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Wartime Songs in Japan as "Merchandise"

Masanori TSUJITA

Researcher of modern history


■The Limits of the "Control from Above" Model

When we think about Japanese songs during the Pacific War, the image persists even today that, "songs were written and sung under government and military coercion," and were, "monotonous, slogan-filled military marches."

Unarguably, they did in fact have a repressive side. On the other hand, however, businesses (record companies, newspaper publishers, etc.) do devise plans to turn profits, creators (songwriters, composers, etc.) do create music to give full range to their talents, and―lest we not overlook another aspect―people do seek diversions and consume them.

The "control from above" historiographic model cannot adequately explain wartime songs. It minimizes the independence of businesses, creators, and the public. These groups were never mere puppets. That's exactly why a great variety records were produced.


■"Wartime Songs" since the Manchurian Incident

To begin with, in the 1930s, the record industry entered a period of intense competition with rivals vying for supremacy. Record labels such as Victor, Columbia, Polydor, King, and Teichiku, emerged and honed their products through friendly competition as they all tried to produce hit songs. That’s why so many topical themes were quickly picked up by each company.

The Manchurian Incident that broke out in September 1931 was no exception. As the record companies developed, they released more and more topical music. In the sense that both ero-kayo (erotic songs), which sung of erotic, grotesque, and nonsensical, and the jikyoku-kayo (wartime songs) which sung of military clashes, were products that met the demands of the populace side by side.

It is certainly true that when the Sino-Japanese War began in July 1937, the Cabinet Information Board and the Army and Navy contributed to countless songs’ promotion, endorsement, and support but these would account for just a few of the hundreds of new songs that came out every month.

Nor did businesses and creators lose their independence in the early days of the Asia-Pacific War, as well. With Japan’s easy and exhilarating successes early in the wars, record labels took the opportunity to release jikyoku-kayo celebrating prosperous times. The momentum of the jikyoku-kayo would visibly wane after the record production faltered with the deterioration of the state of the war.


■Categorizing Music into Genres

To conclude my introduction, I would like to add a word or two about the classification of music into genres. Records of the time came labeled with genres. Contemporary topical music might include gunka (military marches), aikokuka (patriotic songs), kokuminka (national songs), jikyokuka (wartime songs), or gunkokukayo (military state songs) among others.

Indeed no such clear distinctions could be found. The very same song could even be turned from a gunka (military march) into a popular song or a children’s song, depending on the singer and the arrangement. This, perhaps, is only natural in view of the fact that these labels were product descriptions―not academic classifications. It is worth noting that such genre distinctions were one aspect of the product.

English version released on March 18, 2021.

1. Aikokuka: Nikudan Sanyushi no Uta (Patriotic song: The Ballad of The Three Brave Human-Bullet Soldiers) (1) / Chikara Nakano (lyricist), Kosaku Yamada (composer, arranger), Bunya Ko – Nippon Columbia Chorus (singers) / Columbia, March 1932.

Kosaku Yamada

Kosaku Yamada
(The Ladies’ Graphic, Volume 3, No.2
February 1926)

In February 1932, it was reported that three military engineers blew themselves up, allowing their comrades to breach the enemy in Miaohangzhen, a northern suburb of Shanghai. They were extolled as "The Three Brave Human-Bullet Soldiers" or as "The Three Brave Human-Bombs" and were turned into national heroes overnight. Taking advantage of this national fervor, each newspaper and record company planned to create songs about the "Three Brave Heroes." The most successful of these was Nikudan Sanyushi no Uta (The Ballad of The Three Brave Human-Bullet Soldiers) by the Asahi Shimbun (formerly, the Osaka Asahi Shimbun and Tokyo Asahi Shimbun). The poem elected for first prize out of 124, 561 submissions was later musically arranged by none other than the great Kosaku Yamada.

2. Ryukoka: Boku Ondo (Popular song: Air Defense Swing) / Kazuo Ito (lyricist), Nosho Omura (composer, arranger), Otomaru (singer), Toyokichi and Suzumatsu (Shamisen) / Columbia, July 1936.

"Tokyo Ondo" (The Tokyo Swing), which is still commonly used in the Bon Festival Dance, was released in 1933. The following year, competition among the record companies also produced the "Sakura Ondo" (Cherry Blossom Swing). As this illustrates, ondo were hot-selling products at the time. Because songs could be made by simply adding the suffix "ondo" to the title, numerous contemporary topical songs were made, such as the "Bocho Ondo" (The Counter Espionage Swing), the "Manshu Ondo" (The Manchuria Swing), and the "Kenkoku Ondo" (The Nation-Building Swing), among others. One such example is the "Boku Ondo" which enlightened the public to be more mindful of air defense. With the standard rhythm "do-don-ga-don" representing the report of anti-aircraft guns and the lyrics detailing the downing of enemy aircraft, the "Boku Ondo" may be unsettling, but is well-conceived, nonetheless.

3. Revue Theme Song: Soretsu Kishi Chui no Uta (The Song of Heroic Lieutenant Kishi) / Keiichi Unno (lyricist), Masayuki Iwagochi (composer), Kuniko Ashihara and Shoko Tsukikage (singers), Takenosuke Matsuo (conductor), Takarazuka Orchestra (musical accompaniment) / Victor, December 1937.

Kuniko Ashihara

Kuniko Ashihara
A still from a public performance of the "Nanjing Bombing Corps."
for the Military Nation Revue at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater in November 1937.
(Image from Hasegawa Kiyoshi kankei bunsho [Documents related to Kiyoshi Hasegawa])

This is the theme song of the "Nanjing Bombing Corps." (Nankin bakugekitai) for the Military Nation Revue (Gunkoku rebyuu) at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater. The Lieutenant Kishi in this song died in battle during the Shanghai Incident in World War II and refers to the real-life Kingo Kishi of the Shanghai Special Naval Landing Party. One soldier from the Military Affairs Promotion Department of the Japanese Imperial Navy (the department responsible for Navy propaganda) by the name of Keizo Matsushima was well-versed in culture and was so smitten by girl’s operas that he was driven to write them himself. The name of the lyricist cited on the label, Keiichi Unno, is Keizo Matsushima’s pen name. Victor Company of Japan emblazoned its new song guide with the words, "A Must-Listen Deluxe Edition for Takarazuka Fans and Ashihara Fans!" This record capitalized on the popularity of Kuniko Ashihara, who was known as the beauty dressed in men’s clothing.

4. Aikokuka: Zoku Roei no Uta (Patriotic song: Sequel to Song of Encampment)/ Sonosuke Sato (lyricist), Yuji Koseki (composer), Teikichi Okuyama (arranger), Noboru Kirishima and Hisao Ito (singers) / Columbia, October 1938.

Yuji Koseki

Yuji Koseki
(Ongaku Chishiki [Music Knowledge, Journal], Volume 2, No.10
October 1944)

At the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War, "Gunka: Roei no Uta" (Military march: Song of Encampment) was created as a project of the Mainichi Shimbun Newspapers, Co. (At that time, the Osaka Mainichi Shimbun and the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun) and became an overnight hit. In response to this, all sorts of arrangements were produced, including "shonen gunka: Roei no Uta" (boy’s military march:Song of Encampment) sung by a children’s choir, and "Popular song: Roei no Uta" sung by former geisha-turned singers, among others. As its name suggests "Zoku Roei no Uta" (Sequel to Song of Encampment) aims to be a part two to "Roei no Uta." "It didn’t end up becoming a big hit," according to its composer, Yuji Koseki(1), but it demonstrated the aggressive business-mindedness of the record company.

5. Kokuminka: Tairiku Koshinkyoku (National song: The Continent March) / Tsuyoshi Torigoe (lyricist), Chushi Haken Gun Rikugun Gungakutai (Central China Expeditionary Force Army Military Band) (composer), Tamaki Tokuyama, Yoshiharu Hisatomi, Soichiro Namioka, Victor Company of Japan Men’s Chorus (singers), Victor Company of Japan Brass Band (musical accompaniment) / Victor, November 1938.

Tsuyoshi Torigoe

Tsuyoshi Torigoe
(Gunyoken [Military Dog]. Volume 6, Number 1, January 1937)

In this record, as well, The Mainichi Shimbun held a contest to solicit contributions from the public for the lyrics. As with many such contests, a large prize fund was put up for the winner. As a result, there were "regular contributors" who repeatedly applied in the hope of winning prizes or acquiring fame. The lyricist Tsuyoshi Torigoe (an instructor at the Takamatsu Commercial High School) was one of these, and his name lives on in many public song contests here and there. This is evidence that consumers were not merely passive participants, either.

6. Kokuminka: Senjinkun no uta (National song: The [Imperial Japanese Army] Field Service Code Song)/ Saburo Umeki (lyricist), Yosaku Suma (composer), Eiichi Yamada (arranger), Tamaki Tokuyama (singer), Victor Orchestra (musical accompaniment) / Victor, March 1941.

In January 1941, Minister of the Imperial Japanese Army Hideki Tojo issued the Senjinkun (The [Imperial Japanese Army] Field Service Code). Victor Company of Japan planned to make a song out of The Field Service Code and produced "Senjinkun no uta" (The Field Service Code Song). Before the company released it, however, they were said to have waited as, "it would be wrong for just a single company to release such a public message on its own."(2) Ultimately, versions of "Senjinkun no uta" were also made by Columbia, King, and Teichiku record companies. The biggest hit among them, of course, would prove to be this Victor version.

7. Kokuminka: Shingaporu kanraku no uta (National Song: Song of the Fall of Singapore) / Kihachi Ozaki (lyricist), Zenji Fukami (composer and arranger), Soichiro Namioka, Minoru Obata, Kachidoki dansei gasshodan (Victory Cry Men’s Chorus) (singers), Victor Orchestra (musical accompaniment)/ Victor, March 1942.

Tetsuo Maruyama

Tetsuo Maruyama
(Hoso Bunka [Broadcast Culture]),
Volume 10, No.8 August 1955)

Tetsuo Maruyama, who worked for the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), sarcastically wrote, "They were eagerly waiting Singapore to fall so they could sell this song,"(3) in the March 1942 issue of Rekodo bunka (Record Culture). This was in response to the fact that record companies released a series of commemorative songs following the fall of Singapore on the 15th of the previous month. Maruyama was generally quite critical of merchandise that took advantage of the popularity of the jikyokuka, but in the case of "Song of the Fall of Singapore," he gave rare high praise, extolling it as, "succeeding as a powerful song, boldly underlining the fall of Singapore."

*Record release months and other related data cited are taken from "The Historical Recordings Collection" database of The National Diet Library. The only provision is that the genres for each recording have been added.

(References Cited)

  1. Koseki, Yuji. Kane yo narihibike (Let the Bells Toll). Tokyo. Nihon Tosho Center. 1997, 296p.
  2. Kurosaki, Teijiro. Ai yori aoki (Bluer Than Indigo). (Foundation) Nijuisseki shuppan no kai, 1975, 301p.
  3. Maruyama, Tetsuo. Kayokyoku (The Popular Song). Rekodo Bunka (Record Culture), 1942, 2(3), p. 72-75.

(Reference Bibliography)

  • ・Tsujita, Masanori. Nihon no gunka: kokuminteki ongaku no rekishi (Japanese Military Marches: A History of National Music) Tokyo: Gentosha, 2014. 274p.

(Masanori TSUJITA, Researcher of modern history)

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