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Cry From Up North

“Kita no yado kara”, sung by Miyako Harumi, was released at the end of 1975 and won the grand prize at the 18th Japan Record Awards the next year. Though it doesn't have the untouchable aura that “Kawa no nagare no yō ni” seems to have, it remains one of enka's most popular, enduring hits. It was written by Aku Yū, a lyrical giant responsible for hundreds of charting hits. The song is prototypical enka, managing to touch on such recurring themes as melancholy cups of sake, singing sad love songs, the snowy desolation of the north country, distant trains, and crying alone – and that's all in one verse alone.

The central figure of the song is an exemplar of a common Japanese cultural stereotype – the woman who, in the words of Japanese literary scholar Dennis Washburn, attains “special kind of sad beauty by remaining chaste, virtuous and above all devoted and loving despite being abandoned and alone.” One sees in film, for example, a glorification of the wife who remains stoically devoted to her questionably faithful husband. In this song, our singer is somewhat more proactive, singing openly about her abandonment and how her feelings will linger. The key to translating this song, both musically and lyrically, was in interpretting 未練 miren. The word has notions of both affection and regret, and any performance of this song needs to find the right shades of miren to sing.

Translating the music

The recordings I've heard of “Kita no yado kara” have been quite typical of enka – strings, brass, bass guitar and drums – with particularly idiomatic use of mandolin and saxophone. The tremolo mandolin is also prominently featured in Misora Hibari's “Kanashii sake”; it is perhaps because of this that its use seems to call to mind so well the intimacy of a small, dark bar. The saxophone plays drawn-out, crying phrases that complement Miyako's emotional voice. From an outside perspective, however, the combination is a bit odd – on its own, the mandolin has the stereotypical “Italian” sound, and otherwise, it seemed to me too closely tied to its source. If I kept the mandolin, I'd have to keep everything else, Miyako Harumi included.

Having already completed my arrangement of “Kawa no nagare no yō ni”, I wanted to maintain some consistency in my instrumentation, so without much deliberation I began with the string orchestra – my bridge between Japanese enka and my enka – along with the upright bass and piano. Beyond that, I wasn't sure how to proceed. What was this song, really? The chorus, in Japanese, was terribly difficult to translate, and any translation had to sacrifice some possibilities or ambiguities. That being the case, I decided to commit to one interpretation – my singer was going to make sure the man who left her feels her pain. I wanted to make real the lingering affection by casting it like a curse upon the listener.

So, I needed a style that would allow the vocalist to be more aggressive, but still sorrowful. That's what led to the curious combination of jazzy, lounge accompaniment with driving string accents. Particularly fun was the trumpet, which tries to play the role of the original saxophone, expressing the lingering sorrow in music. Fittingly, I hadn't used my trumpet in years, and it showed some signs of the abandonment... you can hear on the recording the sounds of my keys clicking against the pistons whence the felt had long since run away.

The song which results is rather distinct, musically, from the original, and I think in a sense it's not sure what it wants to be. Perhaps it's caught between two worlds, one of them its home far away in Japan. But the important thing in enka is that the music sets the stage for the singer to cast their powerful emotions from heart to heart... so perhaps something akin has still come through.

Translating the lyrics

For reference, the original lyrics, a literal translation and my version are available at the bottom of the page.

Understanding the Japanese

The opening line of the song (あなた変わりはないですか anata kawari wa nai desu ka) demonstrates an unavoidable challenge in translating Japanese: “pronouns”. I say “pronoun” with some hesitation because there's really no word in Japanese like “I” or “you”. Whereas pronouns in English are used as syntactic filler for an obvious or implied entity, in Japanese everything obvious or implied is generally left unsaid. While one could argue that 彼 kare is a genuinely meaningless third-person masculine pronoun, just about any other word you use to refer to somebody is going to have some colorization. Such is the case with the first word あなた anata. A beginning Japanese learner will be told it be means “you”, but if they take that translation and go use “anata” with their teacher, girlfriend, and father, they'll have managed to be rude, awkward and just plain strange. Japanese “pronouns” are more like identities that can be assigned to people. Anata is “you”, with the suggestion that “you” are perhaps socially inferior to me, or socially equal but a stranger I shouldn't be expected to know, or my husband. Also, kawari nai desu ka is literally “is there no change?”. Like in English, the neutral answer to “What's up?” is nothing – they don't really want to know what's up, they just want you to say “not much, you?” as part of the greeting ritual. And yet, it must have been long enough since you last asked that you wouldn't know if there were any kawari. So, while a straightforward translation of the song's first line is “How are you?”, the Japanese listener immediately knows that the singer is singing to a husband or lover who perhaps hasn't spoken to her in a while. Translation is hard. Fortunately, I had plenty of syllables to work with, so I think I got that across.

A lyric that I unfortunately didn't find until after recording vocals was in the third line – “sitting here shivering, knitting for you”. This nicely captures 寒さこらえて samusa koraete, enduring the cold. Specifically, she's enduring the cold to knit a sweater even though he 着てはもらえぬ kite wa moraenu – he can't wear it for her. This entire image was hard to convey intact, so I hope the music helps – the listener should see the singer alone in the cold, with stoic determination, knitting as her hands shiver, making a warm sweater not for herself, but for her lover, though she knows he'll never wear it.

The second verse would not have been hard to translate if not for the restraints of melody and rhyme. Alas, I lost much of the poetic first line, which is something like “Mixed up in the blizzard, the sound of a steam engine” – it sets the scene very well. My translation is overall more direct than scenic, which loses some of the poetry, but some things just work better in one language or another... As another example, the third line is something like “lining up (cups of) alcohol, alone again”. A wonderful attribute of Japanese for lyrics is that, since the main verb of a sentence comes last, you can build a lush scene of images before making concrete the relation between them. It is rather hard to do this in English without confusing your listener or getting pretty creative with your grammar. I am happy that my vocalist took out the “drinking” that I originally had in “all alone, cup after cup” – even if she just did to fit the rhythm better, I wish I'd thought of it myself, because less really is more.

The last verse can be heard in a couple ways – is the protagonist quietly resigned to her misery, or almost threateningly asking “and what if I die?” We see her chest vividly heaving in sobs. The adverb here is shinshin, and if you look that one up in the dictionary I think you'll be amazed at how many words can share such a unique-sounding pronunciation. And honestly, I don't know which one is being used here. Luckily for me, none of the possibilities have concise English translations anyway, so it isn't as if I could have translated it “correctly”... perhaps it means “falling heavily, as in rain or snow”? This was my first impression, perhaps because of the previous mention of a snowstorm. Perhaps her chest was heaving with the violence of a storm; perhaps her tears were pouring like rain? However, I didn't know the word 津津, meaning “fully, to the brim”. So full of tears? Sobbing fully? Then there's also 深深 “silent like the passing night, piercing cold”. Beautiful, but at this point I'm just shooting blind. And we might as well mention 森森 “deeply forested”. A sprawling forest of tears? Sure, why not? Ultimately, I think my translation captured her overflowing sense of misery, even if I had little hope of conveying exactly what comes through in the original. If I didn't have a rhythm or rhyme scheme, I imagine I would have labored over this much longer - having one forced (or allowed) me to ignore a lot of possibilities.

Finally, we have 寝化粧 negeshō “the removal of makeup before going to sleep”. There's plenty of symbolism in removing makeup while seeing one's reflection in the window, then going to bed for the night, even if all that immediately came to mind was the song Reflection from Disney's Mulan. We have the removal of the appearance of resilience or stoic dignity and a withdrawal into the private, personal realm, but even the tranquility of sleep is broken, for the singer's heart 晴れません haremasen “won't clear up”, just like a persistent storm.

Considered together, the verses really weren't that difficult to translate. The chorus was another story.

Setting words to music

There's something very interesting about the chorus of this enka song – it rhymes. It has a perfect AABA scheme, with the well-contrasting B on the melodic climax... the structure is elegant, tight, and inevitably manhandled in translation. Also, it barely has a verb. It would be hard enough to translate if it didn't rhyme. The second phrase (あなた恋しい北の宿 anata koishii kita no yado means “you(r) (beloved / longed for / dearly missed) (lodging / cabin) (up) north”. Cottage is not a particularly good for singing. And do you know how many words rhyme with 'north' or 'northern'? Not many. Not that I didn't try matching it with 'come forth' and... 'back and forth'? 'And so forth'? ...'sally forth'?

The first line of the chorus was the most interesting of all. The noun phrase is 女心の未練 onna-gokoro no miren, where onna-gokoro is literally “woman's heart” and less literally “female thoughts or nature”, and miren is one of those wonderfully full, colorful words that's so hard to translate. It's often translated as 'regret', as in miren ga nai “I have no regrets”, but that's just one aspect of the meaning. If you have no miren you wouldn't have regrets, because you have no lingering attachments to that which you don't have. If you haven't moved on from your ex-significant other, you have miren. There's affection in miren, but also reluctance. And what helpful verb is going to allow us to tie these complex meanings together? We get でしょう deshō, the polite volitional copula. In other words, it's 'is', but less certain.

Translation is hard.

Of course, hearing the song in Japanese, one doesn't go through all this confusion and definition-juggling, because it makes more or less perfect sense, in Japanese. At least it seems to, until one is forced to translate it. On its own, it's really hard to say what 女心の未練でしょう means. But taken as a whole, the chorus means something almost sort of like “do you not have a lingering longing for your beloved cabin up north, and by extension, for me, that is much like the regretful attachment a woman feels in her heart for a past, impossible love?” Perhaps I'm extrapolating... but Japanese doesn't waste words.

So, I wanted to come up with a chorus that carried roughly this meaning and had a similar structure. This was further complicated by the fact that “woman's heart” barely fit anywhere, any reasonable translation of miren was too long... the whole chorus had effectively only about 20-25 syllables. Without subdividing all the notes (which I ultimately did), choosing any word immediately committed about a fifth of my available space.

In the end, I took a lot of liberties, and tried to remain as true as possible to the meaning (or some meanings) of the song, if not the letter. I drew on the image of snow lingering year-round on the roof of an old cottage in the mountains. Once the chorus was hammered out, the verses were comparatively easy. The result isn't perfect – indeed, there are already things I would like to go back and do differently – but it's definitely something. The song certainly isn't what Miyako Harumi was singing, but how could it have been? I will be very interested to hear the reactions to this song, as I'm not really sure how it relates to the original. Does it retain miren? I suppose, truly, only time will tell.

As a final note, the titular phrase "cry from up north" doesn't appear anywhere in the song. In the original, the full phrase "kita no yado kara" never appears either. In my case, none of the chorus lyrics worked as a title, whereas in the original, surely "Kita no yado" would have been a fine title, no? But so long as it isn't, I get away with saying my title doesn't have to be in the song because I translated that fact. Ah, the magic of translation.

This song is part of a project on enka music in translation. Other songs and related works can be found here. If you have any suggestions or comments, by all means let me know. Thanks for reading.


The original lyrics of "Kita no Yado Kara" along with romanization and a mostly "literal", non-lyrical translation:

Anata kawari wa nai desu ka
higoto samusa ga tsunorimasu
Kite wa moraenu sētā wo
samusa koraete andemasu
Dear, how have you been?
Every day the cold gets worse
Bearing the cold, I'm knitting
a sweater you can't wear for me

Onnagokoro no
miren deshō
anata koishii
kita no yado

Surely, the lingering affection
of a woman's heart...
your beloved
northern cottage
Fubuki majiri ni kisha no oto
susuri naku yo ni kikoemasu
osake narabete mada hitori
namida-uta uta nado utaimasu
Mixed up in the blizzard, the sound of a train
in the night a sobbing cry can be heard
lining up drinks, alone again
singing tearful songs





Anata shinde mo ii desu ka
mune ga shinshin naitemasu
Mado ni utsushite negeshō wo

shite mo kokoro wa haremasen

Dear, would it be okay if I died?
heaving sobs like pouring rain
reflected in the window,
I remove my makeup before bed
but my heart will not clear up

English version lyrics:

Hello dear, how've you been? Tell me what's new.
Since you've been gone there's a chill in the air
Sitting here shivering, knitting for you
making a sweater I know you won't wear

When your dreams keep coming back here
the cottage up north you still hold dear
won't you feel me, my lingering heart
like the snow, won't disappear

Late at night, when the snow starts to pick up
over the storm you hear a howling cry
Sitting here all alone, cup after cup
singing sad love songs as tears pour from my eyes


Tell me dear, if I died, would that be alright?
I feel when I cry my chest is tearing apart
I wash off my makeup, lie down for the night
but there'll be no rest for the storm in my heart