A Nation of Singers

  • Peter Barakan


    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt


    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Hiroshi Watanabe

    Main guest

    A musicologist and professor at The University of Tokyo Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, Hiroshi Watanabe analyzes social change through the prism of music, and the influence that music exerts on the popular consciousness. In his recent work he has explored the cultural and emotional impact of Japan’s adoption of Western-style music education since the Meiji era (1868–1912).


September 1, 2016

A Nation of Singers

*You will leave the NHK website.

For most readers, when hearing “Japan” and “singing” in the same sentence, the first word that is likely to spring to mind is "karaoke."

Many will also be aware that, in contrast with karaoke’s position elsewhere in the world as a chance for people who are not professional (or even polished) singers to get up on stage and perform in front of a large group of people -- often in a venue such as a bar, hotel, or cruise ship -- these days the Japanese karaoke experience tends to involve smaller groups of friends or co-workers renting a private booth together in order to be free from the eyes (and ears) of outsiders.

But while such gatherings can get just as raucous as their Western equivalents, individual participants are generally given the space to sing their chosen songs solo (if they so wish). Even the shyest company employee will typically have at least one signature tune that they can perform with some confidence to impress their colleagues.

But in its most widely-practiced form, Japan’s love affair with song manifests itself as an even more communal experience: group choral singing.

While singing together at schools, sporting events, and other functions is certainly not a phenomenon that is unique to Japan, there is something characteristically orderly and rigorous about the Japanese approach. And as today’s guest, musicologist Hiroshi Watanabe, tells host Peter Barakan, singing is actually a key ingredient of the social glue in this country.

According to Prof. Watanabe, this tradition began in the Meiji era (1868–1912). This was a time when Japan was undergoing a period of rapid modernization following the end of samurai rule and centuries of national isolation, and music was seen by administrators and educators as a useful way to nurture positive traits as the nation moved forward.

However, much as many early Western observers found traditional Japanese music somewhat difficult to grasp, 19th-century Japanese audiences were initially puzzled by the newly imported foreign music. British Japanologist Basil Hall-Chamberlain (1850–1935) reported on one opera performance in Tokyo that the local concertgoers found hilariously funny.

During the Meiji Restoration, however, the latest science, clothing, arts, and other practices were enthusiastically adopted in Japan, and Western-style music quickly gained acceptance. It was soon introduced into school curricula, though with an emphasis on group singing rather than a study of music theory, instrumental technique, or composition.

Such ensemble singing was seen as a chance to foster literally harmonious group relations, and the lyrics of the songs themselves, specifically composed for choral rather than solo performance, often included valuable lessons about aspects of morality, history, geography, and even health and fitness.


Peter Barakan and Hiroshi Watanabe listen to some old instructional gramophone records.

This week’s show introduces a number of these edifying ditties. One, “Tetsudo shoka” (“The Railway Song”) is perhaps more actually described as a collection of songs, as it takes in six editions and 374 movements describing in minute detail the sights and souvenirs of Japan’s many regions. Viewers who want to bolster their geographical knowledge may like to attempt the first edition, which is available to sing in its entirety on some karaoke machines. Be warned though -- weighing in at over 15 minutes, it has a lot of lyrics to remember!

These days, as well as school songs that embody each institution’s ideals, there are official school choirs, and singing contests. In this week’s edition, we meet one group of junior-high school students who practice every weekday morning before lessons commence; again at lunchtimes; and two days a week after school, as well as regularly convening over the weekend.


Peter finds out just how much practice goes into this school choir’s note-perfect performances.


A love of singing is nurtured from an early age.

Away from schools, sporting events -- particularly baseball -- are another forum for enthusiastic group singing. Perhaps more unusual to many people around the world, though, is the Japanese tradition of the company song, which mirrors the thinking behind the school song with an emphasis on lyrics that convey a distinct identity and outlook.

Not all companies have such a clarion call of course, and even among those that do, recent years have seen moves towards less formal lyrics espousing messages that are perhaps more general in their positivity. Some of the earlier examples, however, were delightfully literal. Prof. Watanabe mentions one sock company whose song jumped right in with the opening line “We protect feet,” while the anthem of one firm famous for its soy sauce tells of creating “delicious memories.” Less singing for your supper, then, than singing about it!


Matt Alt finds out about Japan’s national anthem.


*You will leave the NHK website.