Can Japanese Music Transcend Language Barriers?

The popularity of foreign music in the West is ever on the rise. More specifically, K-pop is making waves so prominent that it’s charting worldwide. Look no further than BLACKPINK being listed on the second line of Coachella’s 2019 line-up and Perfume’s inclusion at the same festival (though they’re unjustly buried in the middle of their day). Despite most fans outside of these artists’ countries not speaking the language, they find mass appeal nonetheless. Including with me.

Japanese music makes up a lot of my listening habits. If I were to make a list of my most listened to artists, Sakanaction, Perfume, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and BiSH would surely rank high. These acts elicit a greater level of fandom from me than many of the English-speaking artists I listen to. Translations of their songs are generally widely available online but even so I couldn’t tell you what some of my favorite songs are about. Yet I still consider them favorites. Why is this? Am I enjoying them only on a superficial level? Is the universal language of music truly universal, free from the barrier of language?

These questions are something I can’t help but think about whenever jamming music of a language I don’t understand. But before I address my connection to the songs I’ve heard many times, let’s explore a song I heard for the first time today.

Aimyon – “She was alive” (Thanks to @korigaming for sharing the song/lyrics and translating the title. It’s worth noting that this is an approximate translation as the exact phrase doesn’t translate perfectly.)

 

This stripped-down rendition of “She was alive” lacks the explosive guitar-led refrains of the original but in my opinion better represents the subject matter. However, that preference is entirely a byproduct of hindsight. The original’s big instrumentation is more immediately appealing through its larger repertoire of sounds, especially true for those who aren’t privy to the meaning of the words. By contrast, the acoustic cut puts an emphasis on the lyrics. We can gleam Aimyon’s emotional through-line through the tone of her voice. Her monotone, plainspeak delivery during the verses expresses that her message is not so much meant to be poetic as it is direct. The contrast of the sung choruses against the verses portrays the melancholy underlying her contemplations. But what is she contemplating, exactly? We can only guess until reading a translation of the lyrics.

It turns out that Aimyon’s recounting a schoolgirl’s suicide and how it was glorified by the public. How this girl’s life and suffering were never considered in lieu of sensationalism, and the sadness Aimyon felt as she watched it happen. It’s powerful stuff. From my perspective, one couldn’t appreciate this song without understanding its lyrical contents. But even in reading a translation, meaning is inevitably lost. No translation can be exact. Japanese is a language predicated on relaying meaning through expression/metaphor rather than exactness and because of that difference our understanding can only be an approximation. And to take this even further, a foreigner with some level of fluency in Japanese may still have trouble extrapolating the inherent cultural quirks of language without living within said culture. And to take this further once more, even when we know the translation it’s still guesswork to figure out what words and emphases line up. While there’s still a ton of value in translation, it’s near-impossible not to lose nuances in the process. We can only understand to a degree (even though such a degree is often enough to derive meaning regardless).

But what of the Japanese music I listen to regularly? What drives me to listen ad-nauseam to the same albums and songs by groups I’ve come to adore if some meaning is lost on me? My reasoning may ring contradictory but it’s because music is a universal language.

While the lyrics of the groups I listen to regularly (sans Sakanaction) tend to be far less complex than those of Aimyon, it’s still entirely true that without understanding lyrics you’re not experiencing the entirety of the music. But–as I’d also say about (particularly the original version of) “She was alive”— expression comes through in musicality. What typically draws a listener to the type of music they enjoy is what it sounds like more than what it says.

BiSH strikes a rock/pop fusion and no-hecks-given attitude uncommon amongst idol groups. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a hallmark example of bubbly J-pop. Perfume takes that same appeal and combines it with high-production techno music. Sakanaction (the only band of this group) incorporates many diverse sounds into a melting pot of genres that leaves them without an exact point of comparison. And this doesn’t even begin to mention other groups that bring unique flavors into my listening repertoire, such as the aggressive noise rock of Melt-Banana (ok, their lyrics are in English but they’re so difficult to distinguish that they might as well be in Japanese). Each of these is offering me an aesthetic not found in Western music. Don’t get me wrong, I value lyrics highly. I’m lucky there’s a blog that has translated every one of Sakanaction’s songs. But when I’m casually listening to the music it’s enjoyable mostly on a visceral level. I can feel the emotion coming through the instrumentation and vocal delivery, even if I’m understanding a small fraction of the words with my extremely limited Japanese vocabulary. Even when I’ve read what a song is about, I not remembering the line-to-line lyrics. The greatest meaning I can assign is thus what the music evokes within me.

This leads me to two more points on the concept of aesthetic. First is how the language can become an instrument in and of itself. When playing music from these artists back in my head, I can hear the vocals. I’ve listened to these songs so many times that I can probably recount the enunciations with some sort of literal accuracy. They appear to me as distinct shapes, along the same lines as a drum pattern or synth texture would. I’d posit that listening to music in a foreign language is akin to listening to instrumental electronic music, the emphasis being on the sound of vocals being part of said instrumental rather than lyrics. I want to stress that I don’t believe this to be an optimal way of viewing any music as a work; the lyrics are an absolutely vital element if you want true understanding. But just by the nature of how we intake information, this contextualization of sounds is the way our brains process verbalizations we can’t understand.

Yet perhaps the most prominent aspect of aesthetic that has led to the popularity of Asian music overseas is what we see. For idol groups, it’s good-looking girls and boys who sing and dance in perfect synchronicity. It’s the culture they exude and the personalities they exhibit on social media. Image is of course important to the appeal of all artists anywhere but a heightened emphasis is placed on it when other elements of the art are more difficultly deciphered. Our want to engage thus hinders on the appeal (or lack thereof) of the projected image. Would K-pop have blown up outside of Korea if not for the bombastic live performances, hyper-personal social media engagement, cross-group narratives and so on? I’d be hard pressed to believe they’d even be popular in their native country if those elements were absent.

And thus I come to the conclusion that image is the way that music crosses the language barrier. The music is a part of that image but there’s a reason why groups that rely less on lyrical meaning are the ones to gain popularity. To echo a sentiment shared by @korigaming on Twitter, despite Aimyon’s massive popularity in Japan she doesn’t have an English Wikipedia page. Meanwhile, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu–who gained international notoriety for her oddball viral music videos– has a page filled with extensive detail with an acute focus on her persona and fashion. For the same reason that an article paired with a face will get more clicks, the entertainment industry knows that selling human relatability is everything and when it comes to marketing overseas, the bolder up-front image will prevail.

But at the same time it’s more than that. Be it that we just enjoy the instrumentation, find appeal in the image or are delving into lyrical meaning, the through-line is that we’re interacting in a way that resonates with us. There’s no wrong way to enjoy music; you like what you like, and people will assuredly like the same thing for very different reasons. This is especially true for music of a different language than one speaks. As such, music absolutely transcends any “barriers” in its path because it’s not about the elements comprising the music, it’s about us.


To close, let me show you an example of a song I believe speaks across language barriers on three levels: instrumentally, lyrical, and visually. The composition expresses a sense of forlorn, the lyrics emphasize that sense with vivid imagery (which, you’ll notice, is an approximation of metaphor), and the monochrome imagery gives a face to the sound, that important human touch. Each element works independently as well as in tandem to invoke an emotional response and personal meaning despite being sang in another language, and no matter from which angle you appreciate it.

Sakanaction – “Sayonara wa Emotion” (Click the title for lyrics)

9 thoughts on “Can Japanese Music Transcend Language Barriers?

    1. That’s a good point of comparison! Here’s my take:

      I think that the idea of “vocals being a part of the instrumentation” applies in both places, even if I don’t feel entirely comfortable drawing the comparison since another language isn’t gibberish and I think actual language has a certain shape and beauty through structure that gibberish doesn’t necessary. Not to say gibberish can’t be art, it just takes a different form.

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  1. This post got me thinking, but I don’t think I can add much to the argument because I don’t really listen to songs in languages I don’t at least sort of understand.

    Recently, I developed an attachment to the song “Haru to Shura” (https://youtu.be/BVf41DSaLe0) because of a particular line that translates to “even if I die, my life won’t disappear,” only to find that the blogger who introduced the song to me doesn’t know any Japanese and still found it “overwhelming”!

    I think I can never bear listening to a song I love without knowing the meaning behind its lyrics and wanting to learn to sing it. Music can transcend language barriers, but there’s always still that feeling of missing out if you don’t know the language!

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    1. I think an interesting comparison would be Credens Justitiam vs Mirai, since the melody is the same, but one is Latin-sounding gibberish while the other is Jpop. Granted, the difference in arrangement probably also contributes to the different feel

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      1. True, true. And Kajiura’s “gibberish” might honestly be better than her mediocre lyrics (though I did like some lines in Mirai). I liked the Kajiura-go version of “Snow is Falling” more than the boring lyrics about snow in “Snow Falling” too.

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  2. As someone who has a favourite album that consists of rambly, nonsensical vocals that don’t make sense but probably have some underlying message behind them, I can completely get behind what you’re saying here.

    Lyrics can be important, but the sound of the vocals themselves in conjunction with the instrumentation can make something just as emotionally moving and listenable, even if you don’t know what’s being said or what it means.

    Not entirely what you’re getting at obviously, but I can relate either way!

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  3. So, if you look at my top 25 most played tracks as iTunes tracks them, there is not a single English language song there. All of them are Japanese. My most-played song (the Punchline ED) sits at 417 plays—the first Korean song is at 150 plays, with my most-played English song right behind it at 149. So, fair to say, Japanese music also makes up a great deal of my own music-listening habits.

    To be honest, I’ve not ever really considered the lyrical aspect of things in as much depth as you, though. There are a good number of songs which I’ve read the lyrics of enough times to know pretty much what is being said, and many more that I have a basic idea of the lyrical message. But mostly I just listen (and sing along—it’s surprising how adept your brain can get a parsing Japanese syllables and words, even if you don’t know their meanings!). In concert with that, language as part of the instrumentation is a point taken with much approval from me, as I think there’s actually an element of the sounds being familiar, but not always having specific meaning, that allows them to become more musical and less textual.

    Frankly, I don’t know how much I personally value lyrics as text even when I do understand them, as there aren’t really that many English songs for which I value the lyrics in any particular way. Some, but not many. Heck, I probably go more meaning out of fhana’s use of the phrase “Que sera sera” in their ED for The Eccentric Family’s first season than I have out of dozens of English songs.

    So to answer your title question, for me at least the answer is yes. And if the music works for you on a musical level, that opens the door for you to begin to explore it lyrically, contextually (as you did with the Aimyon song), and in other ways as well. That said, I’m not sure I fully buy into the idea of “image” being the key trait of cross-cultural transference. I suspect it might be true on a macro level, but not on an individual one.

    (Incidentally, after all this, it’s interesting to me that while the acoustic version of Aimyon’s “She was alive” probably fits the lyrics best, the visuals of the original’s music video are very powerful on their own terms, even more so than the MV for the acoustic version. So maybe the definitive version of the song in MV form is the acoustic track over the original MV…)

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    1. For me, I think a basic understanding of the thematic content is often enough for the performance of the vocals to carry weight. You can feel the emotion, even if you can’t understand its minutiae on a literal level from the outset. But even then, a good singer will also have those minutiae slip through via the performance. That’s definitely the case with a group like Sakanaction for me, but in the case of Perfume the lyrics are set dressing for Nakata’s production and the harmonized vocals are truly a musical layer, I’d suspect even if you knew the Japanese fluently. And to your point about Japanese songs being lyrically more poignant than English songs in many cases, one like “Chocolate Disco” feels special simply because of the quirky English pronunciation. That’s a really good point.

      The importance of image will definitely differ for different people, but I see image as part and parcel of all art. It’s something I might write upon further soon, actually (it’s been a discussion that’s come up a few times in the Anitwitter music discord server as of late). For me, a group like BiSH has great music/production but the personality behind each voice drives the affection I feel to them when listening. Which is the bread and butter of the idol industry as a whole. It matters more for groups of that ilk than others but for me, I always picture a singer/group performing in my head when I’m listening to the music and that association is an inseparable part of the experience. I also think the art we choose to engage with (and the enjoyment we choose/don’t choose to outwardly express) is in and of itself image. But I can also understand how that’s less prominent for some than others… I just think it’s inescapable.

      And… Punchline, that’s a show I haven’t thought about in some time!

      Thanks for the really great comment ^^

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