Japanese Singers’ English Pronunciation: Problems and their causes
Nowadays, more and more Japanese singers are singing in English. It is not rare that the lyrics written by Japanese are all in English. However, I sometimes found unnatural English pronunciation while listening to their songs. Even professional Japanese singers make a mistake in English pronunciation.
I thought that there may be some common mistakes that Japanese tend to make and wondered why they sing in unnatural English, which interested me.
2 the sounds that Japanese singers often mispronounce
Firstly, I researched what kind of incorrect sounds Japanese singers use.
I used a smartphone language-learning application called “HelloTalk”, by which those who want to learn languages can communicate with foreign people.
I asked an American woman to listen to three covers of “Let It Go” by Japanese singers on YouTube via this application and indicate which part is difficult to catch.
She mentioned that many of the “l” sounds were like “r” as for two of the three singers.
Also, I asked a New Zealand woman a question: Have you ever felt weird when listening to Japanese singers’ English and which part of the song(s) made you feel like that?
She refered to “Smile” covered by “青葉市子と妖精たち” and said that they both (the song is sung by Ichiko Aoba and a Japanese male singer) have trouble pronouncing the words :tomollow instead of tomorrow, wis instead of with, za instead of the.
Secondly, I referred to “Analysis of English pronunciation of singing voices sung by Japanese speakers” written by Akinori Ito. His research shows what sounds tend to be mispronounced by Japanese singers.
In his research, 11 Japanese people (research subjects) read the lyrics of English songs and sang them in English and then, the researchers recorded the voices of both reading and singing.
After that, the evaluators, who are native English speakers, listened to the recorded voices and evaluated them.
‘First, we analyzed pronunciation mistakes marked by the evaluators. The typical ones were related to English phonemes that do not exist in Japanese. For example, the phoneme /th/ appeared 23 times in the two songs. 33% of read ones were indicated as mistakes by two or more English evaluators. It increased to 47% in the sung ones.
The other ones were words of which the last vowel is stretched as a long tone, and words tied with the next word. In the former case, the last consonant was often omitted. For
example, “Hey Jude”, the beginning phrase of the Song A(=“Hey Jude” by The Beatles), appeared twice in a verse. Only 9% of them were indicated as mistakes in the read voice, but the rate increased to 45% in the singing voice. In the latter case, Japanese singers often connect the last phoneme of the previous word and the beginning phoneme of the next word and pronounce them as different phonemes. For example, “with you” should be pronounced as [wIðjú:], while Japanese singers tend to pronounce them as [wɪdzu:]. It often sounds “cool” for Japanese, while it sounds weird for English native speakers’(Ito, 2014).
He points out three common mistakes.
1) phonemes that do not exist in Japanese such as /th/ tended to be mispronounced
2)the last consonant is often omitted when the last vowel is
stretched as a long tone
3) connect the last phoneme of the previous word and
the beginning phoneme of the next word and pronounce
them as different phonemes
From my reserch and Ito’s research, it appers that phonemes that Japanese singers frequently mispronounce are “l” sounds and “/th” sounds and especially when singing, they tend to make a mistake in pronouncing the last consonant and linking the phonemes.
3 Causes of poor pronunciation of Japanese singers
3.1 Causes related to the pronunciation of Japanese
In Japanese, “l” and “th”sounds do not exist, which may cause poor performance of Japanese singers singing in English. As for “l”, both “l” and ”r” are written as ”r” in Japanese Roman letter system such as “Ra Ri Ru Re Ro”. Also, “th” is often written as “s”; “three” becomes “suri-“ and “Thursday”, “sa-zudei”.
In the research I coducted, the American woman points out the problem of “r” and “l”sounds and New Zealand woman mentions that /th/ are replaced with /s/ in the cover of “Smile”.
Suarezs and Tanaka (2001) mention:
‘The mean score for students who learn English pronunciation exclusively by writing katakana for a word was 7.69. … Therefore, it was supported that learning English pronunciation exclusively by writing katakana has a significant]y negative influence on pronunciation’ (Suarezs and Tanaka,2001).
Using katakana as a substitution for English phonemes is one of the causes of poor English pronunciation of Japanese singers.
Furthermore, there is one more crucial difference between Japanese and English.
Morishita and Asai (2007) focused on the difference between the sound systems of Japanese and English. According to them, while Japanese require speakers to equalize length of phonemes, English speakers sustain an accented syllable. In addition, they showed that a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note are longer in the English version of “蛍の光” than in the Japanese version.
This difference probably causes Japanese singers to sing in Japanese-like English.
3.2 Causes related to English education in Japan
Suarezs and Tanaka (2001) measured junior college students’ attitude toward English pronunciation by using a questionnaire and found that the main reasons why they speak with Japanese phonology are a lack of pronunciation instruction in secondary school
and the culture and environment.
They reported the result as follows:
“Of those who speak using Japanese phonology, 44,1% blamed their pronunciation on the English education they received in junior and senior high school. They said that they were not correctly taught English pronunciation. They claimed that because their English teachers in junior and senior high school did not correct their pronunciation, the students did not know they were in error. They also said that their English teachers in junior and senior high school did not have good English pronunciation, and that as students they did not have enough speaking practice. Twenty-four percent of the students who speak English using Japanese phonology felt that they do it because of the culture and environment. They said that it would be embarrassing, or that they feel they might be teased if they were to speak English with correct pronunciation. Also, they speak using Japanese phonology because other Japanese students understand it better that way” (2001, Suarezs and Tanaka).
The first cause is English education in junior and senior high school.
According to their questionnaire, students say that there are few chances to practice English pronunciation and get feedback and English teachers does not have good pronunciation.
Regarding this problem, Suarezs and Tanaka(2001) state as follows:
“According to Nakata, the primary method of instruction in Japanese secondary
schools is grammar translation, a method which totally de-emphasizes speaking and
pronunciation. Students are put off by this demanding and unimaginative method and
many lose interest in English altogether except as a necessary evil for entrance
Thus, most of the students’ concern is naturally directed only onto the exact
grammatical interpretatio nof the sentences in the text. In a learning situation like
this it is quite probable for those students to be unable to pay attention to a
broader framework of discourse (Ibi d8:2)”(Suarezs and Tanaka,2001).
From their statement, one can see that Japanese students’ poor English pronunciation is associated with the method of English teaching and the Japanese entrance examination system.
Moreover, the problem is not only the system.
Makino(2012?) points out that the ability of English teacher is one of the reasons why many Japanese are not good at English pronunciation. He mentions:
“Japanese people’s has been said to have poor English pronunciation for a long time and it has not been improved.
Urimoto’s research(2010) for high school teachers about their using the pages related to pronunciation in government authorized English textbook revealed that there were few teachers who deaa with pronunciation in their class. He indicated that one of the causes of it is that it is possible to get a teacher’s liscence without leaning English phonetics because there is not such a requirement. As a relust of Kochiyama and his colleages’ research(2011) for junior high school teachers about teaching pronunciation, the teachers answered that they had no chance to learn teaching pronunciation, which suggests that it is difficult to train teachers who can teach English pronunciation”(Makino,2012?).
The second is the environment and the national character of Japan.
Japanese people tend to feel it embarrassing to speak English like native speakers.
Besides, they think that they would be teased if they speak English well.
As a result, they lost a lot of chances to speak English in the right way.
Most Japanese people study English in such a poor environment.
Consequently, most of them would never know right English pronunciation and singers are no exception.
The English education in Japan is one of the greatest causes of Japanese singers’ poor pronunciation.
3.3 Causes related to the music industry in Japan
3.3.1 Functions of English in Japanese popular music
In this chapter, I analyze English that Japanese singers often use from the ponint of view of music.
What is notable about Japanese popular music is that English are used in a quite unique way.
Takahashi and Calica(2015) mention:
‘There were 45 songs whose lyrics contained English clauses, or sentences. However, all the sentences were simple sentences as in “I’m standing here now and forever” and (EXILE PRIDE~Konna Sekai o Aisurutame~ by EXILE) “You’re so cool!” (Kamonegix by NMB48). Compound and complex sentences were not observed in the data. This indicates that J-pop lyrics do not have complicated English structures in them. Instead, they tend to use structures that can be easily understood by a general audience. English phrases and clauses in the lyrics tended to be grammatical’(Takahashi and Calica,2015).
Their research shows some of English lyrics in J-pop are not for foreign listeners but domestic ones. In other words, the lyric writers do not use English as a way of communicating with foreign people. Especially, most of the songs ranking in Oricon chart are for domestic listeners on the current Japanese music scene. Therefore, their lyrics do not have to be understood by English native speakers. All the singers have to do is pronounce English so that Japanese people can understand.
Moreover, they mention:
‘Some songs used English phrases and clauses repetitively as in “Oh Baby, My angel […] Oh Baby, My angel” (Heart Ereki by AKB48) and “Come On A My House ‘Kare ga suki?’ (JUMP! JUMP!)/ Come On A My House ‘Boku ga suki?’ (JUMP! JUMP!)” (Come On A My House by Hey! Say! JUMP). This repetition was also used as a rhyming scheme. There were songs which used English for rhyming with Japanese as in “Sansei kawaii! Sunshine furisosogu” (Sansei Kawaii! by SKE48). Code ambiguation between English and Japanese (see, e.g., Moody & Matsumoto, 2003) was also observed. For example, “Kiss Your Mind” in KisMy-Ft2’s “Kiss Umai~ Kiss Your Mind” was pronounced as “Kiss umai (good at kissing)” as the song title shows. “Coming! Coming!” from the same song was pronounced as “Kamu kamu (chew chew)” probably because the song was written as an advertisement song for a new line of chewing gums. These examples indicate that English has a variety of functions in J-pop songs’ (Takahashi and Calica , 2015).
They indicate some lyric writers of J-pop use English to rhyme with Japanese, which means that the singers are not required to sing in correct English. On the contrary, such English lyrics are supposed to be pronounced like Japanese. Another example is “つけまつける” by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. The song rhyme “Tsukema (in Japanese)” with “to came up (to in Japanese and came up in English)” and the pronunciation of “came up” is apparently “kema”.
In the case of “つけまつける”, no one can pronounce “p” at the end of “came up” because there is no time to pronounce it in the melody. That is, this song was written so that the singer does not need to pronounce English as English from the beginning.
The writer of this song’s lyrics used English not as language but sounds that rhyme with the corresponding Japanese lyrics.
These may be extreme examples, but at least it can be said that English in Japanese pop music does not only function as language.
In fact, it is nothing new that English is used in such a unique way.
Yamasaki (2015) explains how the function of lyrics in the Japanese music has changed until now.
According to her, the Japanese traditional music emphasize communication lyrics. She mentions:
“Most of the Japanese traditional music are incidental to a play or a story…That is why it was regarded as important that audience could understand the meaning of the lyrics. In other words, songs in the Japanese traditional music were a narration”(Yamasaki, 2015).
However, rock music whish was introduced from overseas and はっぴいえんど(Japanese rock band) changed the function of lyrics in the Japanese music. She added:
“はっぴいえんど tried to compose the songs not by conforming accents in the lyrics and the melody but by balancing the rhythm, sound of the words, and meaning of the lyrics”. As a result, the melody became free from lyrics. However, that does not mean that they disregarded the content of the lyrics. Lyrics didn’t follow the standard Japanese accent and consequently, songs consisted of the singer’s voice, the lyrics and the music all together”(Yamasaki, 2015).
In addition, she explains what happened after はっぴいえんど succeeded in applying Japanese for rock music.
“It was サザンオールスターズ (a Japanese band who debuted in 1978) who develop the way of dealing with words and started to write lyrics along with rythms of melody. One of the characteristics of their songs is the up-tempo melodies and the lyrics quickly spoken. (…) Keisuke Kuwata, the leader of サザンオールスターズ, says that he comes up with ”nonsense words” which sounds like English at the same time as melodies. He put more emphasis on choosing words and sounds which never interrupt melodies than the content of the lyrics.
Therefore, he intentedly aligns meaningless words such as “Co-Direction”, “Pan-Selection”, or “Skip Beat (the meaning is similar to “perve”)” in order to ryhme the lines.”
There are two important points here.
One is that English was already used in a unique way in 1980’s and the other is that サザンオールスターズ uses English despite that はっぴいえんど succeeded in applying Japanese for rock music.
Moreover, more musicians started to use English in their songs after サザンオールスターズ debuted.
For example, Kenji Ozawa from フリッパーズ・ギター(debuted in 1989) sung all songs in their first album in Enlgish.
Now there are a great number of bands in Japan whose lyrics are all in English; e.g., coldrain, crossfaith, Pay money to pain, ELLEGARDEN, FACT, Fear, and Loathing in Las Vegas).
To conjecture why they do not use Japanese, I focus on はっぴいえんど again.
In fact, they recognize that Japanese language is unsuitable for rock even though it is them who said to succeed in applying Japanese for rock.
“One can clealy see Otaki’s (はっぴいえんど’s) attitude of willingly recognizing that using Japanese is overwhelmingly unfavorable in playing rock but trying anyway.
Takashi Matsumoto says similar thing in the discussion meeting held by New Music Magagine.
Matsumoto: The reason why we sing in Japanese is simply that we cannot write English lyrics. It is true that we have trouble in applying Japanese (for rock music)”(Sasaki, 2014:32).
Actually, Sasaki (2014) also argues that it was possible to technically apply Japanese for rock.
Therefore, it is neccesarily true that it is impossible to use Japanese in rock music.
However, it is a fact that the difference between Japanese and English casues the difficulty of Japanese artists’ playing rock music. This is how English became used in such a unique way in the current Japanese popular music.
3.3.2 Current situation of the Japanese music industry and J-pop English
One of the biggest reasons why English is used in such a unique way is the Japanese music industry.
According to the Music Publishers Association of Japan (2013), the Japanese music market size is the second biggest in the world.
That means that Japanese artists can make a living and do not need to be active in foreign countries and consequently, most J-pop music targets the domestic market.
Hiromichi Ugaya (2005) points out two facts.
One is that Japanese popular music does not have the ability to compete in overseas markets and the other is that Japanese singers can make a living only in the domestic market.
According to his research, while the rate of American domestic consumption is about 80 percent and British, about 66.666… %, the rate of Japanese one is 99.5%.
Therefore, he maintains, Japanese record companies are quite passive to advance into overseas markets. This is because it is difficult to promote their music in foreign countries and they do not have to do that.
In such a situation, it is clear that Japanese is more effective than English as a language
According to EF Education First(2017), Japan is ranked number 37 of 80 countries in terms of English ability and the level is “Low”(there are 5 ability levels and “Low” is the second lowest one).
Generally, it can be said that it is difficult for many of the Japanese people to understand English lyrics correctly and Japanese lyric writers probably understand it.
As a result, they use Japanese if they want to communicate their messages and English is used for other purposes.
According to Takahashi and Calica(2015), English in J-pop music is often used for creating a “modern”, “cool”, or “sophisticated” image and for making rhythm patterns.
Besides, Ugaya(2005) did a detailed analysis of the purpose of Japanese singeres using English.
He mentions that the word “J-pop” is created by the Japanese record company and radio station in order to make up an image of “the Japanese music which ranks with overseas countries”. They tried to give an ideal images to the Japanese pop music on purpose of popularizing them and being commercially successful. He calls such an ideal image “fantasy” and says that Japanese record companies thought that realizing Japanese people’s fantasy leads to selling more music at that time.
He repeats the word “fantasy” in his book and says that there have been inferiority complex for Europe and America in history of Japanese popular music.
Also, he explains the reason why many Japanese singers sing in English in this context, giving the example of Hikaru Utada.
“In 1998, the singer who realized this fantasy most accurately and satisfy the consumers’ love for themselves appeared: Hikaru Utada.
Her English lyrics, pronunciation, and rhythmic sense like a native speaker made her music sound new. Japanese people welcomed her more enthusiastically than ever before … Why do Japanese people love hef music that much? It is impossible to easily conclude the reason because there are a lot of variables, including her music and charm, and they make the equation complex. However, no one could deny that the fantasy that Japanese popular music ranked with (or want to rank with) oversea’s music is one of the important factors”(Ugaya, 2005:155-156).
Moreover, he mentions that there were singers who showed the “fantasy” other than Hikaru Utada, who originally had internationality
“The name of bands or singers which eliminate the Japanese national character such as “MISIA” and “BONNIE PINK” is one of them(=the artists who showed the “fantasy”).
Expressing Japanese singers’ names in Roman letters is also one of the ways of their pretending to be international. They appear to be international even if their records are not sold in foreign countries.
that the reason why more singers and bands whose songs were not sold overseas sang in Englihs for Japanese listeners In the 90s is that record companies aimed to enhence commercial value of music by realizing the listeners’ fantasy. This explanation is easy to understand”(Ugaya, 2005:158).
In such a way, a new type of English was born uniquely in the J-pop music. I call it “J-pop English”, which is different from so called “Japanese English” and of course original English.
J-pop English is characterized by its simple structure: there are few difficult words and sentences to understand, and sometimes the users of it make phrases that do not make sense.
When I researched the problems of pronunciation of Japanese singers, an American male referred to Johnny’s Jr., said that their lyrics are full of English which does not make sense.
Ugaya (2005:158) maintains that as a result of the analysis of English lyrics used in J-pop music, there were no lyrics which make sense as English except for Hikaru Utada’s ones.
It is not important for J-pop English to be pronounced as in original English.
In other words, J-pop singers have no clear reasons to sing in English with good pronunciation.
I discussed the problem that most J-pop music is consumed only in the domestic market and that it makes the singers pronunciation worse.
Conversely, Japanse singers whose music is sold overseas have good pronunciation.
For example, Toshl from X JAPAN, who started to enter overseas markets in 1993, used to have poor English pronunciation. In 1989, he pronounced “nothing” as “ˈnʌsɪŋ” but In 1997, his pronunciation had become better. SEKAI NO OWARI has been active in foreign countries since 2013. Fukase, the band’s vocalist, could not pronounce “p” of “parade” clearly in their single called “スターライトパレード” released in 2011. However, in “Anti Hero” released in 2015, he showed that his pronunciation has been improved. “P” sound of the lyric “But when push comes to shove” has changed to a plosive.
These facts emphasize the relationship between the target market and the singers’ pronunciation.
3.3.3 Unreliable feedback on English pronunciation by Japanese native speakers
Ito (2014) found out that Japanese people could not correctly evaluate singers’ English pronunciation.
‘According to the two tables, we can see that correlation coefficients between English native speakers were relatively high compared with that between English and Japanese native speakers. Moreover, correlation coefficients between Japanese native speakers were also small, which shows that evaluation of Japanese native speakers differs from evaluator to evaluator, in other words, evaluation by Japanese native speakers was unreliable’ (Ito,2014).
For singers whose target is domestic listeners, this is a serious problem.
That means that singers who are only active in Japan cannot receive appropriate feedback from domestic listeners.
There are few chances for them to understand which sound is right or wrong and improve their pronunciation as long as the target is Japanese listeners.
4 The importance of English pronunciation for Japanese singers
In the previous chapter, I enumerated possible causes of poor pronunciation of Japanese singers.
However, one may wonder why English pronunciation is that important for them.
Therefore, I would like to explan it before moving on to the next chapter.
4.1 the shrinking Japanese music market
According to Music Media User Report 2013 by Recording Industry Association of Japan, the number of people who had spent money accounted for 55.2 percent of the total in 2009 but it continues to decrease every year. It decreased to 44.5 percent in 2013 and 32.6% in 2016.
Shiba (2016) mentions as follows although he says that the Japanese music industry has greater potential than ever:
…It never cannot be said that the outlook of the Japanese music busininess and markets is favorable.
The sales of music software is keeping decreasing. The concert and entertainment business is growing but there is a limit because each concert hall has a limited capacity.
Tatsuya Nomura, the representative managing officer of HIP LAND MUSIC CORPORATION, says “The reality is that we are now in a period of transition, music business collapsing.” and feels a sense of crisis(Shiba, 2016: 206).
As they says, a decrease of the sales of music software, especially CD, is a serious problem and it will be unstoppable.
In contrast, the world music industry is growing.
According to Shiba (2016), the world music industry realized positive growth in 2015, which was the first time in seventeen years after 1998. He added that one of the factor is rapid growth of music streaming services.
Considering recent situation, It probably won’t be that long until the Japanese artists cannot be dependent on the domestic market even though it is the second biggest in the world now.
In the future, they could not make a living only in Japan and be forced to advance into overseas markets.
However, the problem is that “Japanese popular music does not have the ability to compete in overseas markets” as Ugaya (2005) says.
4.2 How Japanese artists can obtain the ability to compete in overseas markets
To consider how Japanese artists obtain the ability to compete in overseas markets,
English is one of the biggets obstacles Japanese artists come across when they try to enter overseas markets.
According to Kato(), for example, X JAPAN was trying to advance into overseas markets in 1992. However, they finally did not released any songs for overseas. She explains that the reason was English pronunciation.
Centainly, some Japanese artists are somewhat succesful but most of them are just successful in fleeing from competition in English.
For example, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu became popular by becoming a Japanese “Kawaii” Culture icon.
She emphasizes the Japanese characteristics and as a result, her fans love Japanese culture.
She is not required to sing in English and even expected to sing in Japanese.
That is why it does not matter that her English pronunciation is poor.
Dir en grey, who is one of the most popular Visuak Kei bands in Japan, actively started to enter overseas markets in 2007. They has got a lot of fans in foreign contries despite that many of their songs include a lot of Japanese.
Kyo, the vocalist of Dir en grey, often use “growl” (a way of singing mainly used in death metal music) and therefore, his singing voice is too distorted to catch.
Even native Japanese speakers cannot understand whay he is saying without a lyric sheet.
In other words, he is successful in being allowed to sing in Japanese by his way of singing.
It is certain that Japanese artists can compete in overseas makets by avoiding singing in English but there is a limit to this way.
Shiba (2016) points out as follows:
“What position Japanese pop music occupy in this grobal music markets?
In chapter five, I wrote about that BABYMETAL and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu are succeessful in overseas markets. However, it is not true that these artists are successful in the mainstream of overseas culture.
They are much less famous than the worldwide top stars such as Adele, Beyoncé, and Jastin Beaver.
In contrast, the reality is that they are attaining popularity as a subculture which cultural minolities in foreign contries love.
Masahiro Oishi points out that.
He is the president of MAVERICK DC GROUP, which manage L’Arc〜en〜Ciel (one of the most successful Japanese rock bands in the world) and VAMPS (Japanese two-man band HYDE started, attaining popularity worldwide).
In future, I think that artists are required to be able to perform and communicate in English and the local languages.
They will be regarded as just a niche subculture if they cannot answer to an interview in English or the local languages.
To be honest, L’Arc〜en〜Ciel is not recognized as a main culture and as do many Japanese artists who are active in foreign countries.(…) L’Arc〜en〜Ciel as a “Japanese rock band” are accepted once and successful as an entertainment. However, I think that they would not be successful next time if they do not compete in overseas markets as a main culture.
（『『J-MELO』が教えてくれた世界でウケる「日本音楽」』ぴあ）(Oishi, date unavailable, as quoted in Shiba, 2015).
That is, Japanese music are seen as a subculture as long as the artists are dependent on the the Japanese characteristics and they can get only a small number of fans who are interested in Japanese culture or Japan.
Centainly, there are people who got interested in Japanese culture because of Japanese anime or manga but the number of them are not many.
When the Japanese music industry shirink and artists cannot make a living only in the domestic market, they would not survive if their songs is sold by a small number of fans of Japanese pop culture.
I do not mean that they should not emphasizing the Japanese characteristics. However, I argue that they should have enough English ability to compete in overseas market.
4.3 What Japanese artists should learn from the history of British rock music
Although it is not easy for Japanese artists to be successful in overseas markets, especially U.S., which has the biggest music market in the world, the history has proved that it is possible.
In 1964, the Beatles advanced into America, which led to other British musicians entering America. This incident is so-called “British invasion”.
Befor the Beatles’ success, it was popularly believed that it is impossilble for British musicians to be successful in the American market.
“After the World War Ⅱ, it was quite clear that America dominated the world music market, especially in rock’n roll and jazz.
It was almost impossible for British or Japanese musicians to be a hit. If they could, only a few of them made a hit. It is appropriate to be expressed as “a miracle” or “a fluke” (it may be safely said to be a miracle that “上を向いて歩こう” by Kyu Sakamoto ranked first in American chart) ” (Nakayama, 2012: 114).
Nowadays British rock music has established itself as a world standard music. However, it was completely different in the past.
Nakayama refers to “British invasion” as follows:
“British musical invasion … signalled the ushering in of a new era. Now, British music, which was said “never to be sold in other countries but United Kingdom, has spread all over the world and London has become the cultural and musical center” (Nakayama, 2012: 117).
Japanese artists learn a lesson form the succsess of the Beatles and other British bands.
Some may say that the reason why British musicians succeeded is they are English native speaker.
However, Nakayama expresses the fact that their native language is English as “unlucky”:
“After all, United Kingdom was unlucky in that it was an English-speaking country as U.S. is.
Many American music covered by British people was just an inferior version in spite of the genre.
That means British music was under the rule of American one.(Nakayama, 2014: position No. 747-749 in Kindle)”
He just refers to “covering” Americn music but what I argue here is that it can be said that it is not neccesarily favorable for musicians to be English a native speaker.
Moreover, the Beatles, who is the most successful British bands, has a thick Liverpool accent.
According to Nakayama(2014), “They did not hide their Liverpool accent. On the contrary, they even fearured it
(Nakayama, 2014: position No. 1003-1004 in Kindle).”
That is, singers do not have to sing in American standard accent to succeed in America and their accent can be even a salling point.
This is a heartening news for Japanese singers.
Therefore, they do not need to give up being successful in overseas markets just because their mother tongue is not English.
They could compete in English speaking countries even if they sing in English with a Japanese accent.
However, most of them do not reach an acceptable standard in terms of Englihs pronunciation.
It is possible for Japanese artists to change the history as British artists did, which is why they should improve their English pronunciation.
4.4 The technical reason why English pronunciation is important
Lastly, I would like to analyze the problem from a technical point of view.
Technological development has made producing music much more convinient than before.
Ugaya (2005) maintains that what was the most revolutionary was that it became possible to correct intervals in the singing voice and quantize (automatically correct rhythms).
These inventions allow singers to sing with the incorrect pitch and rhythms.
However, it is still impossible to correct pronunciation.
Therefore, it could be said that English pronunciation is more important that singing itself in some ways.
5 Common points among the Japanese singers who have good English pronunciation
Although I mentioned so many problems with Japanese singers pronunciation so far, it is not true that all of them have poor pronunciation. There are several Japanese singers who have pretty good English pronunciation and I analyzed the common points they had. I conducted a survey questionnaire on which Japanese singers had good English pronunciation on HelloTalk and here is the list of them (The names of the groups that the singers belong to are shown in parentheses).
Taka（ONE OK ROCK）
Takeshi Hosomi（ELLEGARDEN, the HIATUS, MONOEYES）
Among these, I removed the singers who are apparently advantageous in English pronunciation such as those who were born in U.K. or the U.S., have lived in English-spoken countries or have parents who are English speaker and so on. As
a result, these five singers are left.
Takeshi Hosomi（ELLEGARDEN, the HIATUS, MONOEYES）
Taka（ONE OK ROCK）
5.1 Common point 1: Having experiences of studying or working abroad since becoming an adult.
The first point which should be noted is that 3 of 5 singers have experienced studying or working abroad.
Hiro（NOCTURNAL BLOODLUST） and Akeboshi studied abroad when they were in university and Takeshi Hosomi（ELLEGARDEN, the HIATUS, MONOEYES）worked for a few months in America.
It seems that studying abroad made their English pronunciation better even if it is after they became an adult.
5.2 Common point 2: Writing their lyrics, not just singing
Another point which should be noted is that all of them, including the singers who have advantages in English, write most of their lyrics of the songs.
Despite the fact that there are many Japanese singers who do not write lyrics on their own, there are no such singers in the list above.
Interestingly enough, Ayumi Hamasaki, who is supposed to be categorized in J-pop singers, is regarded as a singer whose pronunciation is good.
She differs form other J-pop singers in the way that she writes lyrics on her own.
5.2.1 The reason why they use English
In order to analyze the reason why singers who write lyrics on their own are rated highly for their pronunciation, it is important to understand why they use English.
Akito Sato(2017) compared the amount of the information in the lyrics of the Japanese version of “Mickey Mouse Club March” to that of the English one. He points out that English lyrics contain more information than Japanese lyrics and Japanese ones cut off the information which is less important. While the Japanese lyrics of the first verse is “Bokura no Kurabu no Ri-da- ha(=The leader of the club is)”, the English version is “Who’s the leader of the club / That’s made for you and me”.
In the Japanese version, the information that the club is made for you and me is omitted.
Also, Takeshi Hosomi(ELLEGARDEN, the HIATUS, MONOEYES), who is the one in the list above, said on the radio program that he could put more meanings into songs by using English when writing the lyrics(NHK高校講座・英語).
On the other hand, professional J-pop lyric writers think about use of English differently.
Masato Odake, the lyric writer, who wrote the songs of many J-pop artists such as EXILE or E-girls, mentioned in the interview held by MUSiC FACTORY TOKYO in 2015:
“At first I used to use a lot of English words. However, the listeners were less interested in English than I expected and I fully realized that I counld not convey the messages by writing in English.
After that, I make efforts to use only easy English which everyone can understand such as “only you” and “I love you”.”(Odake, 2015)
He stopped using difficult English words although he is very proficient in English(he said in the interview that he had lived in America for about 8 years). Actually, here is research that revealed how many easy English words are used in J-pop music. Takahashi and Calica(2015) made it clear which English words are used in J-pop music in the above-mentioned research. Here is the ranking of the top 20 frequently used words:
1, oh(170 tokens)
2, go(145 tokens)
3, you(143 tokens)
4, my(114 tokens)
5, hey(83 tokens)
6, I(80 tokens)
7, love(75 tokens)
8, up(68 tokens)
9, and(60 tokens)
10, beep(60 tokens)
11, the (60 tokens)
12, baby (55 tokens)
13, yeah (55 tokens)
14, on (54 tokens)
15, so (48 tokens)
16, come (44 tokens)
17, jump (44 tokens)
18, it (42 tokens)
19, now (42 tokens)
20, we (42 tokens)
As one can see, most of the words in the list above are so easy that many Japanese listeners can understand them.
And the reason why most of the words in lyrics of J-pop music are easy is, Odake said, that listeners are not interested in English; nor nor can they understand English very much.
It seems that J-pop lyric writers and singers who also write lyrics themselves have different attitudes toward writing lyrics in English.
I compared the lyrics that these two types of lyric writer wrote and analyzed them.
For convenience of explanation, I call singers who write lyrics “singer-lyricwriter(s)” and singers who only sing (do not writer lyrics) “J-pop singer(s)”
Comparison of the word level in the lyrics of J-pop music (written by someone else other than the singers themselves) and that of singer-lyricwriters’ music (written by singers by themselves).
I compared the lyrics of two songs: one is “HOT SHOT” by GENERATIONS from EXILE TRIBE and the other is“Space Sonic” by ELLEGARDEN. While the lyrics of “HOT SHOT” are written by SUNNY BOY, who is a professional lyric writer and does not sing the song, that of “Space Sonic” is written by Takeshi Hosomi, who also sings the song by himself.
First, I picked up the first 10 words (only nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) in each song and added the number of difficulty level to the each word reffering to “ weblio(https://ejje.weblio.jp/)”, which is a website for English-Learning and provides the numbers for difficulty levels of English words (The difficulty level of words is shown in parentheses).
HOT SHOT by GENERATIONS from EXILE TRIBE
Space Sonic by ELLEGARDEN
While all the English words in “Hot Shot” except “nobody” are level-1, “Space Sonic” includes several difficult words such as “insane” and “ashamed”.
The total score for “Space Sonic” is twice as much as that of “HOT SHOT”.
“HOT SHOT” is a typical piece of J-pop music and the purpose of using English is making the song modern or cool and creating rhythm as with many songs of J-pop music.
Here is lyrics of the 1st verse of “HOT SHOT”
Ready to Go!
何を言われても 耳を塞いでSay! La! La!
困難が待ち受けているとしてもwe go HARD
No no nobody can stop me from going up yup more higher
So many easy English words are used, the grammar is simple, and the content is superficial.
“Space Sonic” begins with the lyrics as shown below:
I feel ashamed when the morning comes
And I hate to breathe
No doubt I am
Please tell me how to come clean again
In contrast to “HOT SHOT”, the words are difficult, the grammar is complex, and the contents are meaningful and literary.
In this case, the purpose of using English cannot be the same as that of J-pop because there is no need to use such difficult words and complex grammar if the purpose is just making the song modern or cool and creating rhythm.
The reason why he used English is probably that he wants to write deep, complex and poetic lyrics.
Hiro(NOCTURNAL BLOODLUST) mentioned in the interview in “激ロック”, Japanese music magagize, that
he wanted listeners to research the meaning of the lyrics and understand what he intended to say.
His remark emphasizes the fact that the nature of singer-lyricwriters’ English lyrics is completely different from J-pop lyric writers’ ones. While the latter is kindly written in easily understandable English, the former imposes a burden that listeners have to make efforts to understand the lyrics.
In other words, while J-pop singers use English not as language but just sounds, singer-lyricwriters use English as language: they use it in order to convey their messages and express their feelings in a poetic way.
That means they need to improve their English pronunciation to convey their messages as much as possible and consequently, they are highly motivated to sing in better English.
Although writing lyrics is the only factor that makes singers’ pronunciation improved, it can be said that, at least, singer-lyricwriters tend to have good English pronunciation and it is not by chance that all of the singers named in this research write their lyrics on their own.
6 methods that may be used to correct the singers’ pronunciation.
Before considering the methods, I would to like to argue that for singers to improve English pronunciation in singing is much easier than in speaking.
The first reason is that one does not have to concentrate on intonation when it comes to singing.
In Ito’s research (2014), the subjects’ speech voices and singing voices (both in English) were recorded and evaluated by native speakers. And he found out that some of them made better scores in singing than in speaking.
He analyzes the reason as follow:
“Usually, singing in English needs attention on both of the English pronunciation and musical factor such as melody. If a singer is familiar with singing, he/she can pay more attention to the pronunciation than those who are not familiar with singing. In this case, since singing voice has no intonation,it may sound better than the spoken speech if the singer has difficulty on prosodic skill.”(Ito,2014)
In other words, it is not difficult for singers, especially who are used to singing, to pay attention to music. Moreover, in singing, they can conceal their poor English intonation.
The second reason is that the breathing technique that singers usually use is similar to that which English native speakers use in speaking English. According to Shimizu (2012), English language’s sound system is based on diaphragmatic breathing while Japanese language’s sound system is based on costal breathing and this difference makes it difficult for Japanese learners to pronounce English.
However, this is not necessarily true when it comes to singer.
Kimura (date unavailable), who is in charge of teaching vocal music, says that diaphragmatic breathing is the most important basic technique for vocalists.
From these facts, it can be said that well-trained singers tend to master diaphragmatic breathing and therefore, they have an advantage over common people.
6.2.1 Not using Katakana
The simplest way is not to use katakana as phonetic guides.
It is impossible to perfectly mimic the sounds of English by using katakana because Japanese and English have different phonetic systems.
Nishi and Xu(2013)
“There are two main ways in which LW(=loan word)s create problems for Japanese when they are communicating in English: distortion of correct pronunciation (Yano, 2001) and change or lack of meaning (Tanaka, S & Tanaka, H, 1995). These 2 problem areas of pronunciation and meaning often overlap, creating a compound barrier to comprehension for the listener, when Japanese people speak English”(Olah,2007).
5.2.2 teaching the correct way of pronuncing English
As discussed in chapter 3, Japanese students have few chance to learn English pronunciation.
for non-native speaker, to master second languages’ pronunciation is quite difficult but most Japanese learn it through self-study or even without studying.
In such an environment, it is nutural that they are poor at English pronunciation.
However, to put it the other way, they have great potential to improve it if only they got apporopriate education.
Makino(date unabvailable) conducted a trainning programme of English pronunciation for university students whose major is not English.
the procedure is as follows:
(1) Practice of consonants as a single sound
(2) Singing English songs
(2) Speaking(measurement of the achievement)
In phase (1), he concretely explaned the correct way of pronunciating consonats such as [f], [v], [θ], [ð], [si], [zi], [r], and [l]. Also, he brought the mirrors and had students check their own mouth’ movement and take the picutre of it.
In phase (2), he taught the rhythm of English and linking of words by using Enlglish songs and students learned them through singing activities.
Finally, In phase (3), he had them speak English through quiz activities and meaured the result of the practice.
According to the questionnaire conducted just after this experiment, as for the practice of consonants , 84% of the students answered it was “effective”, 16% answered “unknown”, and no one answered “not effective”.
Centainly, this evaluation is not by a third party or a native speaker but just by themselves.
However, there would be no doubt that this method is effective.
Besides,as conducted in this experiment,Focusing on phones that tend to be mispronounced by Japanese is also effective.
Tsukuma(2005) mentions that as for the way of teaching English pronunciation for beginning learners of English, it is appropriate to begin with consonants because consonants are much more important for understanding the meaning of English than vowels.
He says that the way of pronouncing consonants is relatively easier than that of vowels by referring to O’Connor (1980)’ research.
In addition, as I showed above, phonemes that Japanese singers frequently mispronounce are “l” sounds and “/th” sounds.
Therefore, it is effective for singers who want to improve their English pronunciation to concentrate on practicing these consonants
6.2.3 Writing lyrics in English and Singing
I showed correlation between singers’ English pronunciation and their desire to convey messages or express their feelings in chapter 5.
The point is that in order to improve their pronunciation, singers have to be put in a situation where they cannot communicate their messages if their English pronunciation is poor.
In this sense, to enter overseas markets is one of the most effective ways for them.
If singers or bands are active in an English speaking country, they can get much more chance to hear and listen to real English.
Nonetheless, it is not so easy for many singers to do so because it costs too much and as disscussed in chapter 3, many Japanese record companies are unwilling to advance into overseas markets.
Thus, I propose that they write lyrics in English on their own or if it is difficult, translate their lyrics into English.
What is important is the feeling that they want to convey their messages.
It would highly movivate singers and provide oppotunities for them to pay attention to their own pronunciation.
Besides, there is another reason why I recommned writing lyrics in English for singers.
They would be able to write more natural English lyrics by writting them again and again and that is how they can compensate for their poor English pronunciation.
In chapter two, I showed a New Zealand woman’ remark that “青葉市子と妖精たち” have trouble pronouncing several English words. Actually, she added as follows:
“In contrast (to 青葉市子と妖精たち), members of Goosehouse (Japanese musical group) have really good English pronunciation, but because their English lyrics have a really unnatural nuance, I feel like I notice any of their pronunciation problems a lot more. In their song 恋するMerry-go-round there’s an English speaking part at the end of the song, and the person saying the lyrics has a pretty good accent, but what she’s saying sounds too corny and unnatural, so I pick up on her any small pronunciation issues a lot more than the song I mentioned above, even though her accent is way better than 青葉市子 と 妖精たち’s accent. “
The Englsih part of the lyrics of 恋するMerry-go-round is as follows:
“Hey, don’t stop your love, girls.
All you need is your heart, action, a vivid image of happiness,
and last but not least, the power to love yourself.
Love is a Merry-Go-Round!”
As for this lyrics, she mentions:
“The English is basically grammatically correct, the meaning is conveyed in a very simplistic and direct manner so it sounds kind of childish. The way that the song Smile (
lt is originally Charles Chaplin’s song and the lyrics are written by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons) is written is quite poetic in it’s use of language. But the English part of 恋する has no awareness of the nuances how emotions are spoken about in English naturally, so it sounds so simplistic that it could be in a song written for 5 year olds.”
To digress a little, the ability to write English lyrics is also important for singers.
If J-pop English are exported overseas, they will be laughed at as childish.
This is also the reason why practice of writing lyrics in English is effective for them.
In addtion, Makino’s report(date unavailable) sugget that singing in English itself is effective to improve English pronunciation.
The students’ answers for the questionnaire concerning English songs are as follows:
It is not interesting to pronounce English on textbooks and I forget what I learn soon by such a study method. However, listening to English songs and pronouncing them leaves impression of sounds and above all, enjoyable. I was movited to learn.
I thought that it is natural to read English words one by one. However, I felt that my pronunciation was gradually imporoved through each activity, for example, learning how we link “carrying on” together in pronouncing them. The training was a good oppotuniy.
Singing in English can motivate learners and tell them about linking of words.
That many Japanese singers who evalueted as having good English pronunciation are singer-lyricwriters is probably not coincident.
Writing lyrics in English and singing can said to be quite effective to improve singers’ pronunciation.
Now English has established its status as an international language.
Hence, It is nonsense to argue that Japanese singers should sing in Japanese because they are Japanese now.
In addition, they never can compete with other countries’ music if they continue to use J-pop music.
In the business, globalization is proceeding and in Japan, more and more companies such as Rakuten and UNIQLO emphasize English as an international standard language.
Buiness presons are already required to be able to speak English and notice that they have to apply for the era of globalization.
However, many Japanese artists do not notice or ignore it.
Nakayama (2012) says:
“Now, Japan is musically cutting itself off from the world at higher speed than ever. … There is almost no chace for J-pop are accepted by American and Europian people. Besides, musicians also do not aggressively try to advance into overseas markets. … They instinctively distinguish what they can do from what they cannot do, and choose to do what is more realistic” (Nakayama, 2012: 207).
if Japanese artists continue to have such a passive way of thinking, Japanese music industry may collaspe someday.
The time would come when they are required to be able to communicate their messages in English as well in future.
However, it is not so difficult to master only English pronunciation as discussed in the previous chapter, which is encouraging news for them.
Japanese singer should have a sense of urgency over the change of domestic markets and improve their English pronunciation so that they can be evaluated by overseas audience.
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