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.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Folk Crusaders -- Imjin River (イムジン河)

A pretty song with a controversial background. I’ve been fond of Korean folk music since being exposed to it in through Korean History course during my undergraduate years at York University. I just find the songs’ melodies and harmonies somewhat haunting, just like the history of the land they are from. “Imjin River”, or “Rimjin Gan” (림진강) in Korean, is one of the songs I heard during that course when we discussed the division of the Korean peninsula. Being a tune of North Korean origin, it juxtaposes the image of the titular river flowing through the whole area while the people themselves cannot cross the border to see the rest of their homeland.

I later stumbled across The Folk Crusaders' (ザ・フォーク・クルセダーズ) Japanese cover of the song, "Imjin Gawa" (イムジン河), on Youtube, which contained an interesting discussion in the comments that brought my attention to the following story. The day before that single was to go on sale in February 1968, it was shelved and eventually blacklisted from being broadcast on air for nearly 20 years until 1987 when the blacklisting law was removed in Japan. The controversy turned it into a cult classic in the live scene, while the public hunted for any available recordings. The forces involved in this incident were Chosen Soren (朝鮮総連), the association of North Korean residents in Japan, and Toshiba Records. The issue is rather heated in terms of politics and the question of whether the band should’ve covered this song in the first place. It's a fascinating story overall and was eventually adapted (and fictionalized) into a 2004 Japanese filmPacchigi!” (パッチギ!...박치기!...Break Through!), which I ended up watching earlier this week as a support for this post.

The 1968 cover, courtesy of
But first, a few words on The Folk Crusaders the band, since they haven't received a proper introduction on this blog yet. Five friends from Kyoto University formed an amateur band in 1965, but two of them left early on, which left us with a trio of Kazuhiko Kato (加藤和彦), Osamu Kitayama (北山修) and Norihiko Hashida (はしだのりひこ). Unlike the protest-minded folk bands of the 60's, The Folk Crusaders were more than happy to provide radio-friendly melodies for the masses and not shy about promoting their work on TV. The song that earned them their ticket to fame in was a comical novelty tune “Kaettekita Yopparai” (帰って来たヨッパライ…The Drunkard Returns). Originally, the band was getting ready to break up in 1967 so they released an LP titled “Harenchi” (ハレンチ…Shameless) as a goodbye souvenir for their small group of fans in only 300 copies. All of the sudden, various radio stations from Kyoto and Kobe began playing “Kaettekita Yopparai” and “Imjin River” from the album on heavy rotation, making the band locally popular and catching Toshiba’s attention. The former became their first single in December 1967 and ended up selling a whopping 2.8 million copies, becoming the first million seller in Oricon history. Oricon actually started operating in January 1968, so the data on the entamedia site accounts for its 1968 sales, which were 1,312,000 copies as the 2nd best-selling single for that year. I gotta say, what a glorious turnaround for a band that was originally on a brink of failure. Despite their success, the members decided to part separate ways at the end of 1968 aside from a brief reunion in 2002.

Imjin River” was scheduled to become the band’s second single but a couple of complications halted its release. Its original creators were not acknowledged in the credits initially despite this being a cover. Takeshi Matsuyama (松山猛), who also wrote “Kaettekita Yopparai”, was credited as the sole lyricist and Kato as the arranger. The composer field just said “Korean Traditional”. Nor sure who was responsible for this hiccup, but it’s obvious that Toshiba Records wished to obscure the origins of the song for political reasons. Pak Se Yeong (박세영), the writer of DPRK’s national anthem, wrote “Imjin River” in 1957 to express people’s sorrow over the division of Korea, while the second verse also praises the country’s communal farms as an example of their self-reliance during the crisis. Matsuyama translated only the first verse of the original version that describes the Imjin River and added own lyrics for the other two verses. The composer was Ko Jonghang (고종환). Kato tweaked the arrangement by making it more pentatonic. Days before the single was to go on sale, Chosen Soren contacted Toshiba demanding that they credit Pak and Ko as creators and keep the lyrics true to the North Korean version. The label was willing to grant the first request but that meant that they were acknowledging North Korea’s presence in a Japanese product and giving a share of their money to its songwriters. Given that the two countries have had a very messy relationship, perhaps the safer route was to pretend that the single didn’t exist in the first place.

The "Rimjin Gan" version

I’ve come across a few articles online stating that Matsuyama had neo-colonialist intentions by making the song Japanese and changing its original meaning. I’ve also read his side of the story through J-Wiki and see a more complex situation. In 2002, the year when “Imjin River” was finally released as a single in Japan, he published the memoir Shonen M no Imjin Gawa” (少年Mのイムジン河), which then became the basis for “Pacchigi!” In there, he recounts how he first encountered the song while visiting a Korean high school in Kyoto to arrange a soccer game between his school and theirs. He overheard the beautiful melody coming from a music practice room and requested the sheet music for it. While attending Kyoto University, he decided to share the song with his friend Kato, who in turn recorded it with his band. There’s a similar scene in “Pacchigi!” where Shun Shioya’s (塩谷瞬) character Kosuke Matsuyama (do see what they did there?) also hears the song in a music practice room at the same kind of school in Kyoto. He later performs The Folk Crusaders’ version on streets after hearing it on the “Harenchi” LP at a local record shop. There’s one line in Matsuyama’s lyrics that makes me question the “neocolonial” tone of his version and that’s the one that translates to “Who divided this land?” One scene in the film reveals Matsuyama’s intentions, which I assume came from his memoir, via a conversation with a local pub owner where she mentions that Korea was not only divided by the opposing Korean parties, but also the Soviet Union and USA for their Cold War influences and even Japan when it occupied Korea and disturbed the people’s sense of national unity.

2002 issue cover
The 2002 single issue of “Imjin River” credits the deserving personnel:  Pak and Matsuyama as lyricists, Ko as composer and Kato as arranger. It peaked on No.14 on Oricon weeklies, while “Pacchigi!” became a popular and critically claimed film in its home country, winning the Best Film award at 48th Blue Ribbon Awards along with four more at the 27th Yokohama Film Festival. It was followed by a sequel in 2007 and a stage play in 2009. You can read about the plot on English Wiki here. Even though I found it a bit silly at times, it nevertheless presents some interesting information about the relationship between the Japanese and Zainichi Koreans in 60s Japan, and of course presents the tough journey of this intriguing song to life.

Lastly, I would like to thank Oliver Dew for his wonderful article in the “Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema”, “Pacchigi, the Imjin River incident and ‘1968’: transmedia history telling”. I referred to the information in there extensively while writing this entry.



  1. Hi, nikala.

    I've seen "Imjin River" performed once on a music special, and I think it's a lovely folk ballad about a very sad situation. I know that the politics will always be there to a certain extent but I will still appreciate it for the melody and lyrics.

    1. The melody sounds so peaceful even though we know the reality is different. I think this version has an important message, so I'm glad Matsuyama brought it to light, however complicated the background story was.


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