Chris Hart

A couple of years ago, Nihon Terebi (Japan TV) began broadcasting an offshoot of the long-running NHK programme Nodo-jiman. The original Nodo-jiman is a Gong Show-style singing contest in which ordinary folk from around the country are given the chance to perform with a live orchestra – posh karaoké, if you will – and for Nodo-jiman Za! Wahrudo (literally ‘Throat Boast The! World’, although the programme also goes by the more sensible, English-language name of ‘Song For Japan’), the difference is that while the songs are Japanese, the singers themselves are foreign.

Mrs M has a bit of a crush on two-time winner Nicholas Edwards – a twenty-one-year-old American with big blue eyes and even bigger hair – and the winner of the sixth show was a Londoner called Paul Ballard, but if you’re looking for genuine singing ability, the real star of Nodo-jiman Za! Wahrudo has been Chris Hart.

Hart was born in San Francisco into a musical family – his father is a jazz bassist and his mother a classical pianist and singer – and learned to play the oboe, clarinet, saxophone and flute while he was still a child. He began studying Japanese at the age of twelve, and the following year stayed for two weeks as an exchange student with a family in Tsukuba, Ibaraki. After graduating from university – where his studies combined his two great loves, music and Japanese – Hart applied for jobs that would allow him to polish his language skills, working at an airport and for a cosmetics company. Having moved to Japan in 2009, he got a job at a vending machine company and practiced singing in his spare time, uploading videos of himself to YouTube.

Nodo-jiman Za! Wahrudo came along at exactly the right time for Hart, who won the star prize at his first attempt in March 2012, singing Kazumasa Oda’s ballad Tashika-na-koto (video here) and the SMAP song Yozora-no-mukoh. The funniest thing about his performance of the latter (video here) is that Masahiro Nakai – who is SMAP’s version of Andrew Ridgely and famously can’t sing – is one of the co-hosts on Nodo-jiman, and had to look on as Hart showed him how it was done.

Hart was contacted the next day by Jeff Miyahara, one of the most renowned producers in Japanese pop music, and his debut album, Heart Song, was released in June this year. Of course the true test of Hart’s longevity will come when he turns his vocal chords to some original compositions, but for the moment, Heart Song shows what he has made of some of the most memorable J-Pop hits of recent years – this is a snippet from his version of the Yusaku Kiyama song Home.

This is a video of Hart singing the same song on Nodo-jiman (on the strength of this performance, the original went to the top of the download charts the following day ), and the following video shows Hart’s version of the Naotaroh Moriyama song Sakura. While for some reason (possibly copyright-related) the first minute or so is audio only, it’s worth watching all the way through just to see how it reduces the comedian Kanako Yanagihara to an emotional wreck.
Hart’s less-is-more singing style is mirrored in his personality – it wasn’t until Mrs M and I saw a news piece about him that we realised he is a fluent Japanese speaker, as he hardly says a word during his appearances on Nodo-jiman – although don’t get your hopes up, ladies, as he was married earlier this year to fellow singer Hitomi Fukunaga.

At the time of writing, it is still possible to book Hart as a wedding singer via his official homepage. OK, so this is actually part of a semi-charitable scheme which has seen Hart perform for free in disaster-affected areas in the north east of the country – all you have to do is write to him and state a decent case for why you would like him to sing for you – but this opportunity will surely not be available for much longer. Most of the dates for his forthcoming national tour are already sold out, and Hart is, I suspect, destined for much bigger things.

Ouch! 痛い!

My mum used to swear by Dr Spock – no, not that Dr Spock, silly, the one who wrote Baby And Child Care, which Wikipedia tells me was the second best-selling book behind the Bible for over fifty years. I’m not sure what Spock would have thought of this, though, which I found in a Japanese child care manual that Mrs M borrowed from a friend of hers.
You can probably guess what it’s about from the illustration, but anyway, here’s a translation of the text:

Social skills
Obeying rules
Learning the fundamentals for living in a community

As your child grows older and starts to build friendships, many situations will arise that require patience and self-control. At times like this, if your child cannot restrain their emotions and follow rules, they will not be able to have peace of mind while living within the community at large. At this point in our child’s development, let’s teach them to be aware of and to obey the rules. We teach this using the ‘carrot and stick’ method.

Firstly, decide what is prohibited at home (the rules), and let your child know what they ‘must not do’. At times like this, let’s warn them in a scary voice, ‘If you don’t follow the rules, I’ll smack your bottom!’ This is the ‘stick’. So if they don’t obey the rules, without going easy on them, you will smack their bottom with the palm of your hand. In your child’s mind, the feeling of ‘Ouch!’ becomes associated with what they ‘must not do’, and little by little, they will come to realise that they ‘can get by without doing that’, and that this is what ‘self-control’ means. At the same time, if our child obeys the rules, let’s stroke their hair, give them a hug and shower them with praise. By showing them that ‘If I don’t do that, I will feel good’, the child independently learns to exhibit self-control. During this time, let’s teach our child the importance of obeying the rules in order to build better human relations.

In the illustration, the mother is saying, ‘Oy, you!’ and the caption reads, Let’s vary our expressions: when scolding our child, let’s put on an angry face, and when praising our child, let’s put on a kind face.

As far as I know, you wouldn’t be able to get away with publishing something like this in the UK, although both there and in Japan, there seems to be a kind of double-standard at work, in the sense that while corporal punishment is banned within the school system, a significant minority of people still smack their children at home (and not just smacking: when her son is naughty, the friend who lent us this book raps her child on the top of his head with the extended knuckle of her middle finger – something that Mrs M’s father did to her when she was a child),

There is one interesting difference between the two societies that’s worth mentioning, though: the straight man (tsukkomi) in a comedy double act often smacks his fall guy (boké) in the head for saying or doing something particularly stupid, and this is echoed in the behaviour of both Japanese adults and their children, so that smacking someone in the head is seen as amusing or playful rather than violent, and therefore socially acceptable.

Arigato ありがとう

Most schools in Japan have a small radio studio, the main purpose of which is to facilitate the lunchtime broadcast. For this, two or three students talk about the day’s menu – for example, at one point last week we were treated to an explanation of both the history and nutritional value of the cocoa bean – and pass on information about school activities. At my elementary school, the results of a daily competition are announced, based on the number of students from each class who have forgotten to bring their water flask, their handkerchief or their toothbrush, or whose toothbrush bristles are overly worn. Just like a proper radio station, the students are sometimes given the opportunity to make music requests, although at junior high school, we are treated to the same selection of rather mournful chamber pieces – chosen, I suspect, by the soon-to-retire music teacher – every day.

Normally everyone stops chatting and at least pretends to pay attention to the lunchtime broadcast, but as I was sitting down to eat with 2:1 class the other day, one of the students turned down the volume on the PA system and put on a CD instead. The song – Ikimonogakari’s Arigato (ありがとう / Thank You) is probably my favourite J-pop tune, and I was soon humming away to myself, much to the amusement of the students at my table.
‘Who chose this?’ I asked one of them.
‘Er, I don’t know,’ he said.
‘Was there a class vote?’
I can’t remember. Hey,’ he said to the girl sitting opposite, ‘why are we playing this CD?’
‘Dunno,’ she replied.
So much for the change of routine, but anyway, what better (and more flimsy) excuse to pull a few pop facts from Ikimonogakari’s Wikipedia page, and to share the video with you:

(When I say ‘the video’, what I really mean is ‘the video uploaded to Vimeo without permission and augmented with Spanish subtitles’, and there is a very real possibility that by the time you read this it will have been taken down for legal reasons, thus defeating the object of this blog post altogether. If so, you should be able to find a similarly illicit version with a quick Google search).

Ikimonogakari means ‘person in charge of living things’, and was coined because rather than presenting the lunchtime broadcast, the two original band members – Yoshiki Mizuno and Hotaka Yamashita – were responsible for feeding the goldfish at their elementary school. Along the way, Mizuno and Yamashita acquired a lead singer – Kiyoé Yoshioka – and began to hone their skills at small scale live venues and as buskers in the western suburbs of Tokyo. Their independently released debut CD had the charmingly self-effacing title of While It’s Sincerely Presumptuous Of Us To Say So, We Have Made Our First Album (Makoto Ni Sen-etsu Nagara Faasuto Arubamu Wo Koshiraemashita… /  誠に僭越ながらファーストアルバムを拵えました…), and they soon gained a reputation as specialists in the art of commercial, TV and movie tie-ins. Since the early noughties, their songs have been used by Coca Cola, Nintendo, Asahi, several mobile phone companies, and in a score of TV dramas, animé and feature films (their latest release – Itsudatte Bokura Wa / いつだって僕らは – is in this TV ad for correspondence courses).

While Ikimonogakari were respectably successful by 2010, Arigato was the song that turned them into one of the most popular bands in the country – so popular, in fact, that their songs Sakura and Yell are now used as jingles to announce approaching trains at Ebina and Hon-Atsugi Stations (outside which they often used to busk) on the Odawara Line. Arigato was the opening theme for a soap opera called Gé-Gé-Gé No Nyoboh / ゲゲゲの女房 (part of an ongoing NHK series I have mentioned here before – Renzoku Terebi Shosetsu / 連続テレビ小説 – whose location and story changes twice a year), but while the commercial exploits of the band have no doubt made all three of its members very wealthy indeed, don’t let that put you off their music, as they have a knack for coming up with emotionally stirring chord changes, and some of their best songs are structurally original too – for example, like The Beatles’ She Loves You, Arigato starts with the chorus instead of the verse.

In case you don’t understand Spanish, there follows my somewhat inexpert translation of the lyrics, which was hampered by the fact that in Japanese, it is the exception rather than the norm for a sentence to have a subject, and exactly who is doing or saying what with or to whom is very much open to interpretation.

I want to say thank you.
I may be gazing at you
But you held my hand more kindly than anyone else
Listen, listen to this voice

On a bright morning I give a wry smile as you open the window
And tell me that the future has just begun
Let’s go out on the town again, like we always do

As always, the ups and downs of life accumulate
The two of us, our days together are fleeting
Carefully gather the escaping light, it’s precious
And it’s shining now

When did your dream
Become the dream of both of us
But today, one day, a cherished memory
Will clear the skies, whether they are blue or whether they are crying

I want to say thank you.
I may be gazing at you
But the hand that you held prompted a clear thought
That I am clumsily telling you

Forever, only forever
Because I want to laugh with you
To make sure of this road that I believed in
Now let’s walk on, slowly

Days when we argued, days when we embraced
Let me search for every colour
A pure heart on which the future is written
Is still being added to

Who you live for
Whose love you receive
Like that
More than sharing happiness or sadness
Little by little, gather up the moments

If I find happiness with you
The thoughts we share
Even the little things
Let’s embrace the light
Listen, nestle close to that voice

I want to tell you that I love you
I want to tell you because
That irreplaceable hand
Being together with you from now on
I believe in these things

I’m saying the words ‘thank you’ now
Holding my hand, more kindly than anyone else
So listen, listen to this voice


まぶしい朝に苦笑いしてさ あなたが窓を開ける
舞い込んだ未来が 始まりを教えて

でこぼこのまま 積み上げてきた
こぼれて光を 大事に集めて
いま 輝いているんだ



いま ゆっくりと歩いて行こう

けんかした日も  抱き合った日も
真っ白なこころに 描いた未来を

だれかのために 生きること
誰かの愛を 受けれること
そうやって いまを
ちょっとずつ 重ねて



繋がれた右手は 誰よりもやさしく

Incidentally, when Ikimonogakari were on TV over the Christmas holidays, onii-san described the lead singer as looking kibishii / 厳しい. The literal translation of kibishii is ‘strict’, although he was basically implying that she would be lucky to find a boyfriend. Onii-san is notoriously fussy when it comes to women, and I’m not sure that he was being entirely fair, but what do you think? Kiyoé Yoshioka: hottie or nottie?