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Counterfeiting China in 1930s Japan Pop Songs

Posted in J-Pop,Jazz,Music by bourdaghs on the February 2nd, 2012

An article I wrote about “continental melodies,” a 1930s genre of pop songs from Japan that mimicked China and Korea, has just been published. Taking their cue as much from Tin Pan Alley Orientalism as from contemporary “Yellow Music” on the continent, these seductive tunes enjoyed massive popularity in Japan during the early years of its war with China.

My essay, “Japan’s Orient in Song and Dance,” is included in the volume Sino-Japanese Transculturation: Late Nineteenth Century to the End of the Pacific War (Lexington Books, 2011), edited by Richard King; Cody Poulton and Katsuhiko Endo. In it, I try to rethink the genre through the lens of recent cultural studies work on American black-face minstrel shows. Here’s how I set up my interpretation of the genre:

Here, I take up a popular music genre that was closely associated with Ri Kōran [an enormously popular wartime Japanese singer and actress who “passed” as Chinese], but which aimed at a subtly different effect. I will look at three singers in particular: Watanabe Hamako, on whose hit song the movie Shina no yoru was based; Hattori Tomiko, who played a Japanese woman in that same film (for which her brother Hattori Ryōichi composed the score); and Kasagi Shizuko, who as Ryōichi’s protégé would emerge in the postwar era as the Japanese Queen of Boogie Woogie but who began her recording career a decade earlier. All three recorded tairiku merodei (大陸メロディ, continental melodies), a genre that enjoyed enormous popularity in the years following the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge incident. These songs incorporated Orientalist elements, both musically and lyrically, to signal fantasy forms of Chineseness. Moreover, Hamako and Tomiko in particular would sometimes appear in Chinese dresses with Chinese hairstyles and all three would occasionally sing phrases in Chinese. Hamako even recorded cover versions of Chinese songs. Despite these Orientalist flourishes, though, no one would ever mistake these singers for Chinese. Their performances included elements believed to be Chinese, but unlike Ri Kōran they made no attempt to “pass.” In fact, a large part of the enjoyment of their performed Chinese-ness lay in the unmistakable fact that the singers were Japanese. In other words, these performers engaged in a game of masquerade, and their songs produced pleasure by openly acknowledging their counterfeit status. What sort of Japan-China relationship did this genre of explicitly counterfeit culture entail?

You can watch Watanabe Hamako, the “Queen of Continental Melodies” perform her signature number “Shina no yoru” (China Nights, 1938) here.  You can also listen to jazz singer Kasagi Shizuko’s delirious “Hotto Chaina” (Hot China, 1939) here. And let me leave you with a contemporary performance by Hattori Tomiko of her 1938 hit “Manshu Musume” (Manchurian Girl), with Tomiko decked out in full Orientalist trimming:

6 Responses to 'Counterfeiting China in 1930s Japan Pop Songs'

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  1. on February 3rd, 2012 at 4:34 am

    Interesting article, thank you ! If you’re interested in Watanabe Hamako and “Shina no yoru”, I posted a few months ago an article devoted to this song on my blog, with a 78 rpm recording from my collection : http://ceintsdebakelite.wordpress.com/2011/09/26/watanabe-hamako-shina-no-yoru-china-night-she-aint-got-no-yoyo/


  2. on February 3rd, 2012 at 4:39 am

    I just realized you’re the Michael K. Bourdaghs I write about in my post… So I think you know much more about this song than I do, don’t you ? Anyway, I hope you you’ll still find interest in my blog. Thanks for your article which was very useful when I wrote my post. Regards.

  3. bourdaghs said,

    on February 3rd, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Thanks for stopping by and for letting me know about your blog–it’s quite interesting, with great sound samples.


  4. on February 3rd, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks for your answer ! By the way, have you ever heard about a singer called Mitsuko Nemoto (根本美津子) ? I posted one of her recording a few days ago (http://ceintsdebakelite.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/cosmos-elegy-%E3%82%B3%E3%82%B9%E3%83%A2%E3%82%B9%E3%81%AE%E6%82%B2%E6%AD%8C-a-mysterious-japanese-waltz-on-78-rpm-record/) but hardly found any information about her online ? Thank you very much !

  5. bourdaghs said,

    on February 3rd, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    I don’t know anything about Nemoto, sorry: you’re right, there’s very little about her available online.


  6. on February 3rd, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    OK, thanks. I keep on searching…