The Best National Anthems: Japan

Having disposed of nine nominees on Wednesday and Thursday for the coveted title of World’s Best National Anthem, let’s jump right into the six finalists.

Again, the initial rankings were based on a semi-serious but mostly objective calculation weighing three factors: how long the song has endured as official anthem; how singable the anthem is, as compared to an optimal range that’s neither too difficult nor unchallenging; how many men’s and women’s soccer World Cups and how many Olympic gold medals (as a percentage of medals available in years the nation competed under that anthem) the anthem inspired that nation’s athletes to win. Plus a few intangibles here or there.

Having reached the final six nominees, I then turned things over to the sixteen students in my Modern Europe class and had them listen to all six (and read their lyrics and histories), rank them from 1st through 6th best, and then explain their top and bottom rankings.

The voting was fairly close: every anthem got at least one 1st place vote, and all but one got at least two votes. But two anthems each got six 6th place votes, and two got none.

So, with those results tabulated, I’ll now reveal the 6th best national anthem in the world:

Japan, “Kimigayo
Longevity: official 1880-1945 and 1999-present; de facto anthem from 1945-1999
Singability: ranges from C4-D5 (C4 = middle C)
Inspiration: 2.8% of Olympic golds won; 1 World Cup won (women’s 2011)
Student Ranking (number ranking it 1st/2nd/3rd/etc.): 2/0/1/3/3/6

A strong fifth place after the first round, “Kimigayo” has deep roots in Japanese culture (its lyrics go back at least a thousand years, and in its present form, it has survived multiple forms of government — more on that later, as it’s also a source of some criticism), is the ideal range for singing (matching that for two of the other finalists), and has inspired a fair amount of international sporting success. Alex Marshall of The Guardian included “Kimigayo” in his top ten, describing it as “Solemn. So much so, it’ll have you thinking of everyone you’ve lost for its duration. Rarely does an anthem carry such weight.”

Which is remarkable, considering that:

  1. Its duration is barely a minute, if sung leisurely. At eleven measures, it’s got to be the shortest national anthem in the world.
  2. Its words — to Western, republican ears — may seem relatively uninspiring: “May your [the emperor’s] reign / Continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations, / Until the pebbles / Grow into boulders / Lush with moss.”

Both factors came up repeatedly in the comments from the six students who rated it the worst of the six anthems they studied:

• The lyrics are not the best. They don’t exude national pride or excitement about their country. Maybe it is a cultural thing but the lyrics seem to center on just the reigning body at the time and not on the people that make up Japan. It is also extremely short so it is hard to fit a lot of national pride in that short of an anthem.

• VERY short, and simply calls for a long Japanese reign rather than making any mention of values or noble causes.

• “Kimigayo” is just too short to attract my attention. It is not really a song in the traditional sense. It is more like a pledge to the emperor.

Indeed, and that gets at the other problem with “Kimigayo”: is an anthem whose lyrics were written in a time of imperial and aristocratic rule and whose music did not become popular until after military triumphs over China and Russia that heralded the rise of Japanese imperialism an appropriate symbol for a peaceful democracy with a constitutional monarch? The fact that so many Japanese have said “no” caused at least two of my students to ask if “Kimigayo” serves a basic purpose of the national anthem—i.e., to help unite the “imagined community”:

• I chose to put it last on this list because from reading the history about it, there seems like there isn’t that much support of it. [More] of the Japanese support it than the other one [?], but there has been controversy about playing it at school events and such. There isn’t much in the lyrics to make the nation get together and support their country. There is nothing talking about getting together as a nation or as a people. Along with all that, it just seems that the people of Japan just don’t like the anthem or their flag, so I feel there is a lack of nationalism.

• [The] lyrics refer to their previous form of government under an emperor, and it was not changed when Japan became a democratic nation. Additionally, there have been controversies over its use, which does not support the idea of the national anthem being an instrument in uniting people.

On the other hand, two students picked it as their favorite of the six finalists. Let’s hear from them:

• I thought that the Japanese National Anthem had three significant components: simplicity, beauty and history. Throughout each of these, one gains a sense of the Japanese culture. It is short but lovely with a simple melody but powerful tune. The lyrics and even the controversy generated by the lyrics demonstrate the history of Japan as a culture impressed by nature and a political system that has experienced the rule of the few and the rule of the people. It just seems to encapsulate Japan in both a succinct and beautiful way. Even though, unlike many of the other anthems, it does not elaborate upon unification or national glory, it still conveys a sense of prosperity and shared identity among the Japanese people both now and in the future. The song is of a very different style than the others.

• This anthem is both beautiful and rooted in history. Coming from the Waka written in the Heian Period (794-1185) it calls upon a deep sense of nationalism that spans back further than my western mind can fully comprehend.

Whatever the problem with the lyric, I tend to agree that the tune is simple but powerful. Written in a minor scale (D Dorian) not often associated with this kind of song, it is strangely contemplative, a compelling counterpoint to all those bombastic European and North/South American anthems so thirsty for their enemies’ blood or wont to celebrate their own glory. It also fuses a diatonic melody, so identifiable with much East Asian music, with Western orchestration and harmonization (the current version was arranged by a German composer), which seems appropriate given the direction of Japanese history from 1868 on.

All next week: counting down the top five!

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