It's Only Love: Modern Japanese Love Song Lyrics as Texts

Nora Stevens

After hearing so many different kinds of songs in class, I began thinking about the ones I had personally come across in my travels to Japan. I realized that love--whether new, unrequited, or lost--is probably the most common topic for songs in just about any country, and Japan is no exception. I narrowed my field of study to Japanese love songs, especially the more modern ones, mostly from the last decade.
However, it did not seem fair to compare Japanese love songs with American ones, at the risk of falling into the "X is better than Y" trap. As a linguist and Japanese major, too, I am perhaps most interested in song lyrics--how each song says what it says. Thus, I chose to zero in on the words of these love songs.
Finally, I wanted to examine several different styles of love songs, from singer-songwriter material to pieces from one of the most modern musical media: video games. I chose two examples of each (usually one male and one female, where applicable) and proceeded to analyze them both separately and together. I took special care to consider devices such as structure and meter along with theme and vocabulary. The full text of all songs used in this paper is available here, and was translated by me (with professorial fine-tuning) unless otherwise indicated.

Singer-Songwriters: Male: It's Only Love
Popular in the summer of 1994, this interesting piece portrays a young man who thought breaking up with his girlfriend was the best thing that happened to him--until he realizes he is still overwhelmed by his feelings for her. Japanese (female) friends of mine were captivated by this song, which shows what sensitivity can lie beneath the typical Japanese guy's coolly stoic exterior. (Or maybe it only showed what sensitivity they hoped was there, and that's why it was so popular.)
The song has some narrative elements, which include the speaker, alone, being drawn to the sea by forces beyond his control. In his loneliness, he believes he may be subconsciously searching for something--or someone. But if "it's only love," as he admits ironically, why isn't it easier to forget the one you loved?
The personal pronouns Fukuyama chose for himself and his girlfriend, boku and kimi, suggest a comfortable familiarity; furthermore, it implies that both of them are still on equal grounds. By these words, which mean "me" and "you" respectively, we can also tell that he is addressing this piece to her personally. He uses many "affection words" (koibito "lover", suki na "favorite" or "beloved", ai "love", even the English love) and several that bring to mind deep emotions (mune "chest" or "heart", omoide "emotions", omoi "feelings", kokoro "heart", kanjiru "feel"). These, along with the dream motif (yume), figure largely in most of the eight songs studied here.
These words alone do not effectively convey the author's sentiments, however; it is more important to note his repetition of the words wasureru "forget", hakobu "carry", and sarau "sweep away". Along with images of the ocean (umi) and wind (kaze), such verbs imply a longed-for obliteration ("I want to forget about you") or a practically literal sensation of being carried away against one's will ("So why is there still one more / Wave that sweeps away my feelings?"). It may be noted that sarau, kaze, and umi show up in a few other of these pieces as well.
The meter is fairly regular, and the five-line refrains have beautiful V-shaped syllable counts: 12-11-10-11-12. There are, on average, about 11 syllables per line. Furthermore, if one assigns letters to each verse and stanza, an overall pattern emerges: AABC-AABC-BC1. The last BC is centered around the song's one key change, and the final C1 is actually an embellished refrain that combines elements of the two previous C portions.
Many of its lines are neat parallels of one another, such as "suki na yume o miteru" / "suki na kimi o miteru" and "kitto jiyuu na n da" / "kitto shiawase datta". The repetition of "umi e kita no ka" as well as most of the refrain reinforces the helplessness the singer feels, yet the new elements in the second refrain and the flourishes in the final reiteration keep our interest. The title is sung four times, and can be seen as a kind of mantra for the singer--reminding himself of a reason to put it all behind him.

Singer-Songwriters: Female: Rouge no Dengon
Written and performed by the star Arai Yuumi, this piece was both the opening theme to Miyazaki Hayao's charming 1989 anime film Majo no Takkyuubin (translated as Kiki's Delivery Service) as well as a popular single, although I do not know which came first. Unlike most animated film themes in the States, this one had nothing to do with the plot. The heroine simply switches on a radio, and this song happens to be playing--a unique introduction which may have helped establish the song as music for the masses.
The narrative is clear: The singer's boyfriend has been eyeing other women, and she boldly sets out by train to snitch on him to his mother--but not before scrawling a message in lipstick on (presumably) the bathroom mirror. Looking out the window as the town flies past, she imagines how her leaving town must have shown her boyfriend a thing or two. I found it interesting that we are never explicitly told what her "lipstick message" is, but from the context, we can assume it's a warning for her beau to shape up...or she'll ship out.
There is a definite emotional distance between these two besides the physical one. Arai uses watashi for herself and the roundabout ano hito (literally meaning "that person" and used metaphorically as "my boyfriend") for her lover. She is singing mostly to a third person or to herself; there are only two lines addressed directly to her boyfriend, in which she calls him "my darling"--probably in teasing jest, as she has just threatened him with a hostile phone call from his mother.
Like It's Only Love, this couple is separated, although it was a one-sided decision made on the spur of the moment. However, this piece differs from It's Only Love in its complete lack of remorse and emotionally charged words. It is obvious that this girl feels she has been done wrong; she is proud of her ability to turn the tables on her unfaithful sweetheart and offer an effective ultimatum. In fact, she shows the most positive emotion as she sings about her "uneasy feelings" slipping by the wayside as she travels farther from home (and her boyfriend) and closer to his mother (and resolution). Koi "love" is mentioned only once, and negatively--in the context of her lover's fickle habits.
There are three gairaigo, loan words, used in this song--four if you count the incongruous ding-dong, translated as "quickly" here and in other versions. They lend an air of modernity, certainly in keeping with the image of the singer/narrator as a girl who is perfectly comfortable taking matters into her own hands. Yet if we call that masculine behavior (and that's a big "if"), we must also note her use of traditionally feminine forms of speech such as sentence-final no, wa, and kashira. She may be reasserting herself as a woman through her language, but makes clear via her actions that she is no wishy-washy "hai, anata" ("yes, dear") type. Of course, the medium in which she chooses to express her bathroom-mirror threat is also inherently feminine--another duality.
The meter is even, with the main verses following a 13-14-19-9 pattern fairly regularly. The song averages about 14 syllables per line. Applying letters to the verses and refrains, we get AABC-ABC; this final ABC cluster is not, however, heard in the movie--as it appears when the song is listed under "Arai Yuumi" in the better karaoke boxes, I assume it is featured in the single release. Finally, the title appears twice, nestled into the last part of the second line of two parallel verses.

Idols: Male: Kimi ga Inai Natsu
This beautiful song from 1997 was one of a series of ending songs used for the television anime "Detective Conan" as well as being included on one of Deen's own albums. Like the previous song, it has no real connection to the show's plot, which allows it to be in freer distribution and attain a level of popularity that may not have been possible if it had had too specialized a theme. It was written by Komatsu Mihou, a singer-songwriter who also wrote and performed the opening song used in conjunction with this one.
Here, too, is a couple separated, apparently by mutual consent. Yet the man continues to reminisce about the summers the two of them spent together, lamenting the way his memories of her are fading, and painfully enduring summers without her, year after year. Compare this unwanted loss of memories with the way the singer in It's Only Love wanted nothing more than to forget his love, yet was not allowed to do so. In this case, although he realizes they decided to call it quits, he is still "praying a little" for just a piece of the happiness he knows he can never have again.
No pronoun is used to refer to the singer himself, but he uses the familiar kimi for his estranged girlfriend--an appropriate choice if he is indeed still pining for her. Yume appears twice, both in the context of dreams he wants to pursue with his lover as well as brilliant dreams of days past that, like his memories, are gradually fading away. In that vein, wasureru and omoide o nakusu "lose memories" also show up a couple of times; the depth of his feelings is expressed in words like mune and kokoro, but the only vaguely love-related word he uses is daisuki "beloved". The motif of kotoba "words" is also introduced here and will show up in three following selections as well.
What he lacks in heartfelt nouns, he makes up for in adjectives. Yasashii "kind" and odayaka "gentle" are used in the same verse to describe both his girlfriend and the waves which wash against her and sweep her farther and farther away in his mind. To me, however, the most touching words are amai "sweet", as in the "sweet summer days" he's trying so hard to remember, and azayakasugiru "too vivid"--the summers spent apart that he's trying so hard to forget.
The verbs used reflect a yearning: oikakeru "chase after", hanareru "be separated", and sarau, among others. Again, sarau shows up in the context of nami carrying a loved one (or memories of her) away. What I found most interesting was the shift from modorenai "can't return" to modoranai "won't return"--and then back again. Removing all possibility of their reliving their life together, as he does by using "can't", makes it easier for him to accept the choices they have made; saying they won't return implies that the two of them may in fact be able to get back together, but just don't want to or are stubbornly holding grudges (etcetera). It is much more comforting, then, to use "can't".
A nearly perfect 13-17-17-14 meter in the verses--perfect if you hear the doubled vowel in the middle of Verse 1's ikite--coupled with a spotless 15-16-15-16 refrain and topped off with a poignant 22-foot tag makes for a tight, well-planned song, technically the best of these eight. The lines average about 17 feet each, the longest in this group, and the AB-AB-ABB stanza pattern is pleasantly structured. Interestingly, the title is sung but once, and though it may not have been the most immediate choice for a title (given the four-time repetition of the song's longest and most conspicuous line), it is perhaps the most accurate, summing up 24 lines in only eight syllables and drawing on the natsu no hi "summer days" theme mentioned twice before.

Idols: Female: Nagai Aida
Probably the simplest of the eight songs studied here, this lovely piece, performed by the duo Kiroro, hit the charts in spring 1998. It is the first so far in this paper to discuss a relationship that is going very well--so well, in fact, that the woman wonders if it's time for her to admit she loves her boyfriend. She also attributes her happiness and almost her well-being to him, another first (and a polar opposite to the jilted woman in Rouge no Dengon). In keeping with the two male selections above, the singer feels this love most strongly when the two of them are separated, even if for a short while: absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Her boyfriend calls from work to apologize for being late and making her lonely, but she notes that his voice gives away his own stress at being separated. She then admits what power he has over her, how happy she is when they can finally get together. Realizing for the first time the extent of her feelings for her partner, she suddenly thinks "I love you"--but cannot bring herself to go that far. After all, what's said is said. It should be noted that aishiteru "I love you" is not said carelessly in Japan. More usually, a boy- or girlfriend would say anata (no koto) ga suki "I like (some things about) you", or anata ni muchuu "I'm crazy about you". "I love you" is reserved for real love (Tse 55).
The woman uses the standard watashi for herself and both anata and the much more informal kimi for her lover. Traditionally, kimi has been used only by men, but there are no real equivalents in standard women's speech. In order to achieve a higher level of intimacy in the way she relates to her boyfriend linguistically, adopting kimi was probably her best bet. Although from these pronouns one could read the song as a two-person conversation, I am more inclined to think of it as a monologue, that perhaps the singer is auditioning to herself what she wants to say to her lover.
Again, mune and omoi make appearances, along with the aishiteru that is so pivotal to the song's theme. It is interesting that, although this song does contain wasureru as do the two male songs discussed earlier, it is in the negative--"I want to be near you / So I won't forget your smiling face." It may have been an unspoken wish of the man in Kimi ga Inai Natsu, but the woman here is straightforward enough to admit it out loud. Sarau is used as well, with positive connotations rather than ones of lonely desperation.
The meter is irregular, but the average line length is about eleven syllables. Each verse is similar in construction, and the two versions of the refrain are alike as well. The song ends with a cycle of the first refrain followed by the second refrain, repeated once. As the refrain is what carries the important "aishiteru--masaka ne" theme and her reasons for wanting to say it, this repetition serves to highlight the joy felt in this relationship as well as the difficulty she has making such a decision. The title has as little to do with the theme as Kimi ga Inai Natsu's, and is likewise sung only once, though it has an unusual position as the first part of the very first line.

Video Game Songs: Released: Hikari no Naka E
The melody of this song first made its appearance in the 1991 home console game Final Fantasy IV (FF2 in English) as Ai no Theme "Theme of Love", the song that played through most scenes involving the main hero's girlfriend Rosa. A variation on this theme was also used during their wedding in the closing sequence. Three years later, it was included on an album of orchestrated and lyricized Final Fantasy songs. (There are eight games and counting in this popular series, so the lyricists have plenty of songs to choose from.) Although other video game songs can be like television theme songs--having too much to do with the game's or show's plot to be popular any other way--I was pleased that this one turned out so unmarked.
Dealing with unrequited love, a woman sings of the object of her affection aloof and alone, almost in his own little world far from companionship, while she struggles with the love for him welling up within. She admires him as the woman in Nagai Aida admires her boyfriend, saying he'll open locked doors and lead ill-fated ships into the light. I suspect this last is a metaphor, perhaps signifying that he can reverse the inexorable path of one doomed to failure. As she associates herself with negative images--being at a loss, allowing her memories to "break and scatter" as she tucks them away--she is implying that she, too, can be lifted into the light and rescued if only he would notice her waiting for him.
Because the two are strangers for all intents and purposes, it is fitting that she use the polite watashi and anata to refer to herself and her crush. The unrequited love and near idol-worship is also a reason for her saying watashi but once and anata four times, putting the focus on him even as she begs him to realize she's there for him.
Although kokoro is used twice and aishita once, they don't seem to have much to do with love. In fact, the first use of kokoro is in describing the loneliness of her beloved's distant heart and the second in her statement that her glazed eyes cannot convey her feelings. Likewise, aishita describes only songs, not flesh and blood. Omoide is described not as being carried off or lost, but rather consciously locked away and allowed to shatter.
Regular meter is to be expected in a song where the words were put to music that had already been around for three years, and indeed the meter is precise. Two lines, with parallels elsewhere, feature extra syllables, as in "dare mo inai kara" and "ima wa todokanai" with eight instead of the usual seven, but this is acceptable even by ancient Japanese standards of poetry. The average line length is about eight syllables, the shortest among these selections--and perhaps also natural when the words are but an afterthought. Stanzas follow an AA-BBC-BBC pattern structurally (not musically), and we are kept waiting for the title until the very last line.

Video Game Songs: Unreleased: Chikazuku Yokan
I chose to examine this piece because of its uniqueness. Written for Final Fantasy VI (FF3 in English) but never used in the game, Chikazuku Yokan presumably sat on a shelf somewhere until its release on an EP of special and unreleased FFVI tracks. It was lyricized for its debut and sung by the video game company's staff; a karaoke version was also included on the CD. In this way, it can be seen more as a regular commercial tune rather than a theme song, the role it was written for but one it never filled.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to analyze because of its arcane, fragmentary lyrics. It is also hard to pinpoint one singer and one audience, especially because the verses are sung by different people and the chorus by the entire group. However, we can note that there is a feeling of going onward and upward, a deep and unending love, dreams that won't be forgotten, and a strong premonition of beautiful things to come. Anata is used twice, in the context of being loved and protected, but there is no first-person pronoun in this song. To make matters worse, the first anata is sung by a chorus of women, and the second by a mixed chorus--if there is one voice, one person singing to an audience, we can't even be sure if they're male or female.
For all that, though, love abounds. Words like suki, ai, jounetsu "passion", kokoro, kanjiru, and even dakishimeru "embrace" are really what help make this a love song. The line "I love you / So much that I can't breathe" may be the most "love song-y" part, along with the concept of protecting someone as long as love lasts. Notice also the yume motif--chasing after dreams as in Kimi ga Inai Natsu--and the wasurenai concept as in Nagai Aida. Sasou even shows up in almost the same context as in It's Only Love: the wind beckoning the singer onward, but not to emotions better left unfelt. Kaze is an important element in this song, appearing without umi unlike previous examples. The repetition of "sore dake...sore dake (de ii)" puts an emphasis on simplicity while providing reassurance at the same time.
Another feature of this song is the counterpoint that appears in the second refrain and then in the reiteration of the first refrain. Sung by a second all-male chorus, it embellishes what has already been presented by the main chorus, usually with related verbs or merely additional words that do not change the meaning--as in "Time (As it passes)" and "Never again (No, never again)". They provide additional information and varied views on whatever subject is at hand, and above all make the refrains interesting, especially when the first refrain with which one is already familiar is reworked in such a refreshing way.
Although the verse meter is not regular, the two reworked refrains follow a 9-10-9-11-9-9-11 pattern, and all other lines are between seven and eleven syllables long, making for an average line length of about nine syllables. The AAB-AAC-CC pattern, where C is a revamped version of B, is straightforward and easy to listen to.

Television Themes: Drama: LA LA LA Love Song
The "trendy drama" Long Vacation debuted on Japanese television in 1996 and ran for eleven episodes. It was and is still incredibly popular in Japan as well as throughout Asia, in part because its male lead was none other than heartthrob Kimura Takuya of SMAP. The show itself had a musical subtext, as Kimura's character was a piano teacher with dreams of becoming a concert pianist. Having said that, however, it is again nice to see an TV show's opening theme that does not have anything specifically to do with the show's plot; the song, like the show, still enjoys immense popularity.
For a refreshing turn of pace, LA LA LA Love Song continues on the path of Chikazuku Yokan with a love that is the healthiest we've seen so far. A man tells how he played hard-to-get while secretly wishing he could be with a certain girl, glories in their chance meeting, and exuberantly celebrates the full-fledged love they have nurtured from seed. As in Hikari no Naka E, he also hints that he had been an emotional wreck before she was in his life (using the same "breaking into pieces" idea), and suggests that the two kiss "until [they] stop breathing"--similar to Chikazuku Yokan's declaration of love.
The pronouns boku and kimi, again, introduce a level of comfortable intimacy; after all, "there's nothing for [the singer] to be shy about" around his girl. "Love"--not ai, not koi, but English "love"--is mentioned a whopping fourteen times, while neither of the Japanese terms noted above appear at all. Such an overwhelming use of gairaigo--not to mention "merry-go-round", "melody", "love song", and the handful of lines sung by American model Naomi Campbell--makes this piece hip and sexy, going much farther than Rouge no Dengon's endearing modernity. (There may be unexpected side effects for English speakers, though: the repeated lines "Wanna make love / Wanna make love song--hey, baby" inspired one of my American friends to call the song "cheap" and compare it to early Madonna.)
Kokoro pops up again, as it has in most of the previous songs, and dakiyoseru, related to dakishimeru, reappears from Chikazuku Yokan. One newcomer is kuchizuke "kiss" (note that it isn't the probably more common loanword kissu; the writer may have considered that much gairaigo superfluous). He touches on the kotoba motif seen elsewhere as he sings of a love song more serious than words, and actually speaks of the moment the two met, calling it a "miracle" that "changed the color of our tears"--a metaphor describing the change from tears of lonely sorrow to ones of giddy joy.
I enjoyed the English lines tucked into the mini-verses, especially because they cleverly echo the lines that came before: brand-new love plus changed tears, being one's shining star plus a starless night. If one listens closely, one can even hear a "No, thanks!" in the background after "'Mappira!' to yokomuite". If there's going to be that much English in a song, at least it depends heavily on the Japanese that's already in place.
Setting aside Campbell's phatic "Wanna make love" contributions and splitting the eight-line verse and refrain into groups of four lines each for consistency, we find a meter of about 10-8-9-9, give or take a syllable, in the verses and about 10-12-10-7 in the refrains. It fits well and goes down easy, so to speak. A very long piece, the stanza pattern falls into something like ABCCD-AABCD-AAEAA, and as the title falls into the last line of all those A's and B's, it is most certainly hard to miss. This and the following song are the only two in this collection to have "love song" in their titles, disregarding the original title of Hikari no Naka E's melody.

Television Themes: Anime: Lum no Love Song
Urusei Yatsura, usually translated as Those Obnoxious Aliens, was a serialized manga by the prolific manga-ka Takahashi Rumiko before it was made into a television anime in 1981. The female lead, Lum, is a beautiful oni-girl (a traditional Japanese demon) and an alien to boot. She mistakenly believes the male lead has proposed marriage and vows to be his forevermore--despite the fact that he, a notorious lecher, simply cannot be stopped from eyeing other women. Lum, who has a bad habit of extreme fits of jealousy, tries her darnedest to keep him faithful with the liberal application of electric shocks and other forms of tough-love punishment. This song, the opening theme, does have a lot to do with the plot of the show, but is still general enough to be reasonably popular on its own (though it has never reached the level of any of the singer-songwriter or idol pieces covered earlier).
The singer chastises her lover, or would-be lover, for not paying more attention to her and for pretending she doesn't exist, despite the fact that she loves him more than anyone else. Along with this come two refrains bemoaning the fickle ways of men and wondering out loud why they find it so difficult to love one woman and one alone. The theme has some aspects in common with the spurned girlfriend of Rouge no Dengon, and its admonitions to notice the singer awaiting his love may also be seen in Hikari no Naka E.
Despite the informality and intimacy desired by the woman in this song, she may still realize the distance between her and her beloved: she uses watashi for herself and anata for him. There is some feminine language, but not as much as in Rouge no Dengon (only one wa, for example), and no loan words. The song does feature two gitaigo, onomatopoeia describing actions rather than sounds: sowa-sowa "fidgety" and kyoro-kyoro "looking all over the place (nervously)".
Love shows up in suki (thirty-two times!), aishite, muchuu, and ai. The yume motif shows up as the woman dreaming of her loved one, and while there's nothing being swept off or forgotten in this piece, all the loves a man insists on having are spread all over confusedly. Following what was said earlier about "anata ga aishiteru" versus "anata ni muchuu", the singer attributes the former to her feelings and the latter to her lover's--rendering her emotions for her one love as deeper and more sincere, even more important than the mere infatuation the man experiences for girl after girl.
The opening refrain, repeated once more and then again with changes, has a surprisingly uniform 12-12-12-12 meter. While none of the other portions are as consistent, the average line length is very close at about eleven syllables per line. The stanzas are laid out as ABCD-AD-A1, with the final A1 a version of A plus a trimmed version of B. Unique among all the songs presented here, the title of this piece is never mentioned within the song itself.

Phonetic notes (slightly technical)
VCCV words, like saratte and totta, can be pronounced in one of two ways: with a long consonant, as is usual in speech, or with an elongated vowel before the consonant. The latter is more common in songs, as it sounds much more melodic and less choppy. It's simply easier to carry the tune through vowels rather than consonants (note, however, that the syllabic nasal n is a sonorant like vowels are: you can sing through it just as easily). Saratte, then, is sung as "saraate". Most words that fit this pattern are sung this way in these eight pieces, with a few exceptions, emphasizing crisp consonants rather than mellifluous vowels:

  • It's Only Love: natte, totta
  • Nagai Aida: saratte (in direct opposition to It's Only Love's 'saraate')
  • LA LA LA Love Song: kesshite
  • Lum no Love Song: hito 'tte

Works Used

It's Only Love. Written and performed by Fukuyama Masaharu. 1994: BMG Victor, Inc.

Rouge no Dengon. Written and performed by Arai Yuumi. This version: 1989: Tokuma Japan Communications, Inc.

Kimi ga Inai Natsu. Written by Komatsu Mihou, performed by Deen. 1997: B-Gram Records, Inc.

Nagai Aida. Performed by Kiroro. 1998.

Ai no Theme. Composed by Uematsu Nobuo for Final Fantasy IV. 1991: Squaresoft, Inc.

Hikari no Naka E. Written by Yamabuki Ririko, performed by Ohki Risa. 1994: Square, Inc.

Chikazuku Yokan. Performed by Square staff members. 1994: Polystar/NTT Publishing, Inc.

LA LA LA Love Song. Written and performed by Toshinobu Kubota with Naomi Campbell. 1996.

Lum no Love Song. Written by Itoh Akira and Kobayashi Izumi, performed by Matsutani Yuuko. 1981.

Tse, Peter. Kansai Japanese. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1993.