Have you heard this song?
Try listening to it:
Did you recognize it? Almost every Japanese person will know this song and it is played in many stores to signal that they are closing. In Japanese, the song is called “Hotaru no Hikari”, or “The Light of the Fireflies”, but in Western countries it’s called “Auld Lang Syne”.
Where does it come from?
"Auld Lang Syne" (Scots pronunciation: [ˈɔːl(d) lɑŋˈsəin]: note "s" rather than "z") is a Scots poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of a traditional folk song (Roud # 6294). It is well known in many countries, especially in the English-speaking world, its traditional use being to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight. Almost all Americans, and English speakers in general, now associate this song with New Year’s, because we play it to signal the end of the year and the beginning of the next.
The song's Scots title may be translated into standard English as "old long since", or more idiomatically, "long long ago", "days gone by" or "old times".
How did it come to Japan?
During the Meiji era, with its eyes newly opened to advances in the rest of the world, Japan decided it needed to modernize — fast. And modernization at the time mostly meant westernization. The Japanese government started sending officials abroad to study other countries, and also inviting westerners to come to Japan, to teach them how to industrialize and how to build a modern public school system.
The “school system started in 1873, officially, but there was no infrastructure at all ... so they had to build from scratch, and that meant music education, too. Because if Japan was going to be a modern country, it needed everything that modern western countries had.
At the time, Luther Whiting Mason was in charge of music education in Boston. He’d built up a big program and put together a textbook that would become the basis of music education across the US. Mason was invited to Japan by an official named Shuji Isawa, who’d studied with Mason in Boston.
In 1880 Mason showed up in Tokyo, bringing with him with what’s said to be Japan’s very first piano. He also brought his own textbooks. Mason’s books contained folk songs from different countries, and some made it into the First Japanese music book, just with Japanese titles and lyrics. Like one called “Hotaru no Hikari”, or “The Light of the Fireflies”. It was written to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”.
In Japanese, the lyrics are about students who have no money or electricity but study hard using the light of the fireflies. Eventually it’s time for them to move on and leave school.
This is why in Japan, when people hear the song they automatically think it’s time to say goodbye or it’s kind of closing. The song is also often sung at graduations. Although Americans are used to hearing Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve, in some ways, the way we use it is not so different than Japan. After all, we sing it when we close out one year and start another and occasionally at graduations too.
We may never know exactly when or how the song became a thing in Japanese stores, but at least now, its meaning is a little bit clearer. Also, if you are curious about the lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne”, you can see them below!
Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
On old long syne.
On old long syne my Jo,
On old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
On old long syne.
*note that in Old English "thou"means "you", and "thine"means "yours"
Singing the song on Hogmanay or New Year's Eve very quickly became a Scots custom that soon spread to other parts of the British Isles. As Scots (not to mention English, Welsh and Irish people) emigrated around the world, they took the song with them.
Have a happy 2017, and if you want to get a jump on that New Year's resolution, don't forget about Berlitz's latest offer! Click the link to learn more.
ハロウィーンの語彙: Spooky Idioms and Ghostly Phrases
Do you have a knack for learning English?
Min's Berlitzine (Dec. 2016)