While making Japanese umeshu (which I detail here), I drank some of the shochu that I was using straight. Not liking strong alcohol this isn’t something I normally do, but I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity of its taste. It had a hint of sweet on the tip of my tongue, a hint of fruity (but no real fruit), a tingling sensation in my nose, and a warmth in my throat.
I gave some shochu to an American friend of mine and his immediate reaction was “it tastes like rubbing alcohol.” Numerous times over the past few years I’ve shared Japanese food items with coworkers, friends, and family to often receive a reply of “it tastes like ____”, or a confused look in the cases where they can’t figure out what it “tastes like.”
Herein lies a source of frustration for me living in the U.S. after having spent time in Japan. I’m with the Japanese who are more likely to examine and think about the aspects of something unfamiliar, but Americans often try to mentally simplify and relate to known things thus making it harder to understand and appreciate something new for its own qualities.
As the Wikipedia article on Japanese aesthetics points out, aesthetics (or what I like to call the art of appreciating), is treated as an abstract philosophy in the West but is an integral part of daily life in Japan. Japanese culture through education, lifestyle, and shared experience teaches Japanese to look at things in a way that is different from the west. If you watch Japanese food shows (of which there are many), people will taste a dish then they’ll describe the different aspects of it and appreciate how those aspects interact. By contrast, when confronted with something new (such as an unknown food), Americans tend to simplify it to the lowest common denominator and rely on the comparing it to something known by saying “it tastes like ____”, “it reminds me of _____”, etc. This limits understanding and appreciation to how closely the new thing can be compared to something else which is already known.
My American friend frequently laments about how he never went to college so he doesn’t have the “refinement and education to appreciate the finer points of things.” This is a symptom of western culture’s view that aesthetics is a philosophy and something academically studied as opposed to integrated into daily life. My friend is a smart and intuitive guy, there is no reason he should feel that he can’t understand and appreciate the good points of something unfamiliar.
Beyond food there are differences in the way Japanese take other things in as well. A study once showed that when westerners look at a photo or painting their eyes go from object to object and spend the most time on those key focal points whereas Japanese people’s eyes tend to go around the entire scene as if taking it all in more evenly rather than focusing on the most obvious components.
Having experienced the beauty of Japan and the inspirations and feelings they find in the world, it’s a perspective that I really came to appreciate and miss now that many around me don’t have that perspective.
When my wife and I lived in Japan we used to make Japanese green plum wine (umeshu) which I’ve detailed how to do here. The glass jars sold for making umeshu in Japan always had instructions for making it as well as ume syrup which can be used to make a refreshing ume flavored non-alcoholic drink, top shaved ice, ice cream, make korean BBQ sauce, or numerous other uses.
I never tried ume syrup since we enjoyed umeshu so much. But I became curious this year, in part because we now live in the U.S. and get most of our Japanese ingredients at a Korean supermarket and Koreans make and use more ume syrup (mashil-jeup 매실즙 in Korean) than the Japanese do.
It’s simple and delicious to make and there are several variations. The only difficult part is finding ume (梅) aka green Japanese plums (even though they are more closely related to apricots.) They are available for a VERY SHORT season for about the first 3 weeks of May in the United States (where they are grown in California and found in larger Asian grocery stores across the nation) or in June for most of Japan. Outside of this you will almost never find them! As in my umeshu article I’ll list some sources and locations at the end.
Ingredients: This recipe can adjusted proportionally to whatever amount you want to make. You should use a minimum of 250 g. of ume to get usable results. I have gotten a little under 1 ml. of syrup per 1 g. of ume.
Green ume (250 grams or more*)
Sugar (granulated or rock**) equal in weight to ume
Optional: Vinegar (rice or apple cider) 1/10 ml per gram of ume (ie. 25ml per 250 g.)
Optional: Shochu or vodka (~50ml. clear, flavorless alcohol for sterilization)
(My article on umeshu talks about inexpensive Korean shochu that can be found in the U.S.)
* My experience suggests less than 250 grams of ume might inhibit the process from working smoothly
** Rock sugar is popular in Asian recipes and is discussed in my umeshu article.
Step 1: Prepare ume
Remove any ume with brown spots, bruises, or cuts to their skin
Gently remove any remainder the stem with a toothpick or bamboo skewer (pictured above). Be careful not to break the skin.
Wash the ume in plenty of clean, cool water
Step 2: Pack ume in sugar
Clean a glass jar with detergent and hot water. Optionally you might want to wipe the inside with some shochu or vodka to disinfect.
Fill the jar with alternating layers of ume and sugar
Optional: You can freeze the ume overnight and pack them in the sugar while frozen hard. Freezing causes microscopic ice crystals to break the ume’s cell membranes and fibers allowing the juice and flavor to flow out more readily. This also decreases the likelihood of fermentation in the first week if you want a sweeter syrup as opposed to a more sour fermented variant (read on for more info.)
Optional: In a clean bowl swish the ume around in the shochu or vodka then drain out to sterilize their outside to reduce the probability of fermentation if you want a sweeter syrup as opposed to a fermented sweet and sour syrup (see variants section below.)
Step 2: Allow ume to sit in sugar and gently shake the jar once or twice daily
The concentration of sugar outside of the ume will trigger osmosis and all of the fluid and deliciousness in the ume will sweat out and melt the sugar to form a delicious syrup.
Variant 1: Non-fermented sweet
Sterilize the jar and ume with shochu or vodka and freeze prior to packing in sugar as suggested above.
Remove the ume and refrigerate the syrup after no more than 7 days for a sweet and fresh taste
Variant 2: Non-fermented sour
Pour in the optional rice or apple cider vinegar after layering the ume and sugar to prevent fermentation and produce a sweet and sour syrup which should be refrigerated after no more than 7 days.
Variant 3: Fermented
I’ve seen various (most often Korean), recipes which call for letting it sit for 30-60 days. After 7 days it begins to ferment and you can see some tiny bubbles forming in in the syrup and around the ume and pressure building up in the jar. It will smell a little off but then after a few more days it will start to take on a richer more complex fragrance and flavor. I’m in the process of doing my first batch this way, so I can’t tell you the full results yet.The picture to the right shows some tiny bubbles that I noticed forming when I stirred it up which I assume are from a small amount of fermentation.
After your syrup is ready remove the ume and store the syrup in a clean jar in the refrigerator. Don’t throw away the ume just yet! The ones I froze were a tasty treat that I enjoyed eating straight! Ones that I didn’t freeze were very hard and fiberous. Some Koreans remove the pits and preserve them with kochujang to eat as a side dish, while others simmer them in sugar water and mash them into jam.
Ume truely are a magical, tasty, versitile super-food!
Places to find ume in the United States:
Hmart – a Korean grocery store chain with locations across the US where I’ve bought ume. They are GREAT for finding Japanese stuff as well and well worth even a 1-2 hr drive to get to.
Lotte Plaza – a Korean grocery store chain with locations in MD, VA, and soon FL. Like Hmart they carry a wide selection of Asian groceries and Japanese and worth a 1-2 hour drive to get to.
I went outside one morning after it had snowed overnight and noticed something truly fascinating about two nearby cars. The snow revealed the support frame under the metal sheets of their hoods. These cars had been parked for hours before the snow fell so it wasn’t direct melting from engine heat, but a very subtle temperature balance between the changing air temperature and the car which was visually magnified by snow accumulation differences.
This made me think about how cars aren’t the only things with unseen structure, everything in the universe has structure, laws, and order with much of it unseen until conditions occasionally reveal it or scientific investigation illuminates it.
It would be utterly insane to claim that these patterns are a cryptic message from god…
It would be utterly insane to claim that these patterns are a cryptic message from god, impressions left by an unseen angel’s wings, or a sign from the spirits of dead ancestors. This is because the most minimal investigation of opening the hood would reveal the metal frame as the source of the pattern and looking at the weather report would show how the changing air temperature was at the threshold of freezing – a condition that easily causes snow to accumulate differently based on the details of where it lands. Yet attributing such understandable phenomena to religious or mystical reasons is unfortunately something a vast number of people do.
…it’s unfortunately human nature to do convoluted mental acrobatics and make up explanations
Seeing the snow on these cars made me think about how when people don’t know something, it’s unfortunately human nature to do convoluted mental acrobatics and make up explanations that are often way more implausible than what they are witnessing. These explanations are also often more complex than the phenomena they are attempting to explain and raise two questions for every one they answer. Humanity has been doing this since ancient times with made up stories about gods and deities whose motivations for floods, volcanoes, creating mountains, illness, placing stars in the sky, etc., sound surprisingly human (or maybe that’s not a surprise.)
I know people who would unhesitatingly call the patterns in the snow “signs”, even though the only intelligence implicated is that of the automotive engineers who designed the cars. The fact is that the world and the universe is full of structure, laws, and order which either perfectly or at least plausibly explain most phenomena. We need look for this while avoiding the temptation to take the mentally easy path and put the explanation in the hands of an unseen supernatural force.
It might seem satisfying to believe that an angel or god left a sign for you in the snow. But knowing and understanding the intricate interactions that bring about phenomina in the real world brings an equal if not deeper sense of beauty, awe, and amazement. This is in part because knowing more about the true world allows you to better understand a little more about your own existence in the world, because we are not separate from it. It also comes without the nagging inconsistencies, guesswork, fallacies, and gaps that inevitably accompany the supernatural explanations.
If you think the world of science is not beautiful look at the beauty of a REAL snowflake through a macro lens (a product of science) and consider how the uneven electro-magnetic forces within water molecules are responsible for crafting its near infinite variety of always 6-sided shapes. Simple, explained, yet still stunningly beautiful.
Chage and Aska (aka Chageasu) were a powerful music duo through the 80’s and 90’s in Japan. My wife grew up listening to them and is very fond of their song “Love Song”, which is a simple, honest, and warm song very different in my mind from much of what’s produced today. To me it captures the optimism and remaining innocence of Japan’s prosperous 80’s and early 90’s.
On the left you’ll find the original Japanese with romanji underneath and on the right is the translation. Due to Japanese sentence structure often being opposite of English it’s not uncommon for line 1 of the Japanese to correspond to line 2 or 3 of the English and vice-versa throughout the translation. Due to this song’s simple sentence structure though it has a mostly 1-1 correlation with each English line reflecting with the Japanese line to it’s left is saying.
Please do not take this material and post it directly to other sites or blogs. I put a lot of effort into these translations and post them here as part of the content of this site. Feel free to link to this page or share it via the social media buttons at the bottom of this post. Thank you.
I originally posted a translation of Love Song back in 2013. I’ve done a number of freelance translation jobs since then and refined my approach so I wanted to revisit it to touch up some inaccuracies and improve it. Previously I took a stricter literal approach to translation which I’ve come to realize doesn’t work as well for music. When translating music it’s important to lean towards transmitting the intended feelings and ideas. Small differences in translation can make big differences in feeling.
As an example, all of the translation for the given line below could be considered valid based on the meanings of the words in the Japanese. (a) is very literal; (b) is literal but phrased more smoothly by inserting pronouns, using more natural verb tenses, or using alternate vocab of similar meaning; and C is slightly embellished to reflect what a native English speaker would say in the same context and spirit of the song lyric. Options a and b are accurate but awkward or emotionless but c is more reflective of the song.
Lines 4-5 「ひどいもんさ 生きざまぶった。半オンスの拳がうけてる」
“It’s a harsh state, my way of life’s been beaten. The half-ounce fist is hitting back”
“It’s a harsh thing, my life’s taking a beating. I’m hitting back with a half-ounce fist”
“life’s beaten me down, I’m only hitting back with a half-ounce fist”
Line 6 「僕はそれを見ていたよ 横になって」
“I was seeing it laying down”
“I saw it happening, while laying down”
“I saw all this happening, while just laying there”
Line 12 「君が想うよりも 僕は君が好き」
“More than you think, I like you”
“More than you believe, I love you”
“More than you can imagine, I love you”
Lines 21-22 「抱き合う度にほら。 また君増えて行く」
“Each time we embrace take a look, again you come to increase” (a pure literal translation)
“Each time we embrace take a look, again you become more”
“Each time we embrace take a look, you become more and more”
1.c. uses the English phrase “life’s beating me down” since it matches the meaning well (despite not literally matching the words.) The word ‘only’ was inserted too to create a contrast between what the world is giving him and what he’s fighting back with. This contrast isn’t clear in more literal translations.
2.c. While the Japanese is simple and not flowery, a direct translation of the words doesn’t convey the feelings of passiveness and helplessness that Aska is singing about. Seeing it ‘happening‘ while ‘just‘ laying ‘there‘ adds words that aren’t in the Japanese but preserves the meaning. Care needs to be taken though that adding words doesn’t add meaning or nuance not in the original material.
3.c. The Japanese word “想う” generally means think or believe, but once again the established English phrase “more than you can imagine” was very appropriate for the intended feeling. Also 好き ‘suki’ can be ‘like’ or ‘love’ depending on the context. In this context it is clearly referring to romantic love.
4.c. is not literally accurate to the words but it is accurate to the meaning. While it doesn’t incorporate the Japanese word また (again), directly the repetition of the word “more” incorporates the concept.
Discussing these details might seem to be overkill, but it highlights challenges in translation. Each line requires an active choice from a range of possibilities and just racing through doing a textbook translation of each sentence won’t really let the song be enjoyed in the translated language.
I’m a huge fan of Hikaru Utada and think her album Ultra Blue is phenomenal with it’s beautifully performed songs and poetic lyrics. Below you’ll find my English translation of the song Making Love from that album. You can listen to the song while reading timed subtitles of my English translation, view the full Japanese and English lyrics, and read some discussion about the meaning of the song and challenges in translation.
This post makes limited use of material for the clear and express purpose of analysis and education (in this case the translation and analysis of song lyrics.) I in good faith believe this falls squarely under the category of fair use. If you believe otherwise please click here to contact me directly to discuss your concerns.
(Chrome or Firefox recommended for proper playback. Move your cursor off of the above video so the controls don’t appear and cover the subtitles)
Hikaru Utada – Making Love song meaning: The most direct way to interpret the song is that it is about Utada’s close friend who is moving away to start a new life. Rather than being sad and thinking about how missing her friend will impact her, it becomes a turning point into maturity where Utada puts her feelings aside and truly (possibly for the first time), thinks about her friend’s happiness above her own. While wishing her friend the best she reflects on the positive impact her friend has had on her. Utada develops new resolve to do her best in her current place and looks into the future beyond this immediate moment of sadness with lyrics like line 17 – “I want to do my best in this town”, line 34 – “when the evening comes, the light remains”, and the final lines 41-43 – “No matter how much I cherish those piano notes of long gone summer days, it’s time for me to wake up.” The last line is a realization that like her friend, she too must move forward in life.
I came across a second, very different possible interpretation when trying to understand lines 38-40, which in the context of expressing love and gratitude for a friend who is leaving just didn’t seem to fit in. That’s when I did some searching for those lyrics in Japanese and found a difficult to understand Japanese post (which I unfortunately didn’t bookmark), suggesting that Utada is not in fact only singing about a friend that is moving, but is also singing about her old self and her new maturing self who is ready to move forward in life. In our early adulthood we often make big leaps, moving far for school or work. In the process we leave a lot of our old self behind and discover a new self in a new environment. Lines 12-15 could be her coming to a point of maturity where she can be honest with herself. The lyrics “I’m so happy I met you” could possibly be interpreted as her self-realization that she had to go through her previous immature phase to arrive at the point of realization she’s at now. And the problematic lines 38-40 make a little sense if you interpret them as an ounce of regret that Utada didn’t mature earlier and spent too much time looking up to and relying on her best friend.
This isn’t meant to be a conclusive or exhaustive analysis. Utada may have written the song with a variety of meanings in mind and left it open for the listener to determine. Whichever way you interpret it, you can feel the emotion and a sincerity in her voice which is what I love about her.
Translation challenges & notes:
Translation is not as easy as knowing two languages and changing material from one to the other. Different languages (and the cultures attached to them), put the emphasis on different aspects of information. As a result you often find sentences which provide enough information to satisfy the mindset of native listeners, but leave things unclear when expressed in other languages. You also have to make the choice of translating the words or translating the meaning by using equivalent expressions that might use different meaning words.
One challenge in translating this (and many), songs is that Japanese sentences don’t explicitly have to state subjects and objects to the level that English does. As a result it’s very unclear in lines like 17 and 20 if it is I, you, or we that are “are in the middle of a long, long dream…” and “… need a best friend.” This is a major challenge of Japanese for translation software which often gets pronouns wrong or uses “it” when referring to people because who is often determined from context and not specified in the Japanese language as often.
Another translation challenge is that Japanese doesn’t have plural for nouns. The phrase 花が咲いた could equally be “a flower has bloomed” or “flowers have bloomed“. So when dealing with phrases similar to this you have to be alert to context and nuances being conveyed. Line 30 in the song actually does specify “a single flower” in the Japanese. But I’m still left with the decision of do I encoded that information as “a flower has bloomed” which sufficiently indicates 1 to an English speaker, or “a singleflower has bloomed”, which puts more emphasis on it’s solitary nature? If the meaning of the line is a metaphor for Utada’s friend or an intangible thing that Utada received, than using the word “single” might be more appropriate. If on the other hand the meaning of the line is that she’s going through a change represented by the first flower, than the word single becomes a bit of a distracting nuance.
Line 34 is literally “Even if it becomes night it is still bright.” Literal translations often don’t reflect the feeling or mood of the piece so phrases of equivalent meanings and matched feelings/artistry to the piece become more appropriate to use. The Japanese word “akarui” was used which can mean bright, but it could also be referring to “cheerful”. What is akarui isn’t specified either so possible alternative translations of line 34 could include “When the evening comes, you’ll still be cheerful” or “Even when nighttime comes, it’s still bright“. I chose “When the evening comes, the light remains” to reflect the symbolism and optimism I feel from the song. That also helped me to avoid repeating words too close to each other since the next line talks about light too.
When talking about the song’s meaning above, I mentioned lines 38-39 as a challenge. It’s one of those cases where the Japanese text itself is somewhat vague and a fully literal translation of “If I hadn’t met you I wouldn’t need a best friend” didn’t fit well enough for me to want to use it like that. I softened it a bit by phrasing it as “I wouldn’t be needing a best friend”, so that it would still be representative of the Japanese but not lean towards any one interpretation or another of the song. If you can think of a better translation or interpretation please let me know.
These may seem like a very minor things that I’m over analyzing, but these decisions flavor translations and take them closer to or further from the original meaning and nuances of works as written in their original native languages. It’s impossible in many cases for long or creative works to be translated with 100% accuracy to what the original author was saying so it’s important to take time and think about the material and reflect the nuance, feeling, and meaning as best you can.
While I intend to post a wide variety of things both old and new, NHK Blends has been catching my attention lately with some very beautiful and culturally inspiring renditions of pop classics using traditional Japanese instruments very masterfully performed.
I present Eric Clapton – Change the World played on the chuzao shamisen.
Fast forward to 0:46 if you want to skip the intro.
While browsing YouTube one day my wife discovered a young Korean man named Inhyeok Yeo who does very interesting one-man acapella covers of songs including the song above (Eric Clapton’s Change the World.) While I don’t know as much about Korea as Japan I do have a fondness for it as well and have been there several times, so I’ll occasionally feature Korean music and artists here as well.
When learning a foreign language your teachers and textbooks leave a huge gaping hole in your knowledge about words relating to an important, natural part of everyone’s life – sex.
I could speak Japanese functionally when I arrived in Japan and after a couple of months I was spending time with a Japanese girl who didn’t speak English. We started to become intimate and realized that I didn’t know any vocabulary related to such things, especially the casual slang that couples would use in the bedroom. She was amused by this and wanted to teach me. I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination but I will say they were lessons that are hard to forget!
So I wanted to share some important but hard to come by vocabulary with you. This isn’t comprehensive and might even vary by region a bit.
Caution real-world but not safe for work (NSFW) material ahead! エッチに関する英単は先です。
The January 07, 2017 episode of NHK Blends featured Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off played on the Shamisen. Unlike my earlier post of Madonna’s Like a Prayer which was very recognizable, I like how this performance melds it into a more traditional Japanese sound. The performance begins after a 50 second introduction.
The Japanese company オーシャナイズ (Oceanize) has started a new business called タダコピ (Tadacopy – http://www.tadacopy.com/). They’re putting photocopiers on Japanese college campuses that the students can use to make copies for free. What’s the catch? There are ads printed on the back of the copies!
This screen shot from their web site shows their equation of copy + ad = ￥０. Above the ￥０ it says “you can also target segments”, and the picture at the bottom shows a woman with a smartphone. The scheme runs deeper than just ads. They have a smartphone app (shown here), which no doubt invasively tracks users, collects personal info, and requires a login. This type of tracking information is invaluable to ad based companies and no doubt provides more value to them than just the printed ads.
The sad thing is people everywhere are getting in line to hand over their personal information and privacy for free stuff which is only worth pennies, far less than what they are giving up.
Japanese umeshu (梅酒, pronounced u-may-shu) is a delicious, aromatic, wonderful alcohol drink from Japan that you have to try. It’s hands-down my favorite drink from Japan. Umeshu is often mischaracterized as “Japanese plum wine”, but is closer to a fruit cordial or fruit liqueur. It’s made from allowing green unripe Japanese ume plums and rock sugar steep in a clear distilled alcohol called shochu (焼酎) for several months. Shochu itself is an incredibly popular drink in Japan (and South Korea), which the Japanese drink WAY more than the traditional sake (pronounced sa-keh, not sa-ki).
Umeshu is typically 15%-20% alcohol and can be enjoyed straight, on the rocks, or mixed with carbonated water.
It is a common tradition for Japanese people to make their own umeshu during the summer and I did the same. I was thrilled when I was able to make it this past summer in the United States as well. I’ll explain how and tell you where to look for ingredients and what substitutes can work.
For those who have never tried it or don’t want to make it, Choya and other brands of umeshu (pictured to the right), can be found at good and larger alcohol retailers in the U.S. Especially look for alcohol retailers in areas with a high Asian populations. The picture to the right is a 750ml bottle of Choya that I used to buy at the local grocery store in Japan for 900 yen. It’s more than double that ($20) here in the U.S.