I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Works of Yu Aku (阿久悠)Part 2

As I said in Part 1, I have been trying to find something about how the late lyricist Yu Aku(阿久悠)managed to create all those hits. Well, with a bit of further digging, there are a couple of YouTube videos which include a 2011 interview with Yasushi Akimoto(秋元康), currently the No. 1 lyricist for top-selling singles in Japanese music history with Aku in 2nd place, in which he talks about what made the earlier lyricist tick.

One kernel that I managed to understand from the first part of the interview above (and it comes at 3:29) is that according to Aku himself "....the song is of the era..." which is pretty interesting since a number of his songs have become timeless. But then again, unless the fellow is supremely arrogant, I couldn't see any budding songwriter exhort, "Yes, I will write a song that will live throughout the ages!! MWAHAHAHAHAH!!" (cue thunder and lightning) He really just wanted to write lyrics that would address the times and conditions in the years that he also existed in.

But the big thing I found out in the second part (2:59) is that Aku had left "Yu Aku's 15-Condition Constitution for Lyricists".  Namely, it was a list of 15 guidelines expressed as a series of contemplative questions (I wonder if he was deeply Buddhist) when approaching his work to create the words, and I found the list at an Ameba blog titled "Ryu no Tsubuyaki" for which I am grateful. I'll do my best at a translation and provide it at the end of this article below. However, I will refer to some of the fifteen questions when I take a look at some of the songs.

When picking songs out of the massive Aku collection, I just went with my gut. And with that visceral guide in mind, I found veteran Akiko Wada's(和田アキ子)"Hoshizora no Kodoku"(星空の孤独)whose English title is "The Stars in the Sky" although I think it's probably more evocative to go with the direct translation of "The Loneliness of a Starlit Sky". This was the then-18-year-old Wada's debut single from October 1968, and true to the singer's love for Ray Charles, the song is romantic and bluesy. This was a joint collaboration between Aku and Robbie Wada(ロビー和田)with Wada composing the song as well.

Mune ni hirogaru, kodoku no tsurasa
Yozora ni dakare, hitori no nemuri
Ai wo shinjita, yasashii mune no
Kizu wo atatame, hoshi ni namidagumu
Hoshi yo omae ga matataku kagiri
Ashita wo shinjitai

The pain of loneliness that spreads in my heart
Embraced by the night sky, sleeping alone
I believed in love, the scar in my gentle
heart is warmed, I come close to tears toward the stars
Stars, as long as you twinkle
I want to believe in tomorrow

I have to admit on hearing the song and reading the lyrics, "Hoshizora no Kodoku" kinda got me right here. One thing that Akimoto mentioned in the interview was that Aku wanted to cut to the chase when it came to the picture that he painted for the listener which chimes in with his quote (in Part 1) that he wanted to pack the same power of a 2-hour movie within a 3-minute song. So, with this particular song, we all seem to have been thrust into the middle of this melancholy scene with the heroine sitting by her open bedroom window, perhaps several hours after a breakup, and trying to recover emotionally.  And No. 6 from Aku's treatise seems to apply here: Can't a popular song describing one woman be rewritten to include all women? Well, the rule seems pretty obvious today but back then perhaps it was quite novel. And it is interesting to note since singer-songwriter Yumi Arai(荒井由実)who debuted in the early 70s has been known to rely on the feelings of women to come up with her own catchy tunes. Could there have been some influence?

The song, by the way, got as high as No. 70 on Oricon. And to commemorate Wada's 25th year in show business in 1993, she sang this song at that year's Kohaku Utagassen.

Gonna jump over a few decades into the 90s. When I wrote up the first entry on rock band Sheena & The Rokkets, I referred to a Japan Times article in which the late Sheena and her husband Makoto Ayukawa(鮎川誠)praised Aku for his storytelling prowess through his works. They'd had a long desire to work with the lyricist but never thought that he would ever deign to work with a rock band. Happily, he proved them wrong....and one song he wrote was "Rock no Suki na Baby wo Daite" (Hug That Rock-Lovin' Baby) in 1994 as the band's 15th single. Guitarist Ayukawa took care of the thrashing melody.

And this brings up No. 9: Isn't it also necessary to shift the singer from a storytelling role to that of the subject in the drama? In "Rock no Suki na Baby wo Daite", Sheena is the one growling out the lyrics but considering that she's using the masculine "omae" meaning "you", I'm wondering if hubby Makoto is the one voicing his feelings.

Rock no suki na baby wo daite
Kawaii mama ga iku
Kono ko ga nijuusai ni naru to
Kono yo ga kitto yoku natteiru

Dakara shibaraku mama to omae de
Ganbarou ne, ganbarou ne!
Rock de warau omae wo miteiru to
Yuuki ga itsumo waiteiru kara

Hug that rock-lovin' baby
Cute Mama is on the way
When this kid reaches 20
The world will have become a better place

So just for a while, with you and your Mama
Let's do our best, do our best!
Since when I see you laughing to rock
My courage always comes to a boil

In the middle of all that head-bouncing rock, there's a poignant and heartwarming story for a daughter or son to do well in childhood/adolescence. The message could apply to any heartrending ballad or lullaby but it was done in the Rokkets way! However it was Aku who wrote the words...I recall writing in Part 1 that his experience as a copywriter was probably useful in sizing up the idea behind the message and the artist. Maybe the lyricist and the rock band had some heart-to-heart talk about family.

As I mentioned above for Sheena & The Rokkets, even that band thought that Aku wouldn't give them the time of day since they thought that the sentimentality of kayo would never mesh with the rock sound.  Well, let's get back to the sentimental stuff. Actually, the resident enka/Mood Kayo writer for "Kayo Kyoku Plus", Noelle, suggested this one: Hiroshi Uchiyamada and Cool Five's "Koi Uta"(恋唄...Love Song)from July 1972 (which peaked at No. 14). The solid and slightly heartbreaking vocals of Kiyoshi Maekawa are in there, along with the background vocals of The Five and the reliable horns. But unlike some of their other hits, the horns are somewhat more subdued and there's an air of melancholy gratitude.

Aku's penchant for making movies out of songs is in here, too. Against Kunihiko Suzuki's(鈴木邦彦)somber melody, the lyricist, through Mae-Kiyo, relates that bittersweet farewell to that brief but lively affair.

Honno mijikai yume demo
Totemo shiawase datta
Aete honto ni yokatta
Dakedo kaeru anata

It was merely a short dream but
I was truly happy
It was really great to have met you
However you're going away

1972 was a very busy year for Aku. I counted the number of songs that he had concocted at his website, and it came to about 110 or so. And looking at the other years in that decade, he didn't slack too much for those either. Considering that he wrote so much in his heyday, he may have been the one fellow to have created the forlorn love song that I often associate with in kayo kyoku. Perhaps in another life, he would have been the ultimate country-&-western songwriter. In any case, another rule of his pops up, and it's interesting: No. 2: Isn't the sentiment or mentality of the Japanese regret and masochism? Not exactly the most optimistic insight here. Maybe he's trying to intimate that the Japanese relate more to having loved and lost.

Above in the Akimoto interview, Aku said that the song is of the era.  Well, with 5,000 songs under his belt, perhaps a lot of them were only meant for their respective eras or decades, but with the three songs that I've talked about, the lyrics seem to transcend any barriers of time. I think any of those sets of words could apply to situations today, and personally the lyrics to "Koi Uta" could also apply to an old flame I knew a long time ago.

Kenji Sawada(沢田研二)was sporting earrings even before I realized that men who were not pirates could wear them.  He was an iconoclast, an artist who went to the beat of his own drum. I think that's how Aku sized him up when he wrote the lyrics to Sawada's 22nd single from January 1978, "Samurai"(サムライ). Perhaps "ronin" (masterless samurai) would have made for an even better title, but the samurai tag was good enough to create that image for that wafuu lone wolf in the 20th century.

Katate ni pistol
Kokoro ni hanataba
Kuchibiru ni hi no sake
Senaka ni jinsei wo
Aaa aaa aaa

Arigato, Jenny
Omae wa ii onna datta
Hanpa na wine yori yowasete kureta yo
Dakedo Jenny abayo Jenny
Ore wa ikanakucha ikenain dayo

In one hand, a pistol
In my heart, a bouquet of flowers
Firewater on my lips
My life on my back
Aaa aaa aaa

Thank you, Jenny
You were a great girl
You got me drunk on half a glass of wine
But Jenny, farewell Jenny
I gotta go, y'know

Yup, there's another movie in there. And there are a couple of other Aku rules, the ones about having regrets and the singer becoming the protagonist in the story. Listening to "Samurai", I know that it isn't Julie singing about a lone wolf's Julie singing about HIMSELF being that lone wolf gangster in the same way that Harrison Ford IS Indiana Jones. I can't imagine anyone else in the part when he sings the song. I mentioned that whenever Aku comes to mind, Pink Lady pops up as well. Well, I only realized not too long ago that Sawada should also be popping up when I think about Aku in the 70s since he has written a number of songs for him during those days. And in "Samurai", the lyricist pegged the singer's foppish tough guy persona to a T, even putting in that theatrical Sawada cry.

I also have to mention Katsuo Ono's(大野克夫)music for the song since it also reflects that lone wolf character. There seems to be a hint of Spanish matador behind the first verse before the music settles into a 50s-style ballad reminding me of James Dean and early Marlon Brando. "Samurai", by the way, hit No. 1 on the Oricon weeklies and finished 1978 as the 13th-ranked song.

Before I talk about the final song here, allow me to show the Top 10 Yu Aku singles in terms of sales as of 2012 (from the good folks at J-Wiki):

1. Pink Lady          UFO
2. Pink Lady          Southpaw
3. Harumi Miyako Kita no Yado Kara
4. Pink Lady          Wanted
5. Pink Lady           Monster
6. Koichi Morita    Seishun Jidai
7. Pink Lady           Nagisa no Sinbad
8. Kiyohiko Ozaki  Mata Au Hi Made
9, Kenji Sawada     Toki no Sugiyuku Mama ni
10. Kenji Sawada   Katte ni Shiyagare

See the pattern? You can imagine why I've always put Pink Lady and Yu Aku together like bread and butter. The other interesting thing is that the lyricist seemed to have usually put Mie and Kei in some sort of thriller element whether it be cops and robbers or aliens and monsters with the ladies musically throwing in their lot with them or battling them.

One song by Pink Lady and Aku that is not up on the above list is "Toumei Ningen"(透明人間...Invisible Man). Released in September 1978 as their 9th single, the usual upbeat Pink Lady song sounds like some tokusatsu theme song (those fanfare horns) with a rumbly 50s guitar.

Masaka to omotteiru desho ga
Jitsu wa, jitsu wa
Watashi wa toumei ningen desu


Seken wo sawagasu fushigi na koto wa
Subete wa toumei ningen nano desu
Tenka muteki no champion
Totsuzen down wo kutta no mo
Spoon wo magetari, nejittari
Nenriki boom mo watashi desu

It's impossible to believe but
The tr..truth is
I am the invisible man


The strange thing rocking the world is
That everyone is invisible
Champions without peer
Absorbing sudden blues
Bending and twisting spoons
The psychokinesis boom...that's me

At first, I wondered if any of Aku's guidelines really applied here. Perhaps the lyricist just wanted to have a bit of vacation but still keep his words within the Pink Lady lyrical groove. I mean, I don't think No. 2 about the Japanese penchant for regret and masochism would come in here; if anything, "Toumei Ningen" comes off as the opposite. And try as I might, even with Mie and Kei singing about everyone being invisible, I just couldn't imagine the ladies invisibly jumping about the streets of Tokyo . As I mentioned, the melody sounds like something out of a tokusatsu or anime superhero series...the lyrics certainly hint at someone similar.

However, being an old fan of superhero comics and the need for titans like Superman and Batman here in North America and Ultraman and Kamen Rider in Japan, I wondered if Aku was subtly channeling No. 3: Shouldn't we be gradually focusing on human relationships within the urban lifestyle?

Neither J-Wiki nor the Q&A section at divulged any insights into the lyrics, and perhaps this is a leap for me but I mused about the rapid economic modernization and urbanization of the country during the 50s-70s and their benefits and consequences, especially the latter. Was Aku, however comically, addressing the usual urban problems such as isolation and crime? Maybe he was being somewhat sarcastic about the abundance of folks in the big city becoming faceless and invisible, and therefore gaining these wonderful new powers. Come to think of it, that brings up No. 7: How do the maintenance of telecommunications, the development of transportation, an automobile society, the Westernization of housing, changes in diet and the modernization of lifestyles affect the emotions?

Most likely there are Aku songs that better highlight Nos. 3 and 7 but I have yet to come across them, and when I heard "Toumei Ningen" and read its lyrics, I just thought that there was some sly message about city life. To be honest, when I did read those two rules, I initially assumed that Aku even had something to do with City Pop, but I think they now perhaps hint more at anti-City Pop. In any case, let me stop my ramblings here. The song, by the way, did hit No. 1 on the Oricon weeklies and eventually became the 6th-ranked entry for 1978.

Yu Aku passed away at the age of 70 in August 2007 from cancer. With all of those 5,000 or so songs that he wrote lyrics for, and for all those Pink Lady and Kenji Sawada entries among his most successful hits, the one song that is my favourite by him is "Shishuuki"(思秋期...The Autumn of My Years), as sung originally by Hiromi Iwasaki(岩崎宏美)back in 1978. I've already devoted an article on this song, but what I wanted to add here is that I think the evergreen and bittersweet ballad is that message which still echoes through the generations about the passing of time and the loss of youth. Whether he wrote it as an inevitable realization or as a warning to the young to cherish those moments of vitality and camaraderie before it's too late is not something I can answer definitively, but the way the song is delivered melodically and lyrically has that color of Aku sepia. It can still relate to today but there is still that nostalgia for a type of song that will most likely never be re-created.

Now, as for that I mentioned way up above, I'm not 100% confident on the translations so for those who are better than me, please let me know. Here is the link to the original list.

1. Isn't there a different path to the usual one for popular songs that were thought to be completed by Hibari Misora? (I'm not sure if this was a slight indictment against the maxim that songs which could only pass muster by the Queen of Kayo Kyoku were proper songs.)

2. Isn't the sentiment or mentality of the Japanese regret and masochism? 

3. Shouldn't we be gradually focusing on human relationships within the urban lifestyle?

4. Isn't there a meaning applied to the simultaneous separation of the musical world and the ideal image of a musical person? (not totally sure here)

5. While writing about the modest happenings for a person and the truth of that person, is sending a message to society at the same time impossible?

6. Can't a popular song describing one woman be rewritten to include all women? 

7. How do the maintenance of telecommunications, the development of transportation, an automobile society, the Westernization of housing, changes in diet and the modernization of lifestyles affect the emotions?

8. Are the expressions, behaviour and bad habits of a human being everlasting?  Are there things that he/she will absolutely not want to do depending on the generation?

9. Isn't it also necessary to shift the singer from a storytelling role to that of the subject in the drama?

10. A close-up of the singer will not reveal everything but with the technique of thrusting that singer into a larger space, isn't it acceptable to demand an image up to that point?

11. Won't a song be created even if the words "douse" (anyhow) and "shosen" (the beginning of a conflict) are eliminated? (I had no idea what Aku was on about here, but apparently lyricists before his arrival on the scene were using those two words to such an extent that it seemed like they had a patent on them, according to this Japanese blog entry.)

12. Other than the seven-and-five-syllable meter, isn't there a number of words that evokes a pleasant aural sensation?

13. There is nothing that cannot be made into a song. For example, a short story, a movie, a speech, an amusement park. Can't any of these fill up 4 minutes at the same volume?

14. An era is not something that can be seen so that you can see it. However when you face that age, can't the reasons for things specific to that age be seen?

15. A song is playing catch with that era. Doesn't a hit song pierce the sense of hunger of that era?


  1. Hi J-Canuck.

    Wow, that's a really informative article. Well, you were working on it for quite a while. Nice work!

    Anyway, Aku's 15 guidelines were interesting to read. I understood some (or at least I think I do), and there are those that made me more confused when trying to make sense of it. But what I gather from these guidelines is that Aku was trying to make the song's lyrics relatable to the people who listen to them, and write them in such a way that even the later generations can still relate to it.

    Y'know, for the longest time I never paid attention to the lyrics of "Koi Uta" - probably why it wasn't my favourite Cool Five song (couldn't imagine a scene to match the song no matter how many times I tried with just the music alone). And strangely enough, I never wondered what the words meant or bothered to look them up, until now. I'd thought that it was a happy, sappy song with the slow, slightly cabaret music. Turns out it's quite the opposite... still sappy, but sad. With the newfound appreciation for "Koi Uta", I can now see myself writing a story for this, but the protagonist shall have a happy ending!

    I enjoyed Wada's "Hoshizora no kodoku", unfortunately it's mostly because of its bluesy score and Wada's soulful delivery (makes it a good nighttime tune), not really on the lyrics Aku wrote. I very much agree with the forlorn image you had described for "Hoshizora no kodoku".

    Oh, and uh... J-Canuck... he's Kiyoshi Maekawa, not Maeda.

    1. Thanks kindly, Noelle. And I've made the correction on the Mae-Kiyo name. :)

      As for the 15 guidelines, yeah, I'm not sure if I translated them correctly or if they are just a bit too Zen. Still, I guess for Aku, they worked for him. And if I come across another one of his songs to write about, at least I have some inkling about where he was coming from.

  2. J-Canuck,
    Wow! You've written an epic! I've learned so much about Aku from your 2 posts. And like you, my favorite is Shishuuki. I know you don't focus on lyrics but I've enjoyed your translations very much. It adds to my appreciation of these songs.

    It's interesting that there's a constitution. I read the Japanese blog and I have different interpretations regarding some articles. I may have misunderstood it though. Feel free to discuss.

    I think article #1 is not an indictment against the maxim, but Aku's affirmation of the maxim. I take "であろうか" as a rhetoric question, which means that it's actually an affirmation.

    Article #2 is interesting. I think Aku is affirming that most songs are about regret and masochism, which are uniquely Japanese. Again, I take "であろうか" as a rhetoric question.

    You mentioned that you're not sure about article #4. I think it's a reference to article #3 which talks about focusing attention on human relationships in the context of metropolitan life. My translation would be "With article #3, wouldn't it mean that we're going to part with the traditional musical world and musical characters?" My understanding is that "musical world" and "musical characters" don't exist in the real world, but as one puts his focus on human relationships in metropolitan life, he's leaving the "imaginary world" and into the real world.

    I found article #8 quite deep. On one hand, there're some human characteristics that would never change - expressions, gestures, customs. You smile when you're happy, and cry when you're sad. Meanwhile, there're things that, depending on the era, would be completely different. I found it deep because it pretty much summarizes what constitutes great art. When I look at Mona Lisa today, I found it beautiful because it transcends time, history and culture. There's something universal about beauty that won't change with time. It's only the form that changes. So, I would actually translate it differently as "Isn't it probable that human expressions, gestures, and customs transcend time? And isn't it true that there're certain things in this world that change completely with time?" To elaborate further, I think Aku was advocating that one should write about the era he lives in. But at the same time, a great piece of lyrics always contains universal elements that transcend that era.

    I think article #10 is a reference to article #9 concerning the singer playing the protagonist in the song. I take "アップ" to mean "up the singer's performance". So, I would translate it as "Putting the singer in the protagonist's role is not everything when it comes to enhancing a singer's performance, but it's a technique to provide more freedom for the singer to incorporate himself into the song. Don't you think it a good thing to demand such an image from the performance?"

    Thank you for digging into article #11. I wouldn't be able to understand without your research.

    Thank you for writing this 2 part article. I fully enjoy reading them.

    1. Hi, Larry.

      Thanks very much for the detailed response, and definitely appreciate the critique on the translation. I think Aku was not wearing his copyrighter's cap when he wrote these 15 guidelines up....perhaps his Zen Buddhist monk's robes. :)

      Agree with you concerning Article #2. Even though I studied about the Japanese psyche back in university, coming across this statement still took me aback when I saw it the first time. Perhaps it was because I hadn't expected any lyricist to be that blunt about it. Maybe Miyuki Nakajima took that phrase to heart as well.

      Your comments concerning Article #4 are interesting. Yes, I think Aku was trying to bring a certain dose of reality into his lyrics. Maybe he thought that contemporary songs were just a little too saccharine to be believed.

      When I took on Part 2 of "The Works of Yu Aku", I hadn't realized how much work and time it would take. I'm glad I got it done, though. But I think it goes to show how deep the man's work was. The article here is just a very small tip of an iceberg.

  3. I much enjoyed reading this piece, J-Canuck. Just one comment. I think you could have devoted more attention to the two Sawada Kenji songs in Aku's top ten, especially Toki no sugiyuku mama ni. That is a very powerful song, and one of my best friends in Fukushima has it as his "chakumero" on his mobile phone.

    1. Hi, Tom. Although I've never covered "Toki no Sugiyuki Mama ni", you can check out my article on "Katte ni Shiyagare" at


Feel free to provide any comments (pro or con). Just be civil about it.