Utada Hikaru: The True Bilingual Poet

I have been listening to this singer-songwriter’s music since I was five. Frankly, I am amazed that I had such a good taste in music as a little girl. The experimental and colorful tones of her music transport the listener to a different world. She sings with a husky yet clear voice that conveys so much emotion. Her lyrics about love and loneliness are powerful and heartbreaking.

Of course, as a five-year-old, I was too young to understand the aesthetics of good music. My parents simply conditioned me to like her music – in the lazy suburbs of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where groceries, restaurants, schools and hospitals were spread far apart, they would play nostalgic 90s Japanese pop music in the car during the long rides. Utada just happened to be one of their favorites. I fell in love with her music because of one trivial reason: her English was perfect. In her Japanese songs, she would sprinkle English words and pronounce them flawlessly. This is not surprising because she was born and raised in New York City. Listening to her music as a little girl, I would marvel,

“Wow, she can speak both Japanese and English. Just like me.”

My parents immigrated from their native Japan to the United States, and I was born soon after their arrival. People often ask me what my first language was, and to be honest, I do not know. At home, my mother did everything she could to teach my sister and me both Japanese and English. She showed us videos of Japanese children’s music shows. She read American picture books to us. My mother was a naturally gifted teacher, and thanks to her efforts, we grew up as bilingual children.

Upon entering elementary school, I realized that I was living in two different hemispheres. At school, I would read, write, and talk to my classmates and teachers in English, but when I returned home, everything would turn into Japanese. These two hemispheres never overlapped. No one in my class spoke Japanese, watched Japanese anime, or listened to Japanese music. As a child, I felt lonely and believed that my world was a bit disjointed. But every time I listened to Utada’s music, she seemed to bridge some of those gaps. Just knowing that there was a singer who spoke both Japanese and English made me happy.

I have grown up listening to her music, and now I realize that she is more than a bilingual. She is a genuine poet, and her lyrics always remind me that English and Japanese are beautiful languages. I recently revisited “Kremlin Dusk,” a song from her English language album, Exodus. These are some of the lines.

All along, I was searching for my Lenore.

In the words of Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.

Now I’m sober, and, “Nevermore.”

Will the Raven come to bother me at home?

I am a natural entertainer.

Aren’t we all holding pieces of dying ember?

I run a secret propaganda.

Aren’t we all hiding pieces of broken anger?

When I first listened to this song as a seven-year-old, for some reason I was fond of her passionate singing without fully understanding the meaning of the dark lyrics. As a college student, I have read “The Raven” and understand what “dying ember” and “broken anger” can mean. Now I realize that there is so much depth in the lyrics.

Despite her talent for writing songs, her English-language albums have not been commercially successful in North America, and she has focused most of her time on producing Japanese music. My favorite is 「嵐の女神 」, which means “Goddess of Storm.”

嵐の女神 あなたには敵わない

心の隙間を埋めてくれるものを

探して何度も遠回りしたよ

たくさんの愛を受けて育ったこと

どうしてぼくらは忘れてしまうの

与えられるものじゃなく、与えるもの

どうして私は待ってばかりいたんだろう。

Goddess of Storm, you are too strong for me.

I’ve been on a roundabout journey many times,

looking for something to fill the gaps in my heart.

Why do we forget that

growing up, we’ve received so much love?

It’s not something to be given, but something to give.

Why did I keep waiting?

This song is about the struggles of growing up. As we strive to become adults, we encounter hardships and experience loneliness, and at some point, we realize how sheltered we were as children. Although the lyrics are tinged with sadness, they also convey hope– the speaker resolves to pick herself up and move forward.

I love how these emotions are put into Japanese words. There is no perfect translation for these lyrics because they are meant to be in Japanese. There is none for “Kremlin Dusk” either. That is how language works. For thousands of years, an isolated community of people develops the language. Using the language to express their ideas, the members invent new words, modify the syntax, and create idioms. As the result, the words, syntax, and idioms of that language reflect the unique cultural values of the speakers and often lack equivalents in other languages, and Utada’s lyrics are the best examples. Their themes are universal because anyone can relate to them. But the way she puts her ideas into words evokes the distinctive beauty of the language.

Languages have allowed Utada to experiment with myriad ways to express herself, and her talent has taught me that being bilingual should not be a lonely or disjointed journey. Her music reminds me how language connects people and how powerful it can be when well-crafted. There are not many other artists who understand two languages as profoundly as her.

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