Matsuri

My formative years were troubled.  I have many horrible memories, of which I refuse to go into here – they’re personal, and it’s not appropriate.  But the memories were not all bad.

Every year we had a religious festival – we called it the Festival of Tabernacles, or the “feast” for short.  It was in some ways a rather staid affair – but it was a festival, and it was a celebration.  Some people treated it as an excuse to get wasted for seven days, but for the most part, it was intended to be a reflection of how the world was to be after Christ returned.  And, to be quite honest, it succeeded at that far more than I would care to admit.

What I remember the most about it was a sense of anticipation beforehand – and then the feast happened, and it was truly a seven day celebration.  People were happy – or as happy as they could be.  There is a certain spirit in the air when ten thousand people are in the same area for even marginally wholesome purposes.  It permeates the whole city, and I think even people who have no idea it’s happening can feel a change in the city for that short period of time.

I am so conflicted about Japan and its culture, but I can’t deny that I have a visceral emotional reaction to things Japanese, and I can’t figure out what or why.  I think it is because, while the dark is very dark, there is a spirit of celebration to the things that they do for entertainment.  The performers are not performers, it’s almost literally like they’re cheerleaders.  I don’t think there really is an analogue in western culture.  In our concerts, we’ll either politely and quietly stare at the performers (as in classical music), or we’ll mosh around in the audience as the performers do their thing, but in Japanese culture, it’s as if the audience is invited to celebrate with them.

I’m not even sure what they’re celebrating.  Maybe it’s the music.  Maybe it’s a sense of gratefulness for being able to do what they do.  Maybe it’s just how they’re trained.  But at the end of the day, they sing, and they dance, and we’re pulled into their little happy world for just a little while.

And I think that’s why people go otaku.  It really is infectious.  I don’t consider myself otaku, and certainly not weeaboo, but when seeing cute young girls or women dancing around on stage and singing their little hearts out, it’s really hard to not get pulled into their world, and just forget everything for a few minutes or an hour.  It’s just so happy.

I think maybe this is the spirit of Ganbatte.  We translate that in English as “try your best”, but it’s more than that, so much more.  It’s putting everything you have into what you’re doing.  And it really does show.  Japanese entertainers put everything into what they do, they don’t phone it in.  And it draws you into their happy world, and just for a little while, you forget everything sad and bad, because their energy just washes it all away.

It reminds me very much of the festivals I grew up in.

It’s all manufactured.  I get that.  And I know that the darkness of Japanese culture sometimes shows through, in unfortunate and even tragic ways.  But at the end of the day, it’s the gift they give us, and it would be rude to not accept and treasure it for what it is.

Why does a Classically Trained Pianist like J-Pop?

As I might have mentioned at one point, I am a classically trained musician.  I am familiar with most of the works of many major composers, but my favorite classical pieces – or romantic pieces, as the case may be, are some of the more famous piano concertos.  Those by Saint-Saens, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Schumann – I love them all and have been listening to them for many years.  I love the complexity, the interplay between the soloist instruments and the orchestra, and most important, how even though there are many notes (the piano itself can have thousands spread over the better part of an hour) not one is wasted and every note has a place.

So why does someone like me like J-Pop, which is essentially none of these things?  In many cases, the performers don’t harmonize or even have any idea what harmonizing is, the lyrics are trite (though for those who don’t know Japanese that doesn’t really matter, the fact that they’re Japanese is good enough), the harmonies can be intersting but are rather poppish – it’s everything classical music isn’t.  You could get rid of half the notes and it really wouldn’t matter, and all but one or two singers are superfluous in most cases.  By classical standards, J-Pop is barely even worth noticing, much less paying attention to.  About the only thing they really do well is dance around in sync with each other, for the most part.

Nonetheless, I still rather like it.

I’ve remarked before on the Japanese word “ganbatte”, or “ganbarou”.  It basically means “good luck” or “try my best”, but there is an undercurrent of demand there.  Basically, if you fail, you didn’t “ganbatte”.  You can only be said to “ganbatte” if you’ve succeeded.  You can sometimes hear one of the girls in J-Pop saying “I didn’t try my best” when they fail at something.  The implication being, that if you try your best, you will always succeed.

I think this is the spirit around J-Pop that I like, even more than the music themselves.  They’re always challenging themselves, and deliberately so.  Take AKB-48.  People said “they can’t dance well”, so they made a piece that deliberately was the most difficult dancing they’d ever done.  People said “they can’t harmonize”, so they release an a-capella choir piece.  People said “Well, they can’t sing solo”, so they actually had an a capella piece where there was a solo singer and a few of the girls were actually singing harmony.  People said “OK, they can’t play any instruments.”  Well, I guess, challenge accepted, because they put together “gimme five” where some of the girls learned how to play instruments just to prove everyone wrong.

Basically, J-Pop seems to be mostly oriented to an “I’ll show you” kind of “ganbatte” attitude.  If you tell them they can’t do something, they’ll do it just to spite you, and be all smiles and cute all the way.

I was watching a performance of Saint-Saens concerto #4 today – one of my favorites, especially the last movement, and I was watching the performer’s fingers dancing all over the keyboard, and I realized, for all of their talent and practice, most classical musicians don’t seem to have this quality.  They work on playing their instrument, on perfecting their instrument, and sometimes get a job on a symphony orchestra or as a soloist career.  But unless they want to branch out into different kinds of music, that’s where it stops.  Don’t get me wrong, you can become very well known and prosperous doing that – but to me, it seems a bit like a waste.  You only learn to do one thing very well.

But the J-Pop artists seem to alwys want to improve themselves, always try new things, always branch out into new ideas and see if they work.  Take Babymetal, for example.  If you tell a person off the street to try to merge heavy metal and J-Pop, they’ll look at you like you’re an idiot and say “that would be awful.”  And I can’t tell you how many Youtube reaction videos I’ve seen where the sentiment is “Holy crap!  That shouldn’t work at all, but it does!  What did I just watch?”  And then they go down the foxhole.

I think this is why I like J-Pop.  They’re always reinventing and improving themselves, trying new things.  Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t, but they never seem happy with the status quo.  You say “well, you can’t do that”, and they say “oh yeah?  Watch me.”  And they do.  One even got into a play-off with a true concert pianist playing Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo”.  You could tell the difference in their playing – the concert pianist was far better – but she held her own.  Someone challenged her, and she said “ganbatte”.  I’ll try my best.

And that is why I, being a classical pianist admire groups such as Morning Musume, AKB48, Sakura Gakuin and its offshoot Babymetal, and a few other groups besides.  It’s not that their music is particularly interesting – most professional musicians could – and do – wipe the floor with them.  Even the K-Pop artists are in such a different class performance-wise that the J-pop artists seem to get a complex when watching them.  But at the end of the day, they understand “Ganbatte”.  Trying their best.  And that’s why I like them.

They’re scrappy, and if someone tosses a challenge at them, they own it.

It’s really hard not to admire that.  Even as a classical pianist.

Ohori Meshibe

In my seeking to understand Japanese culture, I found this YouTube video, and found it very interesting.

 

Ohori Meshibe (also known as Ohori Megumi, but that was her name for this recording) was a 25 year old AKB48 member who was given an opportunity, but with a catch:  we’ll give you a solo debut, but you have to sell 10,000 CDs within a month or you’ll have to graduate.

So for a month, she went all over, selling one CD at a time, giving little performances all over the place, and even ended up sleeping on the ground one night (though there was a cameraman there so I’m very much doubting that she was truly in any danger).  Finally, the month was over, and this documented her trying to get over the finish line in the last day.

Halfway through the day, she had a nervous breakdown, and Sata and Kiyoto ended up having to go out and entertain the crowd while she pulled herself together – and it was a close thing, she even started to hyperventilate a bit.

But there are a few observations about this, some of which I found out through other means.

Many westerners would have given up and accepted their fate, honestly, at about the time that she had her nervous breakdown.  We would have ran out and never looked back.  But she pulled herself together, went out, and ended up meeting her goal, after many of the other members came by and helped out.  Her fans also pulled together and filled the last “hug event”.  This is the Japanese idea of “ganbatte” – or “try your best” – anything less than your best is not an option, and it seems they just pull themselves together and get it done.

This is even more poignant because of something they don’t tell you:  she lost her beloved grandmother – the only person in her family who supported her idol career – two days before the producer pulled her into a room and offered her the solo debut.  So she was already dealing with a lot, and then…

I don’t know how much of this was scripted, to be honest.  Probably more of it than appeared.  I’m also not at all sure if she would ever have been allowed to graduate.  I’m even not sure if the timing of it wasn’t an accident so that it would increase the drama.  But it shows a lot about Japanese “ganbatte” culture.  She tried her best, even surmounting some pretty incredible odds.

And it’s hard to not find that inspirational.

Lately she got married and had a child.  Which seems to be the ending of all idol (or gravure) related activity, as Japanese culture seems to expect women to raise children when they have one (something I generally respect, tbh).  Still, I wish her well.

Ganbatte

“Ganbatte” is a word that, in Japanese, means “try your best”.  It seems to be a very frequently used word, particularly in competitive contexts, such as variety shows, etc.  But looking at the context in which it’s used, I don’t think it translates very well.  The reason is, as with many things, cultural.

In English, “Try your best” has a connotation of “Do the very best that you can, and it’s okay if you still fail”.  I mean, obviously you don’t want to fail, but English speakers tend to have a very laissez-faire approach to failure – it’s only not excusable if you deliberately slacked off or didn’t do your very best.

I don’t get that vibe when “ganbatte” (or maybe more often “ganbare”) is used in Japanese.  The context with that word seems far more driven – if you say “ganbarou” (I’ll try my best) there seems to be an undercurrent of “and then I will succeed”.  It seems like, the cultural assumption is in Japan, that if you try your best, you will succeed.  There is no such cultural assumption in English (or at least American English).  So, if you say “ganbarou”, and you fail, then it is seen as not trying your best.  We said we’d try our best, it seems to say, and we failed, so we didn’t.

This seems to underlie a seeming assumption in Japanese culture that it’s not okay to fail.

Perhaps we in America should hew just a bit more towards the Japanese idea of putting everything you have into something because failure is not an option.  And perhaps those in Japan should take a little of the pressure off by saying “it’s okay to fail” a bit more.  Perhaps, as with everything else, our cultures have something to learn from each other.