This article was originally featured in the April 2024 issue of Connect.

Julia Hakes (Hokkaido)

Most people familiar with Japanese music will also be familiar with the sometimes questionable lines and phrases in English that many artists are fond of using. A lot of the time, the artists or writers of these songs may not be able to speak a particularly high level of English themselves, and so often the English used is more for effect and impression rather than actual meaning.

At the same time, there are also artists that put in work to make sure the English compliments the Japanese they’re using. There are bilingual artists that combine English and Japanese in their songs in novel ways. Rather than having English lines floating about without any particular connection to the rest of the Japanese song, these artists can make English and Japanese work together resulting in a unique effect.

The Spoken and the Unspoken

A really interesting example of this is the song “人は嫌い (I Don’t Like People)” (1) by Michel Ko. Ko is a singer from Taiwan that often uses multiple languages in his songs. In “人は嫌い,” the second verse of the song describes a conversation and quotes that conversation directly, while also detailing the speaker’s thoughts on it. The distinction between spoken words and unspoken thoughts is made clear through switching between languages. The parts of the conversation that the singer is quoting are sung in Japanese, while thoughts and other details are explained in English.

The first few lines, “this week’s been kinda rough, ran into some old friends” sets up the conversation. Then the conversation begins with the friends speaking, “they said 最近元気なの?(how are you doing these days?) I tell them I’m okay.” (2) The rest of the short conversation continues on in this manner.

This is an interesting stylistic choice that serves a very practical function in clearly defining the barriers between what is spoken and unspoken. Furthermore, it can also be an interesting example of one way that the speakers of multiple languages may choose to use their language abilities in unconventional ways.

Outside of music, I’ve witnessed Japanese-English bilingual speakers have two conversations at once while texting one another, differentiating between the two topics by following one line of conversation in English, and the second in Japanese. This can be very practical as it makes it clear which topic any given message or comment is on, without the need to clarify.

The conversation described in “人は嫌い” ends with the singer commenting “hate all the small talk, 時間あったら飲みに行こうよ (when you have time, let’s go for a drink), thank god you’re here with me, so I wouldn’t feel out of place.” (3) This portion of the conversation is particularly interesting to look at as the quoted portion in Japanese comes across much more as an insincere invitation when contrasted by the thoughts of the singer, in English, that directly precede it. The English portion affects the way that the Japanese portion is interpreted. The different languages interact with one another, rather than just sitting alongside each other.

A Smooth Transition

Later in the song, Ko also makes English and Japanese play off each other in a very different way. He starts with a line, “空気なんか読めない (I can’t read the air)” (4) in Japanese and has it smoothly transition back to English through an overlap in sounds. The song continues with “I didn’t know that you were searching for another guy.” Because the final vowel sound in 読めない is pronounced the same way the first “I” in the English portion is, the two sections flow together cohesively. This is much more of a surface stylistic choice than the previous conversation, but it is still an interesting method of blending the two languages in a cohesive way. Rather than the way that the previous conversation used the switching of languages as a way to bring attention to the contrast between the spoken and unspoken, this sort of transition makes the switch sound and feel seamless.

Just a Word

The bilingual Japanese artist Kenta Dedachi also makes use of multiple languages in novel ways. In many of his songs, he will throw English words into the middle of a line in Japanese or Japanese words into the middle of a line in English. While it may be that no two people use language in exactly the same way, some speakers of two or more languages will use this sort of language mixing within a single sentence during conversation.

Personally, I’m always guilty of saying that events are happening “at the 公民館 (community center)” (5) because I can never be bothered to figure out what the correct name is for it in English. Another ALT I know says that both she and the JTE she works with refer to the grade levels in Japanese, as 一年生 (first-year student) (6), for example, even when speaking English.

An example of this sort of speech in Dedachi’s music is the line, “you put it on me, 溺れる (drown) sickening pressure on me” (7), in his song “Strawberry Psycho.” These lines could have been written entirely in English and maintained the same meaning, but the structure of them would have changed and they would sound different. As it is now, the song has a very distinct, almost staccato, quality that is emphasized by the fast and distinct syllables of 溺れる. Although the brief switch to Japanese is not necessary, the line would lose some of the snappy rhythmic quality that it has now.

Ending Somewhere Else

Switching languages mid-sentence is a little bit more complicated than just using a single word of one language in a sentence of the other, but it can also allow for some more interesting use cases.

This also happens in both music and actual conversation. One of my Japanese friends loves to use English phrases while speaking Japanese, often saying things like “my car で行こう (let’s go)” (8) or “たぶん (maybe), I can’t go かもしれない (maybe).” (9)

There’s a fun example of this in Dedachi’s song “Beau,” where he says that “だって彼は (because he’s…) not your type.” (10) This sentence maintains a Japanese grammar structure, but includes the expression “not your type” in English. By using a set phrase in English, the expression exists within the sentence without English grammar clashing with Japanese grammar and making the sentence sound unnatural.

A second similar instance of this is the line “up and down はしょうがないじゃん (can’t be helped)” (11) in Dedaichi’s song “Fire and Gold.” These two examples are interesting to look at together, because although one moved from Japanese to English, and the other from English to Japanese, the sort of language used in the Japanese portion is similar between both lines. The parts of speech important to Japanese sentence structure remain in Japanese, as well as things like だって and じゃん which have a very particular sort of tone to them. In both cases, the set-up of these lines allows them to sound impressively smooth and natural.

Escaping Redundancy vs. Embracing It

One last method of combining languages that leads to interesting results is when switching languages allows the artist to say essentially the same thing, but with completely different words. In some ways, this sort of language use reminds me of what it was like to be writing essays in university, rephrasing things that I had already said, nominally to provide clarity, but in reality motivated by a desire to increase the word count. Pop songs aren’t essays though, and in this discussion the reason for the inclusion isn’t as important as the effect that the inclusion creates.

There are two types of repetition in the song “全部あなたのせいなんだ” (it’s all your fault) (12) from the band I Don’t Like Mondays. The first three lines of the chorus are “it’s your fault that I’m in trouble, fuck I’m in the middle, 全部あなたのせいなんだ” of which, you may notice, the first and third are functionally the same.

Even though the singer is essentially saying the same thing twice, because he does so in two different languages rather than truly just repeating himself, the lyrics don’t end up sounding repetitive. The repetition of the sound of the line isn’t there, just the repetition of the meaning. This allows the song to stress the point of those lines, as repetition would normally, but also for each line to sound and feel different.

The second sort of repetition in this song is complete repetition, where the same thing is repeated in exactly the same way. At the end of the chorus, the singer sings “around and around and around and around” twice. Unlike the first type, this exact repetition ends up sounding and feeling monotonous, which fits with the meaning of the lyrics.

Comparing the two types of repetition highlights the sort of situations in which switching languages can be used. The switch avoids the lines sounding redundant, but also avoids the risk of sounding like the singer’s best friend is a thesaurus, which would come with sticking to one language and just rephrasing the second line.

Beyond the Lines on the Page

Looking at the way Japanese and English can be used to work together in songwriting can be a fun way to explore some of the ways that language can be used in unconventional ways. Being able to speak and use more than one language increases the number of options there are for communication, not only in a practical sense, but also in an artistic one.

There’s a lot more to language than the literal meaning of the words being used. Taking a better look at how the words are used opens up opportunities to play with language and communication in new ways.

  1. ひとはきらい – hito wa kirai
  2. さいきんげんきなの – saikin genki na no
  3. じかんあったらのみにいこうよ – jikan attara nomi ni ikou yo
  4. くうきなんかよめない – kuuki nanka yomenai
  5. こうみんかん – kouminkan
  6. いちねんせい – ichinensei
  7. おぼれる – oboreru
  8. my carでいこう – my car de ikou
  9. たぶん I can’t go かもしれない – tabun I can’t go kamoshirenai
  10. だってかれは not your type – datte kare wa not your type
  11. はしょうがないじゃん – wa shouganai jan
  12. ぜんぶあなたのせいなんだ – zenbu anata no sei nanda

Julia Hakes is a second-year Canadian ALT living in Sunagawa and working at four elementary schools. She spends her time outside of work acquiring new hobbies, when she isn’t busy dragging her friends to various events around Hokkaido. Recent hobby additions include baking muffins, sewing, and skiing.