if you spend a lot of time in japan, there is a song that you realize you listen to a lot. one of my local supermarkets is a good example.
About 15 minutes before closing, they start playing the song auld lang syne repeatedly.
Reading: Auld lang syne japan
Now, if you’re an American used to hearing this song only on New Year’s Eve, you might be confused. why would this store and so many others across japan use this song to signal closing time?
really? I had no idea. so I did what any reporter does in a difficult task. I went to a corner in my neighborhood and started asking people: what is this song? what does it mean to you?
ayaka fukada laughed when i hummed it to her and said “that’s hotaru no hikari”. It’s what you hear when the stores are closing.”
His answer was pretty typical. but she, like everyone else I spoke to, had no idea why stores used it.
Turns out the story goes back a couple of centuries.
In the early 19th century, Japan was closed to the world. That is, until US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry arrived at local ports with the aim of starting trade with the country. Perry and his guns made the government an offer he couldn’t refuse. and with that, hundreds of years of self-imposed isolation came to an end.
with eyes newly opened to developments in the rest of the world, japan decided it needed to modernize, fast. and modernization at that time primarily meant Westernization.
The Japanese government began sending officials abroad to study other countries and also inviting Westerners to come to Japan to teach them how to industrialize and build a modern public school system.
The “school system officially started in 1873, but there’s no infrastructure…so they had to build from scratch,” says Masufumi Ogawa, a music professor at Yokohama National University.
and that also meant music education, because if japan was going to be a modern country, it needed everything modern western countries had.
At the time, Luther Whiting Mason was in charge of music education in Boston. He had created a great program and produced a textbook that would become the foundation of music education in the United States.
mason was invited to japan by an official named shuji isawa, who had studied with mason in boston.
In 1880 Mason appeared in Tokyo, bringing with him what is said to be Japan’s first piano. he also brought his own textbooks.
mason’s books contained folk songs from different countries, and some became the first Japanese music book, with only Japanese titles and lyrics. like one called hotaru no hikari, or the light of fireflies. Americans know it as auld lang syne.
In Japanese, the lyrics are about students who don’t have money or electricity but study hard using the light of fireflies. eventually it’s time for them to move on and quit school.
that’s why in japan, when people hear the song, ogawa says they “automatically think it’s time to say goodbye or it’s some kind of closure”. the song is also often sung at graduations.
i approached some well established stores in tokyo. none of them knew when they started using the song. But Ogawa says that he believes it was sometime after World War II, because he remembers hearing it when he was young in the 1960s.
Although Americans are used to hearing auld lang syne on New Year’s Eve, in a way, the way we use it is not that different from Japan. after all, we sing it when we close one year and start another.
As a possible explanation, a couple of people point out that the popular American movie Waterloo Bridge was released in Japan after World War II. In the film, stars Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor dance a version of Auld Lang Syne called the Farewell Waltz. the soundtrack may have played a role in stores being able to adopt it.
We may never know exactly when or how the song became a thing in Japanese stores, but at least now, its meaning is a bit clearer.