retired from the unit[x]. While the six core members achieved success as idols, on the side, Moga skyrocketed into stardom as a gravure idol – essentially, a bikini and lingerie model. This brought a lot of positive attention to the group from 2014-2016. Her departure from the group seems to be a desire to switch from Akihabara Idol to serious actress.
I’ll just say this outright, I’m not a huge fan of Dempagumi, but I really appreciate what they do. I’ve even seen them live… and it was so much fun.
So, I’m linking two more videos to this post. Why? Because Dempagumi is about as summer as you can get. They’re also the idol queens of Japan[xi]. If you enjoy Japanese culture and the songs you’ve heard up until now, give these last two a listen.
Not Bocchi… Summer (Not Alone… Summer)
This is another summer classic by Dempagumi.
Ikiru Basho Nante Doko ni mo Nakatta
The first time I saw Dempagumi live they opened with this song. The big crowd pleaser was the intro:
Mirin! Risa! Nemu! Ei! Moga! Pinky!
Now that Moga is gone, who knows what will happen to the group. All I know is, I’m happy they left us with some crazy summer music and I’m happy I got to see them live.
Two Sections ago I Said the Article was Done.
But thanks for sticking around to the very end. It’s like watching a movie’s credits until the theater lights come on. If you like what I do, then please leave a comment or question below and lets get a little conversation going. And as always, share with your friends.
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[i] Japanese record companies – Avex, in particular – are really uptight and regressive when it comes to posting music YouTube. While they promote upcoming acts online with full videos, videos by older acts are taken down and replaced with official videos that are nothing more than short clips.
[ii] Some were cut simply because Japanese record companies had the full versions removed because they’re jerks.
[iii] All members claim to be certified ｵﾀｸ otaku geeks.
[iv] Not sure if they still are, but they were for a while.
[v] Of course, I’m joking, but actually, Japanese summer has a lot of connections with death. It’s when the Buddhist season of お盆 O-bon occurs. This is when deceased ancestors return to the main family’s house. It’s also when living family members return to the family graves to clean and maintain them. It’s also when family and friends used to sit around a candle in a dark room and try to tell 100 ghost stories before the candle burnt out.
[vi] No joke. I’ve heard it in the dead of winter. That’s how good the song is.
[vii] And today, bays.
[viii] Which really means “Treasure of the Okinawan People.”
[ix] Which happens every year…
[x] In Japanese, they use the euphemism 卒業 sotsugyō graduate. By fans she was known as もがちゃん Moga-chan, もがたん Moga-tan, or もがたんぺ Moga-tanpe.
[xi] Normally, I’d say Perfume were the idol queens of Japan, but they’ve matured… and matured well. They’re still idols, but there’s no excitement around what they’ll do next.