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date: 30 June 2016

Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the songs that Japanese schoolchildren learned during World War II and their impact on children’s lives. These songs were filled with propaganda such as Japan’s superiority over other nations, the glory of dying for the country, and the joys of working in weapons factories. The study addresses questions such as: what values were these songs reinforcing? What behaviors were being encouraged? What legacy did they leave in the minds of the children who sang them, after the war had ended? Personal stories were obtained from individuals who attended elementary school during World War II. It is shown that the children who grew up during the war internalized the values promoted by these wartime songs and acted upon them as adults; they also passed it on to their own children.

Keywords: children’s songs, wartime, propaganda, Japanese, schools, school songs, musical experience

It may seem like North Korea to you now. But at the time, we were just kids. We wanted to have fun. We sang these songs for fun.

(Chieko, World War II survivor, now in her late seventies)

Among the vast repertoire of Japanese school songs, perhaps the most thought provoking—and least well known—are those songs taught during World War II. Soaked with propagandistic messages, they assert the superiority of Japan over other nations, the glory of dying for one’s country, the romantic imagery of conquered territories, and the joys of toiling in weapons factories, among other things. When I asked informants who had attended Japanese elementary school during World War II about these songs, they instantly and instinctively sang them, even though these songs had been banned after the war, some sixty-five years ago. Furthermore, they remembered the gunka (military marches) that they sang at send-off parades for soldiers and other official ceremonies; when shown Kindaichi Haruhiko’s collection of gunka (Kindaichi and Anzai 1982), one informant sang almost all of the thirty-five songs from the period 1938–1945 with zest.

Clearly, songs were an important part of the wartime propaganda machine. For children, what values were these songs reinforcing? What behaviors were being (p. 97) encouraged? What legacy did they leave in the minds of the children who sang them after the war had ended? This chapter explores these issues through a discussion of the songs that were taught in schools, sung in official ceremonies and rituals, and heard over the radio from 1937 to 1945, as analyzed from their texts, the directives found in instructors’ manuals, and personal testimonies of children.

Most of the personal stories come from interviews with informants—identified by pseudonyms in this chapter. They include two sisters, Chieko and Naoko, who were in sixth and fifth grades, respectively, in an elementary school in Kyoto at the end of the war; Naoko’s husband, Akira, who attended elementary school in Osaka during the war; and Shinichi, who was a third-grade boy when he was evacuated to Tottori prefecture from Yokohama to avoid air raids. In addition, I refer to personal testimonies in published collections of diaries (e.g., Yamashita 2005).

Music in Japanese Schools, 1877–1933

At the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868–1912), the newly restored imperial government—well aware that two hundred years of isolation had left Japan vulnerable, technologically, economically, and militarily—initiated reforms to Westernize and modernize, including the creation of a national educational system. The government advocated shōka (school songs) as a way to cultivate moral character in children.1 The first such collection, the hoiku shōka (nursery songs), began to be compiled in 1877. The music was composed by Imperial Court musicians in gagaku (court music) modes; the lyrics, by female instructors of the Tokyo Women’s Normal School, drew inspiration from Japanese classical poetry. The collection was not disseminated widely and was quickly supplanted by songbooks in Western musical style by Isawa Shūji (1851–1917) and the Ministry of Education. While a student in Boston, Isawa had been tutored by Luther Whiting Mason (1818–1896), the author of the National Music Course, a graded series of songbooks in extensive use in the late nineteenth century. Isawa proposed the establishment of a similar course in the Japanese educational system, arguing that music was conducive to the formation of moral character. He also argued that traditional Japanese music was unsuitable in education, as music such as gagaku was “too refined,” while popular music, such as shamisen-based music for geisha, was “too vulgar”; he deemed a newly created “national” music for all classes to be more suitable (Eppstein 1994: 30–36). To implement the program, Mason was brought over to Japan.

The songbooks of the 1880s consisted almost entirely of preexisting Western songs with Japanese texts; of the thirty-three songs in the first volume (1881), only three were newly composed, and only one of them was in a Japanese mode.2 Texts addressed nature, famous places in Japan, and historical topics as well as the Confucian values of loyalty to the emperor, filial piety, and advancement through study. One such song was “Kazoe uta” (Counting Song, from the 1887 collection). (p. 98) Adapted from a warabeuta (traditional Japanese children’s song), the first verse of Isawa’s version reminded children to be grateful to their parents. Disseminated widely by the Ministry of Education, these songbooks contributed to Japanese familiarity with Western music—and established a pattern of inculcation through music.

By the time the Ministry of Education released its next set of songbooks, Japan had emerged as a world power, having defeated imperial China in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and czarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). Accordingly, the songbooks of 1910–1915 included texts of a more militaristic tone than the 1880s songbooks. In “Suishiei no kaiken” (Meeting at Shuishiying), an account of Russian Major-General Stoessel’s surrender to Japanese General Nogi at Port Arthur (1905), Nogi says that his two sons were honored to die in battle; “Tachibana Chūsa” (Lt. Colonel Tachibana) and “Hirose Chūsa” (Commander Hirose) recount the deaths in battle of two heroes of the Russo-Japanese War. Meanwhile, the rewritten verses to “Counting Song” taught children that loyalty to the emperor and the country was their first priority. All the music in the Ministry of Education songbooks of the 1910s (except “Counting Song”) was composed anew by Japanese musicians in Western scales, featuring the regular phrase structure, use of motives, and hierarchical cadences of German songwriting. Practically all schoolchildren from first to sixth grades between 1911 and 1941 sang these songs, which were also heard outside the classroom in homes, concerts, playgrounds, and on radio broadcasts.

In 1932–1933, the Ministry of Education issued small revisions to these collections. These years were volatile ones: Japan’s invasion of Manchuria (1931) and the Shanghai Incident (1932) marked the beginning of protracted hostilities in China that some historians call the Fifteen-Year War. Right-wing naval officers assassinated Prime Minister Inukai (1932), which helped to precipitate a breakdown in party politics and increased military influence in government. The addition of the song “Heitai-san” (Soldiers), which taught second graders to admire soldiers, was a harbinger of dramatic changes to come.

The Wartime Propaganda Machine

As the conflict in China that had begun in Manchuria erupted into the second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Japanese military government took control over the media. The Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Communications established the Dōmei Tsūshin newswire service in 1936, which controlled news distribution to newspapers and radio stations. By 1937, newspaper articles on military actions or diplomacy needed prior approval, and the government shut down smaller papers. Censored by the Defense Bureau, popular magazines valorized overseas expansion, told tales of battlefield heroics, and upheld the belief in Japan’s unique national polity. The (p. 99) government also set up movie theaters to show propaganda films, while curtailing the distribution of foreign movies. The Ministry of Communications oversaw the content of radio programs, which was filled with gunka military marches. Koyama Eizō (1899–1983), the propaganda mastermind in the Cabinet Planning Agency, noted that music could be an effective means of propaganda (Kushner 2006: 33).

Gunka: The Predominant Music

Gunka (military marches) had been played since military brass bands were formed in the mid-1800s. The popularity of gunka rose with the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War. By the second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, gunka proliferated the Japanese soundscape, due to not only government control of communications but also growth in the diffusion of radios and phonographs. Many gunka were hit records, selling hundreds of thousands—and sometimes millions—of copies. As shortages in materials became more severe after 1941, record production was sharply curtailed, leaving gunka over the radio as one of few entertainment choices available.

Some gunka were effective in co-opting the people because they were perceived to have come from their own ranks. To produce new gunka, contests were held, inviting residents throughout the Japanese empire to submit lyrics and music. In October 1937, the Cabinet Information Office advertised such a contest to write the lyrics to a march that, “the people will love to sing for eternity.” Lyrics by a young printing worker in Tottori prefecture were chosen out of 57,578 entries. Another contest was held for the music; the gunka composer Setoguchi Tokichi won out of 9,555 entries (Kindaichi 1979: 232). With six record companies releasing different versions, “Aikoku kōshin kyoku” (March of Patriotism, 1937) sold more than one million copies. The lyrics stirred pride in Japan, described the emperor’s mission as the establishment of a “just” peace (an “ideal blooming like a fragrant flower”), called “hakkō ichiyu”—a slogan, translated as “universal brotherhood,” which referred to the Greater East Co-Prosperity Sphere, where Japan would lead an Asian bloc independent from Western powers.

Songs such as these were sung at send-off ceremonies when soldiers were going to the front. Schoolchildren were summoned to participate in these send-offs. My informants Chieko and Naoko remembered parades at which all the schoolchildren and neighbors lined the streets, singing gunka and waving Japanese flags (see Web Figure 5.1  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II). The diary of Nakane Mihoko, a rural schoolgirl, describes an involved send-off for her teacher: he was first treated to a celebratory meal and a prayer service at the shrine, then sent off at the train station, while schoolchildren and villagers sang gunka and shouted “Banzai!” (Long live the emperor!) until the train disappeared (Yamashita 2005: 298–299). Similarly, Saito Keiichi, then a boy in rural Kyoto prefecture, describes saying long prayers at the shrine before sending soldiers off at the train station, singing “Roei no uta” (Song of the Camp, 1937; Saito 2008).

(p. 100)

Another ceremony in which students were required to participate was the homecoming of deceased soldiers, called “mugon no gaisen” (literally, “silent, triumphant return”). A procession was led by a white banner decorated with sakaki (a sacred tree in Shintoism); then came the military men holding an unvarnished box, wrapped in white cloth, which contained the ashes of the deceased, followed by their families. Students, teachers, and neighbors bowed their heads silently as the procession passed by, sometimes playing sad music (“Furusato to sensō” 2007; Oba 1995: 99–101; Saitō 2008).

While both Naoko and Akira said that gunka were not sung during academic class time, these songs played a part in school-related activities. Whenever children went on a school outing, they sang gunka as they marched. Gunka were also sung during assemblies and in the gym during physical training, which often involved military-style drills. As more men were called to war, causing a labor shortage, schoolchildren were made to work at planting tea, potatoes, soybeans, and other foodstuffs; they sang gunka or shōka as they worked. On an informal basis, these children sang these songs frequently among themselves. Akira said that he usually sang gunka on the way to school and on the way home. From third grade onward, he spent time after school with fifth and sixth graders, and these boys sang gunka whenever they engaged in group activities or military drill games. Their favorite songs included “Chichi yo, anata wa tsuyokatta” (Father, You Were Strong, 1939), “Getsu getsu ka sui moku kin kin” (Throughout the Week, without Weekends, 1940), “Sora no shinhei” (Paratroopers, 1942), and the Kato Falcon Fighting Corps Song (1943). Chieko and Naoko also sang gunka at home, particularly when the lights-out policy at night (to prevent air raids from targeting populated areas) left them with little else to do. With their constant play on the radio and singing by citizens, gunka were ubiquitous.

Gunka Texts

Gunka typically address a small number of recurring themes. Most mention the glory of the emperor, the need to follow his will, and pride in Japan, alluding to its divine origins and beauty. Some gunka, such as “Getsu getsu ka sui moku kin kin,” paint an idealized portrait of male camaraderie in the navy. Most, however, glamorize fighting to the death and are replete with images of death: in “Roei no uta,” for example, a fellow soldier dies, smiling as he bids banzai. In “Dōki no sakura” (Cherry Blossoms of the Same Class, 1944), a pilot mourns a classmate who has preceded him in death and looks forward to meeting him again as “cherry blossoms on the same branch in Yasukuni Shrine,” where falling cherry blossoms are a metaphor for young soldiers dying in battle3; and the Katō Falcon Fighting Song describes Colonel Katō Tateo’s death in battle over the Bay of Bengal in 1942.

One gunka that became particularly familiar was “Umi yukaba” (Across the Seas, 1937, Web Figures 5.2  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II and 5.3  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II). Based on a poem by Ōtomo no Yakamochi (p. 101) from the eighth-century poetry collection Manyōshū, the best-known version was composed by Nobutoki Kiyoshi to stir fighting spirit, so that soldiers would not fear death to further the emperor’s goals. The song was sung at send-off parades and in the announcement of victory at Pearl Harbor. It was officially designated as the second national anthem in 1943. The song came to be strongly associated with honorable deaths, as it was always played at the start of official radio announcements with such news. Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II

Across the seas, there are corpses in the water.

Across the mountains, there are corpses in the grass.

We shall die at the side of our emperor.

We shall not turn back.

The sources of the recordings and their Japanese texts can be found in Web Figure 5.2  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II. Recordings of several of the songs discussed can be found on the linked website: “Umi yukaba” (Web Figure 5.3  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II), “Nippon” (Web Figure 5.4  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II), “Heitai gokko” (Web Figure 5.5  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II), “Hotaru koi” (Web Figures 5.6 and 5.7  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II), “Hikōki” (Web Figure 5.8  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II).

Music Education in Wartime

While Japanese education had taught children to revere the emperor and admire the war dead since the Meiji Period, the tone of textbooks became increasingly chauvinistic starting in the 1930s. In 1937, the Ministry of Education published Kokutai no hongi (Cardinal Principles of National Essence), an official statement of the theory of the Japanese state. The document emphasized the divine origins of the imperial line, the emperor’s place as a living deity, and his love for his subjects. Citizens were obliged to cast aside their own wishes and follow the emperor; individualism was explicitly discouraged. The mission of the armed forces was to serve the emperor. The document also addressed the uniqueness of Japanese culture and its superiority to other cultures (Ministry of Education 1937). Widely distributed, it became the basis for educational philosophy during wartime, instilling nationalism with the goal of unifying the population in the military cause (Iritani 1991: 161–167).

In March 1941, the military government issued ordinances to reorganize schools to “conform to the goals of the empire.” Schools were to educate students on “the unique aspects of our national culture in relation to conditions in Asia and the world, build awareness of the emperor’s position, and cultivate knowledge on the nature of our country” (Cabinet Office 1941). Music was to be taught to inspire nationalism, develop an aesthetic sensibility, teach correct pronunciation, and enhance mental acuity by developing the ability to recall sounds. Lyrics and music were to be “national” (kokuminteki) in nature.

The Ministry of Education issued a new set of six songbooks between March 1941 and April 1943 titled Uta no hon (Songbook) and Shotōka ongaku (Elementary (p. 102) Music Course). The committee included well-known composers and lyricists of dōyō (commercial children’s songs with artistic aspirations) and gunka, including Komatsu Kōsuke (1884–1966), Hashimoto Kunihiko (1904–1949), Hayashi Ryūha (1892–1974), and Shimofusa Kan’ichi (1898–1962). Several had studied in Europe, including Shimofusa, who had studied with Paul Hindemith in Berlin.

The 1941–1943 songbooks were a substantial rewrite of earlier songbooks, retaining only 17 percent of the songs from these collections. While commercially produced textbooks had been allowed in previous years (as long as the Ministry of Education approved them), all schools in Japan were now obliged to use only these new textbooks. Out of the twenty songs included for each grade, eight were explicitly marked as mandatory. These inflexible requirements made school songs an even more effective means of government propaganda than previously. The instructors’ booklets were similarly explicit regarding how and why music was to be taught. First, the purpose of education was to instruct children in the “way of the emperor.” The booklets told instructors to “follow the guidelines” and warned against “allowing children to follow their own course”; education was to “form children who will cooperate and work together”—not individuals. In teaching school songs, the goal was “not so much to teach musical capabilities as to inculcate them in national sentiment; that is the real purpose of music education.” The primary purpose of song texts was “to ensure the absolute purity of national sentiment and train the people of the Japanese empire” (Ministry of Education 1942a: 15).

Texts of the 1941 Songbooks

Instilling the National Spirit

The instructor’s booklets spelled out the reasons for teaching each song. The most common purpose for a song was to cultivate the “national sentiment.” This purpose was met by invoking national symbols (e.g., “Hi no maru,” the national flag; “Fuji no yama,” Mt. Fuji), old fables (“Momotarō,” Peach Boy), and traditional holidays and their customs (“Oshōgatsu,” New Year’s Day; “Mochitsuki,” Pounding Rice Cakes; “Mura matsuri,” Village Festival). Several songs whose stated purpose was to “instill the national spirit” were adapted from warabeuta (traditional Japanese children’s song) or were newly composed, modeled after warabeuta. Unlike in previous Ministry of Education songbooks, which tended to take a few stock phrases from warabeuta, augment them with more poetic text, and set them to Westernized music, the 1941–1943 collection preserved the original warabeuta texts and folk phrases of traditional games. In “Temari uta” (Song of the Handball Game), the opening lyrics, “Ten, ten, ten, Tenjin-sama” (Tenmangū shrine) are common to various regional warabeuta, as are the words “Pettan, pettan” (onomatopoeic for pounding rice to make rice cakes), which open “Mochitsuki” (Pounding Rice Cakes). Similarly, the (p. 103) lyrics to “Kakurenbo” (Hide-and-Seek) include the familiar call to potential players, “Kakurenbo suru mono, yottoide” (Those who want to play hide-and-seek, come here) and the repeated call-and-response, “Mō ii kai” (Can I come out now?) and “Mada da yō” (Not yet), all commonly heard among children playing this game. This preservation of the common, folksy language of the warabeuta reflected a change in educational policy away from elitism toward a homogenous, everyman orientation; these songs, which may have been considered too lowly for inclusion in previous collections, were being embraced as national expression.

The song texts also addressed the significance of the emperor (e.g., “Mitami ware”), Japan’s divine origins (“Kuni hiki,” Forming the Country), and the goodness and strength of the country. These sentiments are most clearly expressed in “Nippon” (Japan), a song for second graders. The first verse alludes to the Shinto myth in which the gods created the Japanese archipelago, while the second addresses its superiority to other nations. Instructors were directed to “raise nationalistic spirit and foster patriotic ardor by making the children sing about the national polity of our Japan, for which there is no comparison in the world.”

“Nippon” (Japan, 1941; Web Figures 5.2  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II and 5.4  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II)

Japan is a good country, a noble country.

It is the only country in the world that is the country of god.

Japan is a good country, a strong country.

It is an admirable country that outshines others in the world. (Ministry of Education 1941b: 129–130)

The Expanding Empire

A corollary of the assumption of Japan’s superiority was its right to rule the rest of Asia in the Greater East Co-Prosperity Sphere, which is referenced in the final verse of the “Counting Song.” In the first verse of this refitted version, the child is counseled to get up early, wash up, and sweep the yard by him or herself—at a time when most fathers were off to war and/or mothers were needed at munitions factories. In the tenth and final verse, the change in the political environment since 1932 is revealed:

“Kazoe uta” (1942), Verse 10 (Web Figure 5.9  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II)

Those who bear the burden

of protecting Greater East Asia

are the children of righteous Japan;

they are we. (Ministry of Education 1942b: 142–143)

In the fifth- and sixth-grade songbooks, songs address the beauties of the acquired territories (e.g., “Dai Tōa,” Greater East Asia; “Yōsukō,” Yangtze River; “Manshū no hirono,” Manchurian Field) and the expanses of Dai Tōa in relation to “god’s country” (“Ōyashima”; Ministry of Education 1943a, 1943b). (p. 104)

Related to this purpose of arousing children’s interest in the empire are the songs that encourage adventurousness. Some songs address historical incursions and activities in Asia by Japanese (“Momoyama,” a period in the late sixteenth century; “Yamada Nagamasa,” a seventeenth-century adventurer in Thailand) or contemporary military advances (“Sekidō koete,” Crossing the Equator). Subtler are the songs that simply encourage children to look outward. For example, the first grader’s song “Umi” (Sea, Web Figure 5.10  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II) starts by remarking on how big the ocean is and how large the waves are. The last verse is “I want to put a boat in the sea and go to another country.” According to the instructor’s book, this verse was intended to “express the spirit of the people of Japan as a seafaring country,” and the song was to “stimulate interest in maritime affairs” and promote a “cheerful curiosity toward far-away places”—the easier to make subjects go off to conquer new territories (Ministry of Education 1941a: 85–88).

Glorifying the Military

The 1941–1943 songbooks contain a marked increase in the number of songs extolling the military. For all six grades, about thirty-five songs, or 29 percent of the total, explicitly refer to the military; for the fifth and sixth grades, this percentage is 50 percent. This increase is particularly noticeable in the lower grades, in which songs for first and second graders teach them to admire soldiers (“Heitai-san,” Soldiers) and take interest in the objects of war (“Gunkan,” Battleship; “Hikōki,” Airplane). Children were prodded to play war games, pretending to kill devils as “Momotarō,” playing with model warships and planes, and participating in mock cavalry battles (Iritani 1991: 178–179); school songs encouraged them to play soldiers in battle in the songs “Heitai gokko” (Role-Playing as Soldiers) and “Omocha no sensha” (Toy Tanks). The lyrics to these songs feature onomatopoeia for the sound of gunfire, as illustrated in “Heitai gokko” (Figure 5.11, Web Figures 5.2  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II; and 5.5  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II); as the instructor’s book explains in its matter-of-fact way, “‘Gata gata’ is the sound of machine guns. ‘Ban pon’ is the sound of firearms” (Ministry of Education 1941a: 131). Words (and their particles or auxiliary verbs) are separated by a “/,” while clauses are separated by “//.”

 Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War IIClick to view larger

Figure 5.11: “Heitaigokko” (1941), Shimofusa Kan’ichi.

From the third grade on up, children sang songs that depicted battles or lauded the role of skilled military men. Several songs also recount heroic deaths in battle: the third-grade song “San yūshi” (Three Brave Soldiers) glorifies three suicide bombers who attacked the camp of the Chinese National Army during the Shanghai Incident of 1932, praising them for their willingness to die for the emperor and their country. Indeed, children were taught that fighting to the death and dying bravely were desired outcomes. The fourth-grade song “Yasukuni Jinja” (Yasukuni Shrine) states, “Even if you die in battle, your loyal, honorable, brave soul will find rest at Yasukuni Shrine,” using the metaphor “hana to chirite” (sakura leaves blown away). The books contain many songs that glorify the roles that ordinary citizens play in the war, as seen in “Nyū ei” (Joining the Army) and “Shōnen (p. 105) sensha hei” (Young Soldier of the Tank Unit). Women were expected to contribute to the war effort as well, as seen in “Hakui no tsutome” (The Duty of Nurses). Their primary role, however, was to produce and raise future soldiers, as shown in the fifth-grade song “Haha no uta” (A Song about Mothers; Web Figure 5.12  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II):

Mothers are the strength of the country.

With a brave heart, she sends her children

to the battlefield far away.

Doesn’t the mother look brave? (Ministry of Education 1943a: 154–155)

In addition to instilling adoration of the military and heroic acts, the songs aim to cultivate behavior desirable in soldiers. According to descriptions in the instructor’s books, about a fifth of all school songs were included to engender feelings of intense loyalty to the country, its emperor, and its rulers. As a third grader, my informant Chieko acted in a play and sang a song about Tajimamori, the legendary court official who sailed to distant lands for ten years in search of the fruit of immortality for Emperor Suinin, only to discover upon his return that the emperor had already died. In addition, about a quarter of the songs were meant to inspire children to be brave, while another quarter was to instill a “cheerful spirit.” Since the war effort had led to a shortage of able-bodied men on the home front, children and older students were made to work; the songbooks aimed not only to raise children’s spirits about doing various tasks but also to love doing them. The second-grade song “Takigi hiroi” (Collecting Firewood) describes this chore as a cheerful game; in the third-grade song “Kodomo no yaoya” (Children’s Greengrocer), three young siblings, whose father has gone off to war, work together to push a heavy cart to the market, in order to purchase stock for their family store.

It is evident that the texts of these 1941–1943 songbooks sought to teach children the belief system desired for waging war effectively: the superiority of Japan, loyalty to the country and its rulers, respect for the military and its heroes, the denial of individual wants to achieve a common goal, and the glorification of heroic deaths. This military-centric vision was instilled from an early age, encouraging children to role-play as soldiers and young teenagers to work in munitions factories, while death in military service was shown as honorable—and probable.

(p. 106) Musical Nationalism in the 1941–1943 Songbooks

Not only the texts but also the music of the 1941–1943 songbooks was nationalistic. This characteristic in part reflected worldwide interest in musical nationalism and exoticism, which had also been extant in Japan since at least the 1920s; some dōyō of the 1920s and early 1930s, such as “Tōryanse” (Checkpoint, Motoori Nagayo, 1921), incorporated warabeuta in a Westernized harmonic setting. Foreign artists sponsored composers in this syncretic style: the Russian composer and pianist Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977) and the Austrian conductor Felix Weingartner (1863–1942) each sponsored competitions for Japanese composers; winners included Ifukube Akira’s (1914–2006) Nihon Kyōshikyoku (Japanese Rhapsody, 1935) for the former and Hayasaka Fumio’s (1914–1955) Kodai no bukyoku (Ancient Dances, 1937) for the latter (Galliano 2002: 80–83, 116).

In addition, Japanese government directives served as a powerful incentive to favor a nationalistic musical blend. In 1936, Matsumoto Manabu, the head of the Section for Supreme Control of the Ministry for the Interior, gave a speech favoring music written in Japanese style and stressing the importance of following government guidelines. The government supported musical compositions that expressed nationalist sentiments, often by using Japanese melodies within Western musical forms, and sponsored the recording, publication, and broadcast of such works. After 1938, national broadcaster NHK required commissioned works to express nationalistic sentiments (Galliano 2002: 92, 115–116). At least one composer for the 1941–1943 songbooks, Shimofusa, participated in this trend of musical nationalism, composing works such as Shamisen kyōsōkyoku (Shamisen Concerto, 1938) and Koto dokusō no tame no sonata (Sonata for Solo Koto, 1941). By 1941, musicians were obliged to apply for special licenses to continue working as musicians and hence comply with government directives. Musicians who were critical of the government were repressed through censorship, raids, and arrests (Galliano 2002: 120). Given government coercion and European approval of this style, it is not surprising that the 1941–1943 songbooks show a high level of musical nationalism.

Comments in the instructors’ books for the 1941–1943 songbooks confirm the political intent of musical nationalism. For most of the songs discussed below, the instructor’s books explain that by “singing Japanese songs from time immemorial, children will absorb the national spirit.”

Traditional Songs

 Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War IIClick to view larger

Figure 5.14: “Hotaru koi” (Come, Firefly, 1941), arrangement by Shimofusa, score.

These wartime songbooks are noteworthy for their preservation of warabeuta, which had been considered lowly in earlier eras. Unlike the Ministry of Education songbooks of the 1880s and 1910s, which include only the “Counting Song” from the vast repertory of warabeuta, the 1941–1943 songbooks include several warabeuta and other traditional songs. In previous songbooks by the Ministry of Education, there were several instances in which some lyrics from a warabeuta had been taken and refitted (p. 107) with music in Western European scales. For example, the lyrics to “Chōchō” (Butterfly, 1874) were set to the melody of “Hanschen Klein”/“Lightly Row,” while “Yuki” (Snow, 1911) was newly composed with Western harmonies. In contrast, the songs in the 1941–1943 songbooks retained both the texts and melodic outlines of the original warabeuta. One such example is “Hotaru koi” (Come, Firefly), an ancient warabeuta with many different regional versions that share its characteristic opening. A version from the Yokohama area (Web Figures 5.2  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II, 5.6  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II, and 5.13  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II) has a melody that departs to the [B-D] interval in the second phrase (Obara 1994: vol. 1, 153).

In a version from Tottori prefecture, the lyric begins,

Ho, ho, hotaru koi. Firefly, come here.

Chiisana chōchin sagete koi. Come here with a small paper lantern.

Shimofusa’s arrangement of “Hotaru koi” for the 1941 Ministry of Education songbook (Figure 5.14, Web Figures 5.2  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II; and 5.7  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II) contains the familiar beginning, the melodic contour of the second phrase in the Yokohama version, and the text of the Tottori version (Ministry of Education 1941a: 82–85).  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II

Newly Composed Songs on Japanese Scales

As previously mentioned, several newly composed songs—“Nawatobi” (Jump Rope), “Mochitsuki” (Pounding Rice Cakes), and “Temari uta” (Handball Song)—were inspired by warabeuta, with lyrics similar to the songs and chants surrounding these games. These songs were written in traditional scales that approach the sound of warabeuta, using traditional Japanese scales—the first time since the 1880s that newly composed songs from the Ministry of Education did not use Western scales. Furthermore, their melodies tended to outline perfect fourths, which is characteristic of traditional Japanese melodies.

 Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War IIClick to view larger

Figure 5.15: “Hikōki” (Airplanes, 1941), score.

Eleven other newly composed songs use Japanese scales, so Japanese scales form the musical basis for twenty-two songs—about a fifth of the collection, a significantly higher percentage than in the more Western-influenced previous collections. Recognizing that most Japanese music teachers had been trained in Western music but not Japanese music, the instructors’ books contained explanations of Japanese scales (Ministry of Education 1941a: 15–16). (p. 108)

Harmonization of Traditional Scales

In addition, the accompaniment for most of these songs harmonizes them in a way that does not attempt to force a Western V–I cadence. As shown in “Hotaru koi” (Figure 5.14), some songs are harmonized using only the pitch sets in the traditional modes of their melodies, often beginning and ending with unisons or open fifths. Several songs in yō mode [C–D–F–G–B♭] are harmonized as if they were in Dorian; as for songs in miyako-bushi [E–F–A–B–C], “Sakura” is set as if in A minor, while “Usagi” and “Temari uta” are set in Phrygian mode. With the use of Japanese scales in such a large group of songs and accompaniments that do not impose the Western tonal paradigms, the songs retain their modal qualities while remaining within the Western practice of harmony-oriented ensembles. Hence, these songs express nationalism in a musical manner not evident in previous collections.

Songs in Western Pentatonic Scales

About 40 percent of the songs in the 1941–1943 collections are in Western pentatonic scales (i.e., [C–D–E–G–A] or [C–D–E♭–G–A♭]). However, unlike earlier collections, in which pentatonic melodies strongly imply a Western tonality through melodic patterns (such as the melodic descent 3-2-1 to the tonic or arpeggiated triads), many songs in the 1941–1943 songbooks emphasize outlines of the perfect fourth characteristic in Japanese melodies. About half of the songs in a Western pentatonic scale exhibit this pattern.

An example of a song with a Western pentatonic scale and a melody constructed around perfect fourths is “Hikōki” (Airplane, Figure 5.15, Web Figures 5.8  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II; and 5.2  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II), a first graders’ song intended to “awaken and develop interest in airplanes and flying” (Ministry of Education 1941a: 136). The melody is entirely constructed out of a series of perfect-fourth spans, as shown in brackets. While ostensibly in C major, the song has no 3-2-1 descent; instead, the tonic is approached from scale degree 5 (G) or 6 (A) below, as in many of the gagaku-based hoiku shōka.

Between their use of revised traditional songs, traditional scales, and pentatonic melodies outlining the perfect fourth, about 40 percent of the songs in the 1941–1943 songbooks have a melody reminiscent of a traditional Japanese one—a (p. 109) much higher percentage than in earlier collections, which are more Western in nature. In particular, close to 60 percent of the songs for the first through third grades in the 1941–1943 songbooks have melodies of a Japanese quality. They contributed to notions of “Japanese-sounding” music—which, as in postwar enka, is more syncretic than traditional Japanese music.

Children’s Experiences with Singing in School

The instructors’ guidelines recommended that children be taught music for four hours a week in first grade, five hours for second grade, and two hours a week in subsequent grades; Naoko remembered the music classes taking up about three hours each week. The teachers—a singer and a pianist—taught the children to sing by ear, first performing the songs and then having children imitate them. Children were expected to memorize these songs and sing them from memory in later classes. In some schools, songs were sung at assemblies or school concerts, but these performances appear to have become rarer as the war progressed; Naoko was picked to sing at a regional choral contest, but it was cancelled as wartime conditions worsened.

Nearly sixty years later, Naoko still recalled many school songs that were subsequently banned: the militaristic songs, such as “Dai Tōa,” “Nippon,” “Gunken Tone” (Tone, the Army Dog), “Shōnen sensha hei,” and “Gunkan”; the older songs about war heroes, such as “Suishihei no kaikan” and “Hirose Chūsa”; and the lament-like “Mugon no gaisen” and “Hakui no tsutome.” As she explained, “Having learned everything by ear and sung them repeatedly, we remembered these songs easily. We didn’t feel that we were being forced to learn them” (Naoko, interview by the author, Yokohama, January 2010).

Naoko said that the music teachers simply wrote the lyrics on the board without explaining their meaning. “We just sang them lightheartedly. It wasn’t the same seriousness with which we had to memorize the emperor’s words.” Thus, she claimed the songs did not have much impact on her thinking later in life (Naoko 2010). However, in several cases, the song texts were taken straight off the pages of the mandatory reading textbooks and hence required less additional explanation. Therefore, these songs were reinforcing lessons already taught elsewhere in the curriculum—Japan’s superiority, duty to the emperor, glorification of the military and the war dead—through the recreational act of singing.

Postwar Developments and the Wartime Legacy

Japan’s defeat in World War II and the ensuing allied occupation (1945–1951) brought about a profound change in its ideological landscape. With the emperor forced to reject the State Shinto claim that he was an incarnate divinity, seventy (p. 110) of its cities reduced to rubble through American firebombing campaigns, and a quarter of its wealth destroyed, the people were suddenly told to accept defeat and occupation by the former enemy, so that the nation could rebuild itself. The hands of censorship and propaganda shifted from the Japanese military government to the supreme command for the allied powers, who employed many of the same propagandists as the wartime government, including Koyama Eizō. These men used the same mechanisms that galvanized the Japanese to fight to the death, to unify them for the purposes of rebuilding the country (Kushner 2006: 180).

The musical landscape changed too: the Far East Network Radio, operated by the US Armed Forces, invaded the airwaves, and American and British popular music, which had been banned during the war, was heard again on the radio and in bars and dance halls catering to occupation soldiers. Meanwhile, the gunka that had played a key role in the propaganda machine was no longer heard, and children were severely punished for singing gunka or the more ideological school songs (Akira, interview by the author, Yokohama, January 2010). This turn was also seen in the educational realm, where, as Chieko remarked, “Our teachers told us that everything they’d taught us was wrong, but there was nothing to replace the vacuum” (Chieko, interview by the author, Philadelphia, November 2009). Students were instructed to strike out, in black ink, those texts and songs that occupation officials regarded as militaristic or overly nationalistic or that referred to Shintoism.

In 1947, the Kyōiku kihon hō (Fundamental Law of Education) decreed that schools were to be remodeled according to the American system, with the purpose of shaping children into citizens of a peaceful, democratic nation. That same year, the Ministry of Education issued its last set of national music textbooks. Many songs from previous collections were excluded because their texts were perceived as nationalistic. Lyrics to other songs were changed; for example, in “Hi no maru” (Japanese Flag), a song for first graders, the description of the flag was changed from “heroic” (isamashii) in the 1941 version to “beautiful” (utsukushii) in the 1947 version. Militaristic texts were replaced with texts that emphasize cheerfulness, cooperation, and getting along with others; frequently occurring words in these songs include nakayoku (get along), niko niko (smiling), tanoshii (enjoyable), ureshii (happy), and iiko (good boy/girl). These changes are apparent in the 1947 version of “Counting Song” (Web Figure 5.16  Songs of Japanese Schoolchildren during World War II), in which the second verse, which regards physical fitness, has been changed to eliminate the patriotic imperative:

“Kazoe uta,” 1942, second verse, last two lines

Become a person, a national subject,

who is useful to the nation. (Ministry of Education 1942b: 142–143)

“Kazoe uta,” 1947, second verse, last two lines

Always smile;

be cheerful and energetic. (Ministry of Education 1947: 46–47)

(p. 111)

The final verse, which had been about Japan’s right to rule in East Asia in 1942, was changed to a message of “study hard, and let your learning accumulate with time.”

The 1947 songbooks also signaled a reversal of the trend toward a musical Japanese identity that had taken place since the early 1900s. While the 1911, 1932, and 1941 collections of the Ministry of Education had consisted completely of songs composed by Japanese, about half of the songs in the 1947 collection were translations of Western songs with mostly Western scales, just as they had dominated Isawa’s textbooks in the 1880s. Such a reversal—a rejection of things Japanese—seemed natural in the early postwar years, when poverty, displacement, and malnutrition were still rampant. Many among the disillusioned population wanted to turn away from “Japanese” culture: “I didn’t like Japan. Rather, I wanted to learn about Western styles and culture” (Chieko 2009). Indeed, 1947 also saw the beginning of the postwar boom in Japanese popular songs based on the American boogie-woogie rhythm, beginning with Hattori Ryōichi’s “Tokyo Boogie-Woogie.”

Even with such sentiments, however, an egg cannot be unscrambled; given how pervasive wartime propaganda was in the schools and media, and how impressionable most children would have been, it would seem likely that these childhood teachings somehow affected the way these children thought as adults. The propaganda machine may have been reinvented to promote cooperation with Americans, but the apparatus they used—radio, print media, popular culture, music, the education system—were the same as in wartime. To achieve their goals of unifying the people for reconstruction, the propagandists played on the same social ideologies that they had employed during the war and that had been familiar lessons in Japanese schools since the Meiji Period: the uniqueness (and superiority) of Japanese culture, loyalty to a superior, and the need to work for the common good or the Japanese nation. These ideologies fit well with the project of reconstruction and fed seamlessly into the rapid economic growth of the 1950s–1980s, powered by employees who sacrificed personal lives to work long hours for a single company.

Hence, the children that grew up during the war internalized these values and acted upon them as adults; they also passed it on to their own children. As an adult, Chieko, along with her husband and two elementary school daughters, moved from Japan to the United States, where they were the only Japanese family in their school. She impressed upon her daughters that the family “represented Japan” to their American neighbors, requiring them to uphold the highest standards of behavior and achievement—lest the Americans consider them, and Japan more generally, to be backward. And her daughters—in collecting the high grades, school prizes, and recognition for community works that she encouraged them to obtain—demonstrated those values of discipline and hard work that Chieko had been taught in those school songs and that she passed on to the next generation.

(p. 112) Acknowledgment

Research for this chapter was funded by a fellowship from SSRC/JSPS. I thank Professor Hosokawa Shūhei and the staff at the Nichibunken and National Diet Libraries for their help in collecting materials. This chapter was originally written as part of my doctoral dissertation; I thank my committee—Professors Peter Manuel, William Rothstein, Mark Spicer, and Jane Sugarman—for their comments. I thank my CUNY colleagues Becky O’Donoghue and Andrew Pau for recording these songs. I thank my mother, uncles, and late aunt for their insights and encouragement.


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(1) Manabe (2009) provides a description of the texts and music of school songs from 1877 to 1947.

(2) Recordings of all school songs published by the Ministry of Education between 1881 and 1947 are available on Yamato (2000). The collection also includes a book with a short historical explanation and facsimiles of the songbooks.

(3) The pilot is expecting an honorable death for himself, so that both classmates, as war dead, would be enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine. The song was a favorite of kamikaze pilots (Yamashita 2005: 232).