Songs From Another World
When I finally got my driver’s license in my early 20s and drove my mother’s bright red Seat Ibiza through the streets of my hometown, which was buttoned up to the top, crisscrossing back and forth, there was no hip hop, no techno, and no Britney Spears blaring from my speakers. No. It was the then-new single by a Japanese pop musician.
Kumi Koda was her name. Butterfly was the song. My girlfriend at the time, sitting huddled in the passenger seat, was ashamed of me as we drove past the local ice cream parlor, the school, and the outdoor pool. With Butterfly at full volume. The fact that she let me touch her after that should rank as one of the most mysterious wonders of the world in human history.
Of course, it makes absolutely no sense that I listen to Japanese music. I’m not Japanese, and I don’t know Japanese. No matter how much I sometimes wish that I did and how many Japanese lessons I have had to endure. And believe me, there were quite a few.
My teachers despaired of me. Greetings go out to Mr. Hasegawa, Ms. Takeda, and Mr. Sugimoto. To Ms. Ikeda, Ms. Takahashi, and Ms. Watanabe. To Mr. Fujiwara, to Mr. Noguchi, and to Ms. Yokoyama. To Ms. Ota, to Ms. Sato, and to Mr. Suzuki. And to Mrs. Maier-Dümpfelstetter.
After about 20 years and countless Japanese courses, I can count to seven on a good day, distinguish kokoro for heart from kodomo for children, and shout out a loud
Hajimemashite, watashi wa Maruseru desu! for
Hello, my name is Marcel! That’s it. Really.
You’d think that after all the Japanese anime, comics, series, movies, concerts, books, dramas, video games, and what felt like hundreds of thousands of songs, I’d be able to do a little more. But no. Even for my great love, the popular culture of Japan, I’m still too lazy to learn Japanese in all seriousness.
But maybe that’s not even wrong. I have met enough students in Japanology who wanted to turn their hobby into their vocation and, with every freshly learned word, had less desire to consume anything Japanese. Maybe because then you realize that Japan is just a normal country with problems, boredom, and a relatively average entertainment industry. Like Germany. Or America. Or Romania.
Hundreds of Japanese wouldn’t throw themselves off strategically well placed bridges, skyscrapers, and train stations every year if the nation in the far, far East was as great as it was portrayed in K-On!. And that’s despite the fact that the series is virtually an all-around credible documentary about the everyday school life of young adolescents in the Land of the Rising Sun.
But I don’t get anything out of that due to my complete mental blockade to even absorb any further meaning of a Japanese word into my brain. To me, everything in Japanese sounds great. Everything is wonderful. There’s something magical about every little thing.
If Jacques from some Parisian suburb immediately makes you wet just because he asks you in the worst French accent for directions to the nearest public toilet, then Japanese has just that effect on me. What are you saying, little Japanese girl? Your dog has warts on his balls? Kawaii!
I’m that typical fat vanilla nerd, always a little too close to his first heart attack, who thinks Japan is the Mecca of evolutionary creativity and celebrates everything with even one Japanese character on it, even though he couldn’t even tell it apart from a Chinese one, on a unnaturally high level of obsession.
Soon I’ll cover myself in cuddly pillows with childish-looking, half-dressed waifus, who are, of course, millennial old vampire queens, on them. Only eat rice drizzled with sake. And officially change my name to Marcel-san.
When musical gods like Hikaru Utada, Scandal, and Asian Kung-Fu Generation bang, roar, and strum the keys, strings, and microphones, I don’t hear hackneyed lyrics about love, pain, or freedom. I hear the pulse of Tokyo. The vibration of Osaka. The voice of Kyoto. And sometimes the fart of Düsseldorf.
With songs like First Love, Secret Base, and Rewrite, I can rhyme together own stories in my head. Imagine my own personal closing credits. Fantasize my life on the other side of the world. J-pop exudes the same kind of magic you had as a German kid, listening to English-language songs on the radio and not yet having to understand what bullshit was being sung about in them.
Can you blow my whistle baby, whistle baby? Uh, no thanks, I’d rather not.
Of course, I could look up the translations of these very songs on the Internet. But that would be very stupid. Then I would know that my creative heroes that I listen to, since a Japanese song was on some Sailor Moon soundtrack CD that has made my taste so, let’s call it, alternative, forever, also only give the same, with pop rock underlined brain shit from themselves, like Taylor Swift, Coldplay, and Ed Sheeran. And then I might as well hang myself.
Nevertheless, I would claim, at this point, that J-pop is the best music genre humanity has ever produced. Jazz is dead. Hip hop is grumbling. Even K-pop, which is celebrated absolutely everywhere, can only be colorful and nothing else.
Japanese pop music, on the other hand, is melodic, emotional, and has an intangible power that can otherwise only be experienced by accidentally standing between sweaty weebs armed with two to seven Canon SLR cameras and a sixteen-year-old girl dressed as Rem from Re:Zero at an anime convention.
Because if you don’t have to pay attention to the lyrics but only to the musical performance as a whole, only then you notice what refinement, skill, and sonorous perfection many Japanese artists put into their completely authentic work. And I can justifiably claim, identify, and evaluate that. After all, I studied music history for 63 years at Moon University.
But it’s possible that J-pop just broke me. Because they like to mix and stir eight different musical genres, three orchestras, and a singer screaming at the top of her lungs, and turn up the volume to 11 in their barely four-minute songs. So that you might think the universe is about to explode while God dies and the Keio Girls Senior High School choir cries in the background.
J-pop, these are the anthems of my own little screwed up world. The Japanese music industry doesn’t care if I listen to their songs. Adore the stars. Watch the music videos. They don’t market to me through TV commercials, radio slots, and newsletters. I don’t exist for them. I can make up their meaning on my own. I don’t have to know anything of their scandals, problems, or rumors.
J-pop, it’s a huge personal playlist. Just for me. Because everyone else thinks the songs suck. Whose emotional range has something ready for all my life situations. I can dance to it. Laugh. Cry. Whether they remind me of a sad anime episode, the stirring background music in video games, or my first minutes at Narita Airport, stepping through the Welcome to Japan banner into a world of cultural, technological, and human wonder. J-pop is always there for me, satisfying a little bit of the wanderlust that I feel in my small, perpetually annoyed, and bored heart.
Of course, J-pop is not cool. Even Japanese people don’t think J-pop is cool. Once I mentioned that I liked AKB48 at a picnic in Yoyogi Park, I was allowed to spend the rest of my Japan trip alone. Because apparently state TV ran a report about me repeated every full hour, in which they warned the population about me and said you’d better stay away from me. A gaijin who is into AKB48 and admits it publicly? When you see this walking hentai, drop everything, including your kids and pets, and run for your naked life!
Cool Japanese people like Swedish indie bands, American rappers, and British DJs. But definitely not a bunch of pasted-up Yukis from next door who greasy pimp managers threw together into a so-called band, and now bounce up and down and back and forth to poppy dance music until something inside them breaks.
Because they realize that only overweight middle-aged office workers want to party and mount them at the same time. And they are subsequently replaced by younger models after their crisis of purpose, often accompanied by shaving off their hair and crying in front of TV cameras. Then again, that’s probably how it is throughout the entertainment industry. Everywhere. All over the world.
And if you look at interviews of Japanese bands and musicians, there’s no pride to be seen in what they’ve created. No arrogance. Not even a hint of self-confidence, but rather the exact opposite. A collective apology for being responsible for such noise, which is also falsely dubbed and sold as music by record companies. As if they should be ashamed for following their dream. Instead of taking over their fathers’ cement factories, as true Japanese should do. After all, they brought shame on Otosan. Shame!
Not even they themselves seem to like J-pop. For whatever reason. But maybe that’s just the Japanese politeness that is clichédly admired and celebrated in every travel documentary. They are very shy. The Japanese. All Japanese. There are no exceptions. Every child knows that. But maybe I’m just weird. Well, not in a cool sense. Oh God, definitely not in a cool sense. But rather in a sense of:
Should we admit him to the next nuthouse right away or wait another two weeks?
If I hear even one bar of any Katy Perry memorial theme on the radio, I want to mutate into a mass murderer on the spot. But place me down in front of a ten-hour long The Best Anime Theme Songs from 1980 to Today YouTube video at full volume and I’ll starve and die of thirst at the same time because I just can’t turn it off. A Cruel Angel’s Thesis simply is a banger to die for.
I’m fully aware that with this revelation, I have lost any chance of future sexual intercourse. But I can’t pretend to like people like Billie Eilish, Lizzo, or Lil Nas X anymore. It just doesn’t work. Their songs. Their stories. Their thoughts. They don’t mean anything to me. Nothing.
Instead, I sit here, close my eyes, and listen to Perfume, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, and Babymetal with pleasure. As they confidently sing about sekai, dokidoki, and hanabi. And I’m happy. Truly happy. Although, or maybe even because, I don’t understand a single word.