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Decades-old Banned Song Inspires Many in Japan

The Annual New Year's Eve music show called Kōhaku Uta Gassen by Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) intrigued many because of the performance of a previously blacklisted song by Akihiro Miwa. His song Yoitomake no Uta (Song for the Yoitomake) [ja], has been banned from broadcasting in Japan for decades.

The word “Yoitomake” [ja] was originally yelled by construction workers as they leveled the ground with a heavy hammer. Later the same word was used to describe construction workers, miners and all blue-collar laborers.

It was while keeping coal miners in mind that Akihiro Maruyama (now named Akihiro Miwa) composed the music and wrote the lyrics back in 1964. However, after the release of the record, this popular song was banned  because back then calling construction workers “Yoitomake” or ”Dokata” [ja ](which is also in the lyrics) was considered prejudicial and discriminatory.

The Japan Commercial Broadcasters Association (JBA) added the song to a blacklist so that broadcasters would not put it on air. The blacklisting system [ja] was formally abolished in 1983, but it has been virtually maintained through self-censorship [ja].

The lyrics are in narrative form and tell the story of a young man brought up in an underprivileged environment. The man gets bullied in elementary school for being poor but patiently continues to study with gratitude to his mother who works her fingers to the bone for her family. At last he became an engineer, with a successful career and wistfully recalls the song which his mother used to sing while she was alive. The following video captured the performance of “Yoitomake no Uta” by Akihiro Miwa uploaded in 2006 by user ganbaganba.

As soon as Miwa sang it on the last day of 2012, many commented on Twitter with thanks and applause for his performance.

@manbouyashiro 美輪明宏さん『ヨイトマケの唄』こういうのを待っておりました!ありがとうございますm(__)m日本の心の日だ

@manbouyashiro On Akihiko Miwa's “Yoitomake no uta”, I've been waiting for a song like this! Thank you. This is the very day Japanese spirit was shown.

@genishi ヨイトマケの唄に放心。「土方」の言い回しだけで放送禁止にした民放はバカだ

@genishi ”Yoitomake no Uta” rocked me and I'm now still dazed. What an idiot The Japan commercial broadcasters had been, who blacklisted the song just of the word “Dokata”.

@takinamiyukari ヨイトマケの唄、はらわたにズンときたよ。腑抜けのまま年を越すところだったけど美輪さんに救われた…

@takinamiyukari “Yoitomake no Uta” struck my guts heavily. I was about to see 2012 end as I stayed spineless, but was saved by Miwa.

@mundburg's illustrates the six minutes that she shared the song with the people around at a pub.

『紅白歌合戦』。帰り道の一杯飲み屋。美輪明宏。「ヨイトマケの唄」。店のおやじが、テレビの音を最大にする。会話が止まる。息を飲む。溜め息。歓声。拍手。ホッピーで乾杯。お客全員に、おやじのおごり。となりの革ジャンの下に、パジャマのおじさんの涙が止まらなかった。有り難い体験だった。

@mundburg Kōhaku Uta Gassen. At a pub on my way home, [THE television broadcast] Akihiro Miwa's “Yoitomake no Uta”. The pub owner maximized the TV volume. Conversations stopped. Our breaths were taken away. Sigh, cheers, claps and toasts with glasses filled with Hoppy [mixed with Shōchū, a popular substitute drink for rather expensive beer.] The owner treated us all. The old man next to me with his pajamas underneath his leather jacket couldn't help but cry. A great night.

Japanese style pubs stand side by side

Japanese style pubs
Image by Flickr user naoK under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

At the same time, some called for a cautious view on its interpretation.

@crazy45age
紅白歌合戦でヨイトマケの歌に感動している多くの日本人が知らないところで現代版のヨイトマケ深夜労働は行われている

@crazy45age Modern versions of late-night Yoitomake labor continues while many Japanese viewers moved by Kōhaku Uta Gassen do not have slightest idea of them.

@tomoyukix 自己犠牲的な母親を賛美している歌ととるか、そのように自己犠牲的にでもならないと子どもを養育できない(そしてその家庭を差別する)社会を告発する歌ととるかで、ヨイトマケの歌の評価はだいぶ変わってくる。

@tomoyukix The evaluation of “Yotimake no Uta” depends on whether one listens to this song as a glamorization of self-sacrificial mother, or as a protest song against Japanese society (that discriminates against such families) where people can't raise children without many self-sacrifices.

@nishiharamanabu「ヨイトマケの歌」を歌うことはリスクを伴うと思う。日本の企業はそれを「やりがいの搾取」の為に転嫁・正当化する。だから、歌うべきでなかったと思う。#ヨイトマケの歌 #紅白歌合戦

@nishiharamanabu To sing “Yoitomake no Uta” involves taking risks. Japanese companies take advantages of the song to justify their exploitation of workers under the name of fulfillment of labor. So he shouldn't have performed the song. #Song of Yoitomake #Kōhaku Uta Gassen [translated hashtag]

When this song was composed, about half a century ago, engineering were regarded as a symbol of a  successful career, but tweets of @atkamano looked to the word “engineer” and refered to the system engineers of today who are busy blue collar workers. Engineers today are sometimes called “IT Dokata [ja], like the construction worker but instead they are laying the foundation for an information highway.

@atkamano 半世紀すぎたらIT土方の歌が出来てるんだろうか

@atkamano I wonder if a song for “IT Dokata” will appear in half a century.

Image by Flickr user mark leichliter under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Image by Flickr user mark leichliter under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A blogger named Yankee minister [ja] raised the fact that a singer named Miwa had been discriminated after  he came out of the closet and revealed that he was not hetro-sexual. The blogger stressed [ja] that the power of this song is that it attracts many people and inspires discussions [ja]:

「ヨイトマケの唄」とは、差別される痛みを身を持って知っている歌い手が、差別される炭鉱労働者ら貧しき底辺労働者のために、差別されていた土方、ヨイトマケの親子のことを歌った歌だと私は考えます。この歌は、「被差別者による」「被差別者のための」「被差別者の」歌でありましょう。そして、これまでの経緯と共に後世に伝えられていく価値ある作品であると確信しています。

I think “Yoitomake no Uta” is a song produced by a singer who understands the pain of discrimination, and produced for the poor workers at the bottom of society, to talk about an underpriviledged mother and child. I would say this is a song by the discriminated, for the discriminated, of the discriminated. I'm convinced that this song is a valuable piece worth of handing down to our children with its stories behind.

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