Turning Japanese

By Madeline Bocaro

 © Madeline Bocaro, 2021. No part of this site may be reproduced or re-blogged in whole or in part in any manner without permission of the copyright owner.


Let’s go to the Land of the Rising Sun and listen to some wonderful tunes…


The queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson recorded ‘Fujiyama Mama in 1957. The song was written by Jack Hammer (who also co-wrote ‘Great Balls of Fire’) as an R&B tune in 1954. The lyrics contain countless allegories between the singer and an atomic bomb. Ironically, the song bombed in America during the atomic age, but became a hit in Japan! It was No. 1 for the entire summer of 1959. This is probably because Japanese people did not understand the lyrics, and only recognized the names of the bombed Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But they mostly loved it because it’s a great rockin’ song!

I’ve been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too
The same I did to them, baby, I can do to you.

Listen: https://youtu.be/ztFHvNwRb6Q


Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono covered the song on his album Paraiso in 1978.

Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoGVBAitaOA

Here is Wanda’s collaboration with The Cramps – ‘Funnel of Love https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8SnxvofBL4&feature=youtu.be


Yoko Ono created the artwork for Toshiro Mayuzumi’s 1958 album Nirvana-Symphonia. The music was based on the traditional Japanese sounds made by Buddhist temple bells. The cover image is a monochromatic version of a single cloud in the sky. It is similar to the cloud (and its lower left side positioning) photographed by Iain MacMillan which appears with a sky-blue background on John & Yoko’s 1969 album cover, Live Peace in Toronto.

Born in 1929, Toshiro Mayuzumi experimented with 12-tone music in 1952. He was the first Japanese composer of electronic music and musique concrete in 1955. He also used prepared piano (John Cage’s technique) and avant-garde stylings along with traditional Japanese music technique.  Mayuzumi also scored for film, wrote ballets, operas and symphonies. Mayuzumi was a colleague of John Cage and  avant-garde composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. (Yoko’s first husband).

“Suddenly in 1959, I turned conservative. I heard the temple bells on New Year’s Eve. They were so touching that I forgot contemporary music and began to study traditional music and aesthetics. I studied Shintoism and Buddhism, not only Zen but all Buddhism. Since I wrote the ‘Nirvana’ symphony in 1959, I have been a tradition-minded composer.”

– Toshiro Mayuzumi, The New York Times, 1995

Listen – Nirvana Symphony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYbkf2w3neY&t=1008s

My story about Tshiro Mayuzumi:

The Other Cloud:  https://madelinex.com/2018/08/24/yoko-art-the-cloud/


Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakamoto, was released in 1961 in Japan. Later, in 1963 it became the only Japanese-language single ever to hit No.1 on the Billboard chart (or to even come close)! Sakamoto had a tragic life. He was one of the passengers killed in the 1985 Japan Airlines crash that killed over 500 people.  The song was released during same year that ‘Dominique’ by The Singing Nun also hit No.1. It was very unusual for any song with non-English lyrics to be successful in America, let alone two chart-toppers in the same year. ‘Sukiyaki’ was subtitled “Ue o Muite Aruko’ (I Look Up When I Walk) although the word “sukiyaki” means a  dish of sliced meat, usually beef, fried rapidly with vegetables and sauce.

Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbTsG9jrJsU


Let’s not forget the theme song from Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)! For Mothra’s first three film appearances, the twin fairies or pixies, called “shobijin” (small beauties) were played by Emi and Yumi Ito of the Japanese pop group The Peanuts. In unison, they serve Mothra as liaisons and interpreters, heralding the monster’s impending appearance by singing their worshipful ‘Mo-su-ra” tune. They used telepathic communication with Mothra and spoke for her, which gave the twins a somewhat supernatural aura.

The twins demonstrate telepathic ability over great distances with the monster moth. While the girls call to the Mothra in prayer and song, they are also connected to the gentle monster on some deeper level beyond their control, and it is this connection that impels Mothra to find them no matter where they are. In Mothra vs. Godzilla the Shobijin also demonstrate teleportation, when trying to escape. In  Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster the girls translate not only Mothra’s chirps but also an entire conversation among three daikaiju. They sing the theme ‘Let’s Try To Be Happy”. The twins bring a sense of calm amidst all the rampaging monsters and explosions in the films. Their voices are the environmental and moral conscience to the human race, pleading for human patience and kindness toward the monsters.

The fairies’ famous song “Mosura No Uta” (“Mothra’s Song”) sung by The Peanuts (Emi and Yumi Ito) was written in Indonesian. The Shobijin sing Japanese approximations of the original lyrics. The song was composed by Yuji Koseki. Other Japanese verses have been added by various composers over Mothra’s film history.

Call To Mothra


Godzilla vs. Mothra – Sacred Springs


Mothra’s Song (original)



See MY STORY about twin pop stars, The Peanuts: Music & Monsters




Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta (Yamashita) released an album called Floating Music in 1972. The beautiful opening track ‘Poker Dice’ is featured on The Man Who Fell To Earth film soundtrack (starring David Bowie). Yamashta was a founding member of the 1976 supergroup Go with the great Al Di Meola, Steve Winwood (Traffic), Klaus Schulze (Tangerine Dream)and Michael Shrieve (Santana).


Floating Music album: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mlKxkHPPGA


Sparks released their album Kimono My House in 1974. The title is a pun on the tune ‘Come On’ A My House’ made popular by Rosemary Clooney. Here is a tune from the great Sparks album Kimono My House – ‘Hasta Manana Monsieur’.

See my story about Kimono My House!

Sparks In the House!



Speaking of Kimono My House, the album cover has been voted amongst the best of all time. The geisha on the right is Michi Hirota, who sang the intense Japanese vocal intro on David Bowie’s song ‘It’s No Game’ (Part 1 and 2) on his album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) released in 1980. Michi met Sparks in 1974 when she was part of Stomu Yamashta’s Red Buddha Theater who were performing in London. Michi’s husband is Taiko drummer Joji Hirota.

See my interview with Michi in my story about the Kimono My House album cover



Woman From Tokyo by Deep Purple was released in 1973 on their album Who Do We Think We Are. It was also a big hit single. The unedited version actually has very beautiful and poetic lyrics accentuated by a long break in the middle of the song that is almost like a dream sequence.

Fly into the rising sun,
Faces, smiling everyone
Yeah, she is a whole new tradition
I feel it in my heart

My woman from Tokyo
She makes me see
My woman from Tokyo
She’s so good to me

Talk about her like a queen
Dancing in a eastern dream
Yeah, she makes me feel like a river
That carries me away

Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIaXva9akfs


Yoko Ono released a Japanese single, Joseijoi Banzai (女性上位ばんざい)in 1973This very cool song with its funky bass line was commissioned by Japanese feminist Yoko Sasaki. The lyrics translate as ‘Female-on-top (position) Banzai’ or ‘Hooray to female higher position’. There is a play on words when Yoko says ‘jokon’. In Japanese it has two meanings: woman/soul or male/root which combined means ‘penis’. ‘Joriki’ is Yoko’s way of saying ‘Woman Power’.

Joseijoi Banzai’ was recorded with the Plastic Ono Elephant’s Memory Band in January 1973 and released only in Japan on May 5. An instrumental version was on the B-Side). Yoko’s follow-up single, ‘Yume O Motou’ was recorded on July 3, 1974 and released in Japan on September 20, also on Apple Records. Neither of these songs appear on Yoko’s studio albums. They were performed live during her Yume O Mouto (Let’s Have A Dream) tour of Japan in the summer of 1974. The single was reissued on white vinyl for the John and Yoko Double Fantasy exhibition, Tokyo, 2020.

Yoko singing the song live on TV – Flipside 1973.


Japanese Single:


Read my longer story about this song including the lyrics:




‘Tokyo Joe’ is on Bryan Ferry’s wonder fourth solo album In Your Mind, released in 1977s after leaving Roxy Music.  I love every song on this album of originals.  His previous cover albums consisted of only cover songs.

Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q367MgxcA3o


David Bowie released his album “Heroes” in 1977. The serene track ‘Moss Garden invokes Ryoan-ji and is so calming that I wish it went on forever. Well, someone made a 19 minute mix, so my wish has been granted!

Listen – a 19-minute edit! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4YO4RJjm8E

Bowie released ‘Crystal Japan’ as a single in Japan in February 1980. In 1981 was on the B-side of ‘Up the Hill Backwards’. Ryko released it as a bonus track of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). The piece was featured in Japanese commercials on TV for Crystal Jun Rock liquor.

The Promo compilation clips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tg-9pL6k3CI

2017 Remaster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_sNUlrMy30



The Sadistic Mika Band from Osaka Japan are seen in a steamy bath house (I originally thought it was a restaurant) on the cover of their Hot Menu album in 1975. The photo is by Masayoshi Sukita – famous for his iconic photos of David Bowie, T. Rex and Iggy Pop. The Glam Rock-influenced prog jazz rock band formed in 1972. Their name is a takeoff of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band. Yukihiro Takahashi (later the singer and drummer of Yellow Magic Orchestra) replaced their drummer in 1973. The band suitably supported Roxy Music on their UK tour as the first ever Japanese band to play in the UK.  Their lead singer Mika speaks Pete Ham’s lyrics in Japanese on Badfinger’s song ‘Know One Knows’ on their album Wish You Were Here (1974). After divorcing fellow band member Kazuhiko Kato, Mika married producer Chris Thomas and moved to the U.K. to become a food researcher. Kato hanged himself at age 62 in 2009. Mika sings on YMO’s 1980 song ‘Nice Age’. The band have since reunited three times with different female vocalists, once with YMO’s Ryuichi Sakamoto on keyboards. Lead guitarist Masayoshi Takanaka later became one of the most famous guitarists in Japan. He is still recording and touring.

Listen: Sadistic Mika Band – Nanika Ga Umi Wo Yatte Kuru



The instrumental ‘Firecracker’ is on Yellow Magic Orchestra’s first album released in 1978. At the time, YMO wer The Beatles of Japan. It’s a cover of a piece by the father of exotica, Martin Denny. This was sampled by hip hop artist Afrika Bambaataa on ‘Death Mix in 1983. The Japanese electro-pop band performed the song on Soul Train in 1980. YMO featured drummer Haruomi (Harry) Hosono and  electronic music pioneer, Yukihiro Takahashi (formerly of Sadistic Mika Band).  YMO also featured composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. (Also check out Sakamoto’s beautiful 2017 album async).

Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkkFST5qrLg

Watch on Soul Train: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqoWryBLmNI


My Review: Ryuichi Sakamoto – async Live in NYC 2017



The Dickies have a song called  (‘I’m Stuck in a Pagoda With) Tricia Toyota on their second album Dawn of the Dickies released in 1979. It starts with the same nine-note oriental musical phrase used at the beginning of  The Vapors’ ‘Turning Japanese’.

Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C39bOdwGEwY


Turning Japanese’ is on the 1980 album New Clear Days by The Vapors. The single was a big hit, the title of which describes the grimacing face one wears when achieving orgasm. In this case, the singer is preoccupied with photos of his lost love.

Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhD9gyRSz0g

(S)ex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren made an electronic version of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterflyfeaturing the beautiful female voices – including Betty Ann White and the operatic queen Maria Callas herself. It was a single and also appeared on McLaren’s album Fans (1984) and was a top 20 hit in the U.K. This is possibly the least punk project that Malcolm ever produced.

Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JN8o8-ZK5s


My favorite Philip Glass pieces are from his score to Paul Schrader’s film Mishima about the infamous Japanese author. I especially love ‘November 25th’ titled after the day of Mishima’s suicide.


Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9rB33JnvyM

Listen: Philip Glass – The Temple of the Golden Pavillion (Kinkaku-ji): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_K5H5MFaqc


See my story about Yukio Mishima:



In September 2018 Maki Namekawa played a solo piano version of Philip Glass’ soundtrack to the Paul Schrader movie MISHIMA – A Life In Four Chapters.

Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l55BbNA-DGI


The trip-hop jazz rock band Cibo Matto (whose name means ‘Crazy Food’ in Italian) sang mostly songs about food on their first album. Its Japanese members Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori formed the band in NYC in 1994. Sean Ono Lennon later became a touring member of Cibo Matto as well as appearing on their second album. They somehow neglected to depict food on any of their album covers, although some of their song titles include; ‘Know Your Chicken’ ‘BBQ’, ‘Spoon’, ‘Beef Jerky’, ‘Sugar Water’ and ‘Birthday Cake’.


Track 1 = Apple / Track 2 = Beef Jerky / Track 3 = Sugar Water / Track 4 = White Pepper Ice Cream

Track 5 =  Birthday Cake / Track 6 = Know Your Chicken…

Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMenteLu5t8


Girl group Shonen Knife open their Happy Hour album with ‘Konnichiwa (in tribute to Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokan) which is the same length as the Trickster’s introductory song ‘Hello There’. It kicks off their Happy Hour album in 1998. Also check out their fabulous food songs; Sushi Bar, Flying Jelly Attack, Flying Fish Roe…

Listen – ‘Konnichiwa’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWBPDlhRU74

Listen – ‘Gyoza’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbKkwbK1q2o

Listen – ‘Ramen Rock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrBTgNM7WPI


Babymetal  – ‘Gimme Chocolate’ It’s an insanely cool idea. Pre-teen Japanese girls in pigtails, tutus and knee socks, playing Heavy Metal – oddly coupling Metal and J-Pop Idol styles. It’s totally contrived, yet it somehow works! Babymetal has everything that has gone missing from rock n’ roll since the theatrics of Glam Rock; Bowie, Alice Cooper, KISS… Their show is slick, stylized, thematic energetic – and it’s totally ridiculous! It’s Metal with melody – with a light show, and without anger. It’s refreshing to see cute young girls singing Metal! They sometimes sound like Alvin & the Chipmunks on crack…BUT there are refreshing Melodic J-Pop breaks.

Watch this incredible spectacle!


Here’s my review of their NYC concert in Nov. 2014



Another Japanese band, Mr. Children  have been around for ages! I’ve always wanted an excuse to write about this Mr. Children (“Misu-Chiru”) album cover. I love how Japanese bands love to use the English language so much that they ignore the correct use of words. The two words in their moniker would never be used together in English, and they make no sense! They formed in 1989 and broke out in 1992, Q was the band’s 9th album – released in 2000.  Mr. Children is among the top selling bands in Japan, selling over 50 million albums. On the album cover, a man sits at a table wearing a sea diving helmet. He is showing us the liquid in his cup. The landscape is a beach with incongruous imagery defying time and logic. On the tour poster, the man stands in the same bizarre setting, poised with a knife and fork – still only showing us the cup. I am still wondering, where is the food?


As a bonus, here are some of my favorite Japanese band names:

Bump of Chicken
 ( I guess they’re trying to say Goosebumps?)

DJ Misoshiru & MC Gohan is one girl who raps about food & cooking. She wears a big gold chain with a cupcake on it, and a chef’s hat. She looks about age 15.

Flumpool (F stands for 4 guys – then they wanted English words that symobolized ‘togetherness’.

They chose Lump and Pool = Flumpool)!!!

Golden Bomber is an ‘air band’ – they don’t play their own instruments!!!  They’ve been together for 15 years (23 singles, 8 albums). And NONE of them has ever thought of picking up an instrument and learning to play it in all that time???!!! They look cool though!

Fudanjuko  – this Cosplay idol group is an all-girl boy band, with manic female fans! They offer hugs and kisses at their meet and greets.

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