I have grown to like a few of these unique songs over the years of research, which is why I included them. There are references to Western songs in the Reiko/Aizawa books, most notably “The Japanese Sandman” and “Minnie the Moocher” but I have included only songs that are Japanese in origin or – in the case of two – very popular covers of American songs from the time. All of the songs listed below are ones featured in the Reiko/Aizawa series, but I plan on including others in future books. I hope you enjoy listening!
The Warship March – (Gunkan Koshinkyoku 軍艦行進曲)
Written in 1897, this song was the official anthem of the Imperial Japanese Navy and is still used by the Japanese Marine Self-Defense Force and even in pachinko parlors, whenever someone hits a jackpot. It’s an upbeat and stirring march and often nicknamed “Gunkan Machi” by the Japanese themselves. In Conspiracy in Tokyo, drunken sailors bawl it out in the Osen izakaya, and in Smoke Over Tokyo, Reiko plays it on her shamisen and it’s played again at Casino Follies.
Song of the Showa Restoration – (Showa ishin no uta 昭和維新の歌)
This 1930 song was written by Lieutenant Taku Mikami, the Navy officer who would assassinate Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai during the 5-15 Incident of 1932. It reflects the popular anger against the zaibatsu capitalists, the political parties, and the corruption that men like Mikami felt was ruining Japanese society. The song was an unofficial anthem of the Young Officers Movement, who advocated radical reform through a Showa Restoration, to restore full power to the Emperor and abolish the civilian government, and completely restructure Japan. This was to be achieved through assassinations and a violent coup de’tat. It is sung in Smoke Over Tokyo by Mikami and other plotters.
Sake, Tears or Sighs? – (Sake ha Namida ka Tameike ka 酒は涙か溜息か)
Sung by the legendary Ichiro Fujiyama, “Sake, Tears or Sighs?” is something akin to Japanese jazz, moody and melancholy. There are lyrics about mourning a lost love. Not my personal favorite, but the record sold a million copies in 1931, and is what Masaru Ryusaki is listening to on the radio in Shadows of Tokyo.
If Ten Thousand Enemies Should Come – (Teki wa ikuman 敵は幾万)
This stirring march is one of the oldest examples of gunka – military music. Composed in 1886 by Bimyou Yamada with lyrics by Sakunosuke Koyama, it is also one of the most famous gunka ever, popular during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) all the way to the end of World War II. It makes several appearances in Shadows of Tokyo.
Sing Me a Song of Araby – (Arabiya no uta アラビヤの唄)
In 1928, a Japanese cover by Teiichi Futamura of this popular American proved a big hit. Reiko and Ryusaki tap their toes to it at the nightclub Harlem in Shadows of Tokyo. The original cover is fine, but I prefer this modern rendition.
My Blue Heaven – (Watashi no aozora 私の青空)
Similarly, in 1928 a cover of “My Blue Heaven” was released and was an even bigger hit in Japan. I’m not sure what it was, but “My Blue Heaven” resonated with the Japanese in such a big way that it’s been covered dozens of times, shows up in movies and TV shows, including the very first Japanese sound film The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine from 1931. This song, which is known in Japan as “Watashi no aozora” (literally, My Blue Sky) has been totally integrated into Japanese culture that some don’t even know it’s originally an American song. It’s mentioned in Conspiracy in Tokyo, Shadows of Tokyo, and Smoke Over Tokyo. This rendition is sung by Teiichi Futamura and Kikuyo Amano. Pay no attention to the “unknown Japanese singers” line.
Noe Bushi – ノーエ節
The origins of this folk song are a little murky, so I’m not an expert. From what I found out, it was originally a Kanagawa folk song, turned into a marching song during the late Tokugawa Era, just before the Meiji Restoration. The lyrics are a lot of nonsense, which is why it’s usually sung at banquets and parties. Reiko and Emigiku dance to this upbeat song in Smoke Over Tokyo.
Over the Hill – (Oka wo Koete 丘を越えて)
Released in 1931 and sung by the talented Ichiro Fujiyama, “Over the Hill” was another massive hit. It’s a happy and upbeat song filled with cheerful lines like “applauding our youth” and generally celebrating life itself. It’s interesting that such a frivolous song was so popular right when Japan invaded Manchuria and started the descent into the “dark valley.” It clashes with the popular misconception that Japan became a military dictatorship overnight and shows that pop culture was not in line with militarism for many years. It features prominently in Smoke Over Tokyo. “Over the Hill” is still popular today, as evidenced by this modern cover from 2021.
The Three Human Bombs – (Bakudan Sanyushi 爆弾三勇士)
In February 1932, during the intense Shanghai War, three Japanese soldiers – Takeji Eshita, Susumu Kitagawa, Inosuke Sakue – voluntarily blew themselves up with high explosives, clearing out a Chinese position. At least, that’s what the propaganda said. In fact, they were supposed to simply plant explosives and return to their unit, but the fuse was too short, killing them all in the process by accident. Regardless, the story of the “Three Human Bombs” resonated deeply with the Japanese public, who lauded them as gunshin – “military gods.” Their image was commodified in comic books, stationary, teacups, and memorialized in statues, plays, movies, and especially gunka songs. There were no less than six songs about them, almost all made less than a month after their deaths, but the most famous is the one written by Tekkan Yosano and composed by Junji Tsuji. Released by Polydor Records in April 1932, this gunka became a massive hit and is featured prominently in Smoke Over Tokyo.
The Manchuria March – (Manshu Koshinkyoku 満州行進曲)
Released in 1931 (although some sources say 1932) to capitalize off of the Manchurian Incident, this song lauds the bravery of Japanese soldiers fighting in Manchuria. As with most propaganda of this time, it actually dwells on how much the average soldier suffered and the hardships they endured for the good of the nation. Shame was a big feature in militarist propaganda, urging people and soldiers to struggle even harder. Aizawa listens to it in Treason in Tokyo.
The Chief’s Daughter – (Shucho no musume 酋長の娘)
This 1930 popular song also reflects the frivolous mood of the Japanese people before World War II, but there are some hints of embedded imperialism. For example, the gist of the song is falling in love with a dark-skinned girl who is the daughter of a chief of natives, living in the Marshall Islands. These islands were under German occupation until 1914, when Japan entered the First World War and wrested control of them during a whirlwind campaign. These islands were later fortified, and many Americans and Japanese alike died fighting over them in the Pacific War. This clip is from a 1970s variety show, sung by a geisha, but it sounds similar to how it’s presented in Treason in Tokyo.
Tokyo March – (Tokyo Koshinkyoku 東京行進曲)
The main theme to a 1929 movie of the same name, “Tokyo March” is a forlorn dirge sung by Chiyoko Sato. With melancholy lyrics like “raindrops that looked like the tears of a dancer” this song was a big hit in the late 1920s/early 1930s. However, some political lyrics caused it to be censored on the radio, which is why Reiko listens to a recording of it in Smoke Over Tokyo.
The Moon Over a Ruined Castle – (Kojo no Tsuki 荒城の月)
A very weepy and haunting melody, this song was written by Bansui Doi and composed by Rantaro Taki in 1901. It evokes the bygone era of the samurai and was inspired by the ruins of Aoba and Aizuwakamatsu Castles. It is sung in Treason in Tokyo.