Ambiguous and connotative nature of the Japanese lyrics:
Language, imagination, and strategy．
Kami KARKI, Rebecca LEYDON, & Henri TERHO (eds): Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Popular Music Studies 20 Years Later. IASPM-Norden (Turku, Finland), pp.174-179.
Tokyo Keizai University
Ambiguous and connotative nature of the Japanese lyrics: Language, imagination, and strategy
Analysis on lyrics has been a basic part of the tradition of the popular music studies.
Focii of the discussion on lyrics have been put in varied ways. Although the methods and
approaches of analyses are still in challenging discussion, charm of understanding the
deeper implication of lyrics attracts larger attention from scholars interested in popular
music studies. Academic discussion on lyrics of Japanese popular songs has its own
substantial traditions, which has been scarcely presented in non-Japanese languages, and
thus hardly known by the rest of the world. The following discussion will present a brief
background explanation and an example of analytical readings upon the lyrics in Japanese
Do the audience understand the lyrics ?
Analyses on lyrics of popular songs have largely been carried out either by sociologists or
by Japanese literature scholars/critics, with some additional contributions from linguists,
musicologists, historians, geographers, etc. Among the sociologist tradition, the most
influential early work was Mita's look-over/pseudo-statistical analysis upon the hundreds of
modern Japanese popular songs since the late nineteenth century (Mita, 1978 [originally in
1967]). As the title of his book, "The History of Sentiment in Modern Japan", suggests,
Mita presumed that the lyrics of songs widely shared by the society should reflect the
sentiment of the people in the particular time of history. He neither gave sufficiently
critical discussion upon his presumption, nor tried intensive analysis on a particular song,
but his idea was largely welcomed, and many followers of his approach appeared later.
Mita's presumption is based on the belief that the audience should understand, or sense,
what those lyrics mean largely in the same way as the analysts do. This premise was
thoroughly refuted by Inamasu's elaborately designed experiments which proved most of
audience misunderstand or simply do not understand the story in the lyrics (Inamasu, 1984).
Inamasu showed that large portion of the audience fail to grasp the story told in the lyrics
of a song that was really popular at the time and played repeatedly in the experiment,
unless the audience were asked to concentrate on the lyrics.
After Inamasu's experiment, any presumption on the audience's understandings of the lyrics
seems too naive to be accepted among sociologists. While serious sociological discussion on
the lyrics has been stunned, some literature scholars/critics have activated discussion on
their own right. They introduced and applied varied methods in literary critique to the
analyses of the lyrics of contemporary popular songs. Their interests, however, are hardly
directed to the interaction between songwriters and audience.
The present author formerly tried to cast another light on the production/audience
interaction scheme not simply by reading the text of lyrics, but by speculating the
intentions or strategy of songwriters (Yamada, 1999). In the way of discussion over the
lyrics of the songs of 'globe', a Japanese group of three, preeminently successful in the
late 1990's, some interesting examples are found where the nature of Japanese language
affect the possible interpretations by the audience.
Some features of Japanese language
Before proceeding to sample examination, some features of Japanese language should be
explained. Since Japanese belongs to quite different language group from European languages
including English, a lot of features and functions usually shared by European languages are
not applicable or simply lacking in Japanese, and vice versa. For example, there is no
grammatical gender in Japanese. No declension of nouns or pronouns occurs, and cases are
shown by the postpositional particles, which are quite foreign to European languages. No
conjugation occurs with subject's person or singularity/plurality. And, more importantly,
subjects tend to be dropped. Sentences often appear without subject explicitly denoted in
In addition, personal pronouns are grammatically not well distinctive from ordinary nouns.
Varieties of "personal pronouns" exist, and the choice of terms often connotes gender and
other social relations between the speakers, audience, and the person referred. In other
words, there are dozens of "personal pronouns" for "I", and same is the way with "you", etc.
More practically, neglecting rare or old-fashioned "pronouns", there still are several quite
usual alternatives in reference to 'I', and the choice of certain "pronoun" connotes a lot
about the speaking/ writing person's attitudes towards the surrounding people, the
audience/readers of the text, and oneself. This choice may reflect gender, seniority,
intimacy, and other established or temporal social status between the speaker and other
people involved in the narrated story, between the speaker and the audience, and even
between those referred in the story and the audience.
"Can't Stop Fallin' in Love"(1997)
The sample lyrics being considered in this paper come from the song "Can't Stop Fallin' in
Love"(1997). This song roughly consists of five parts. The first part is the introduction,
with a rapping refrain by a male vocalist (Marc). This is followed by the main part of the
song that is sung by a female vocalist (Keiko). This part repeats the melody twice (first
and second verse). Keiko's vocal part is then followed by a longer rapping/singing section
that is sung by Marc (main rapper). Keiko then sings again, repeating the latter half of
the preceding melody (third verse). The last section involves Marc's rapping refrain, which
appeared in the introduction, though is now reprised with Keiko's additional high-tone
The chart shown is the first verse with transliteration (by the Hepburn system). It also
includes a word-to-word translation into English.
The verse suggests that this is a story about a triangular affair. Apparently, the
heroine's lover has a wife or a steady partner, who the lover was seeing well before he was
seeing the heroine, and who wears the ring of marriage or engagement. He usually took off
the ring when dating the heroine. Yesterday, the heroine ran into him and his partner arm
in arm. Today, he sent the message to her telling her he would be late for the date.
Though the appointment was arranged for his convenience, his excuse was that he had a
business assignment, which is very rare. Because the relationship is hidden, she can't tell
anyone about the affair, though she almost can't keep it just to herself. She wants to go
away with him somewhere. Her fingertips tremble in unstable situations. She cannot get
Can't Stop Fallin' in Love
Composed & Arranged by Tetsuya Komuro
Written by Tetsuya Komuro & MARC
[Only the first verse of main female vocal is presented.]
[Nouns either with or without postpositional particles, and equivalent to objective are
indicated with (O). Note some of them may differently explained as dative or locative.]
[Mostly, the second person appears as 'anata' with one exception of 'kimi', which is
indicated with asterisk as you*.]
itsumo-wa yubiwa-o hazushi-te-ita-no-ni
usually // ring (O) // put off // being..., but
doushi-te Kinou-wa ude-mo kunde-ita-no
why // (as for) yaesterday // (even) arm(s) // being arm in arm
anata-ga machiawase kimeta basho na-no-ni
you // appointment (O) // decide // place ..., but
kyou-wa hisashiburi shigoto-de okure-sou
(as for) today // after a long time // (because of) assignment // seem to be late
hito-ni-wa hanase-nai dareka-ni hanashi-tai
(to) others (O) // cannot tell // (to) someone (O) // want to tell
dokoka-ni iki-tai anata-to iki-tai
somewhere // want to go // with you // want to go
furueta yubisaki taisetsuna
trembling // fingertip // precious
omoide-ni shite-mo sore-ja kurase-nai
memory (O) // make..into // that way // cannot live on
odoru kimi-o mi-te koi-ga hajimat-te
dancing you* (O) // saw .. and then // love has started
anata-no kami-ni fure watashi-ga dekiru-koto
your hair (O) // touch // what I can do (O)
nan da-ka wakatta
what is // understood
The story told above is based on the first impression of the first two stanzas (or 8 lines)
of the female's lyrics. To hear such a story has become quite commonplace and the story
fits very well within our every day experience of our taken-for-granted world.
If you are keen to understand the lyrics, however, the following stanza should present some
bewilderment. There appears to be two different pronouns that both mean the second person,
namely 'kimi' and 'anata'. The latter pronoun has appeared earlier and apparently refers to
the heroine's lover mentioned in the preceding stanzas. Who could the former be then?
If this 'kimi' is identical with 'anata', it means that the heroine first fell in love with
her man dancing. It is unnatural for Japanese lyrics, however, to refer to the same person
with different pronouns. In the Japanese language, the choice of pronouns often suggests a
lot about the speaker's and the referred people's identities and their relationship. For
example, in many songs, especially in the Enka style songs, when 'anata' and 'omae' , both
are second person pronouns, appear together, the former should be the female speakers
reference to a male person, and vice versa. Using different pronouns in reference to the
same person is not the norm. It might be possible in some cases where the changing
relationship between the speaker and the referred person should be connoted, but such
interpretation seems hardly acceptable in this particular case.
If the first line of the stanza is a direct narration spoken by 'anata', the heroine's
lover, 'kimi' apparently is the heroine herself. He fell in love with her dancing. This
seems to be a more harmonious interpretation with the context of the preceding stanzas. The
difficulty is that hardly any other example of direct narration can be found in the lyrics
of globe songs. If this line is a direct narration, it is more natural for it to come with
an explanatory phrase that explains the audience who was speaking.
When 'kimi' is neither the heroine, nor her man, it should be another man. She should have
fallen in love again when she saw this new man dancing. This is not an interpretation that
is easily reached by the audience at first hand. Only after some bewildered moments, some
of the audience would realize this deeper connotation. Once the existence of the other man
is recognized, the earlier interpretation of the preceding stanzas should be revised. For
this revelation possibly provides an alternative reading of the story, that is, one then
presumes that it was she who frequently took off her ring, and it was she who was arm in arm
with her man etc.
As such, the first interpretation of the story and the deeper interpretation lead the lyrics
to completely different, and in a sense opposite, directions. Although they have a similar
structure, the lyrics that give contradictory leads are also seen in varied forms. The main
rapping part by Marc is nothing but a seduction, starting with lines that might roughly be
translated as "No moral, no rules. Nobody can control the instinct." This part suggests the
affairs of the heroine are quite sensual and physical. The following third verse, sung by
Keiko, presents a counter lead with lines like "(I've) kept this feeling warm quite a while,
failing to put in voices. (I'm) always satisfied just with seeing (your) smile." These
lines suggest that all the sensual matters were just imaginary turmoil in her mind. She may
be having no physical affair with anyone in fact, and the whole story could just be her
imagination or fantasy.
After following the contradictory leads to interpret this ambiguous story of triangular love
(the ambiguity enabling different interpretations) each listener (female in particular) can
choose whatever interpretation she (or he) sympathizes with. From the interpretation that
it is a fantasy, or that it is about platonic love, to the more mature interpretation that
it is about a woman having an affair with a family man, and finally to an interpretation
that it is about a girl playing with "boy friends" in plural, the audience can come to an
interpretation of the song that fits their own feeling about, and experience of, the real
world. For many people under the pressure of troubled love affairs, this is "My song".
The writer of this song, Tetsuya Komuro (a.k.a. TK), is the leader and keyboard player of
the group, and also is the producer. He composes all the melodies the group play, and also
writes lyrics for his melodies in most cases, with additional contributions from Marc, who
usually writes lines for rapper. TK's success as a producer is not limited to his own
group. He is also extremely successful as a producer of many other singers and groups,
including such names as Namie Amuro, Tomomi Kahala, and TRF. Total sales of what is called
the Komuro Family reached thirty million copies by 1999, and the figure is believed to have
been growing further.
For the producer of music commodities, the most important target in production of music is
the sales volume. Although there may be various strategies that can be used to achieve mass
sales, the most successful songs are often sung with sympathizing lyrics. These songs often
heard in pubs and party rooms with karaoke through the voices of the audience/consumers are
the most successful songs. Songwriters elaborate their lyrics to gain a larger range of
sympathy among the audience. Presenting a clear and single idea that can be shared among
the larger portion of the public could be one possible direction of such efforts. As seen
in the case of "Can't Stop Fallin' in Love", however, it is also possible to grasp the
hearts of many by presenting ambiguous, or even ambivalent, lyrics that may be interpreted
differently by different listeners. Good understanding on the lyrics is necessary. For the
further academic discussion, however, it is more important to understand the strategy of the
production side, producers, songwriters, performers, etc., and their manipulation on or
interaction with the audience.
(All titles are in Japanese, transliterated by the Hepburn system.)
INAMASU, Tatsuo (1984): Shakaiteki communication to shite no ongaku. MIZUHARA & TSUJI (eds)
"Communication no shakai shinrigaku", University of Tokyo Press, pp.147-168.
MITA, Munesuke (1978 [originally in 1967]): "Kindai nihon no sinjo no rekisi", Kodansha.
YAMADA, Harumichi (1999): globe: Komuro Tetsuya no kashi ga egakidasu sekai. Ongaku Kenkyu
(Kunitachi College of Music) 11, pp.113-128.
("Can't Stop Fallin' Love" appears in the following albums with just slightly varied
versions of lyrics printed in leaflets.)
GLOBE (1997): Faces Places. Avex Globe, AVCG-70002.
GLOBE (2000): Cruise Record 1995-2000. Avex Globe, AVCG-70006-7.
(For overview on TK's production works in his acme.)
V.A.(2000): Arigato 30 Million Copies -Best of TK Works-. Avex Trax, AVCD-11805-7.