AN 2 9130

Shoka: Japanese Children Songs

Album information


One day, Kent Nagano listened carefully when his wife was singing a children’s song to his daughter. The song told a chapter of Japanese history previously unknown to him: It told of emotion, tenderness, love – and bitterness. The song originates from a period when Japan had to open up to the West. At this time, Japan was suffering from overpopulation, starvation and poverty.

“These songs came to me very late. Though of Japanese heritage, my family came to America at the end of the 19th century leaving me three generations away from Japan. I came down one morning to breakfast and found my daughter listening to these songs on a little recording, and my wife was singing along with the songs to try to teach them to my daughter.”

His daughter Karin Kei was three years old on the day she inspired to one of her father’s most ambitious projects. Kent Nagano was so touched by the lyrics and sounds of the songs that he immediately started researching their source.

“After quite a while, I’d say six weeks or two months, after listening every morning to these intriguing and beautiful melodies, it occured to me that due to my limited Japanese, I had no complete comprehension of what they were about, and so I asked my daughter to explain the texts. Her translation, confirmed by my wife, revealed a complex and profoundly poetic collection of texts. They were at once both intensely moving emotionally and dis turbing. Their haunting, mysterious beauty has conti nued to entice all generations since their creation making them actual and vividly relevant to our modern world.”

In Japan, the songs that enchanted Nagano are commonly known as “Shoka”, or school hymns. They are based on famous Japanese poetry, but are composed in the Western musical style. The songs emerged during the era of the Meiji-Restorations in the outgoing 19th and early 20th century. It was the time when Japan finally opened itself to the West after close to 250 years of reclusiveness. The backward feudal state transformed into a modern imperial world power. It was in this period of economic and cultural upheaval that the children’s “Shoka” came into being. Sometimes the lyrics deal with day to day life, while other songs tell of the strangers coming ashore in Japan. Some tell the stories of Japanese who went overseas to flee the poverty at home.

The songs from ancient times have left a deep impression on the American conductor and rekindled his interest in his Japanese roots. Kent Nagano wanted to bring them to public attention by a performance with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. His friend, Peter Schmidt, a famous designer from Hamburg, created animated short films to support the musical event.

Two songs and their story behind
With the opening of Japan, Christian missionaries from the United States and Europe came to the country. Churches were built and soon became a center of society, a place where the new children’s tunes were often sung.

Doll with blue eyes
The blue-eyed doll comes from America and is made of celluloid. When the doll arrived at the port, her eyes were full of tears. “I understand none of your words. What should I do if I get lost?” Warmhearted Japanese girls, be nice and gentle when playing with her! Be nice and gentle when playing with her!

The lyrics were first published in 1921 in a children’s magazine. An American missionary inspired by the song had the idea to have children from the United States send “dolls with blue eyes” to Japan as signs of their friendship. But in 1941, when the United States and Japan declared war, the dolls became a symbol of the enemy. With their big, blue eyes they were seen as “spies” by the Japanese, and most of the dolls were burned.

Wearing red shoes a young girl she left with a stranger.
Wearing red shoes a young girl she left with a stranger.
From the port of Yokohama, aboard a ship, she left with a stranger.

The children’s song akai kutsu tells the story of a girl who is adopted by an American missionary and his wife. From Yokohama they set off to take her to the United States with them.

akai kutsu, a song from 1921, is one of the most popular children’s songs in Japan. Lyrics and music convey the longing for the far away, but also the jealousy towards the girl who is allowed to go to the “promised West” wearing the red shoes. And on another note, there’s pity for the girl who lives abroad, missing Japan.

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Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM)
Kent Nagano
AN 2 9130

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