Natives from Scotland, the US, and other English-speaking countries might be confused to hear the tune to “Auld Lange Syne” played over loudspeakers in stores in Japan minutes before closing. This phenomenon is all across Japan, in department stores, grocery stores, and even pachinko parlors. Why is this? If you ask a Japanese friend about it, they`ll probably just tell you that it`s played so people will know when to leave stores. It`s known by a different name, however, – “Hotaru no Hikari (蛍の光)”, which means “The Light of the Fireflies.”
Hearing the tune to “Auld Lang Syne” in a grocery store can signal a last-minute scramble to pick up one of the last of these.
After hearing the tune countless times, my association with it transformed from champagne, Dick Clark, and wistfully gazing into a loved one`s eyes to a last-minute scramble for the final items on a shopping list. I had to understand what the connection was between these two songs, so I investigated their history and the differences in lyrics. What it told me was an interesting story of cultural diffusion, and what it gave me was an even greater appreciation of the song. I just had to share.
The main verse in Auld Lang Syne
Although the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” are largely credited to Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1788, he himself noted that he “took it down from an old man`s singing.”* Later, it was set to the tune of a traditional folk song (Roud #6294). Scottish immigrants brought the song to other parts of the world, including Canada and the United States. There, largely due to Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadian Band, as well as its resonance with the general public, its popularity soared as a New Year`s tradition. Of course, there are many reported cases of the song being sung at New Year`s before Guy Lombardo was ever born, but a radio broadcast from New York City in 1929 at the stroke of midnight, and performances each year after that, first on radio and then on tv until his death in 1977, really helped to popularize the tradition in the United States and globally.
The meaning of the Scots`s “Auld Lang Syne” title can be roughly translated into “old long since,” or, more colloquially, “old times.” The rest of the lyrics have been modified somewhat from The Scots language to modern-day English over the years, but they`re largely about remembering the past and old friends, many of which have come and gone.
Guy Lombardo, also known as “Mr. New Year`s Eve,” popularized the tradition of singing “Auld Lang Syne” at the stroke of midnight. He is said to have first heard the song from Scottish immigrants in his home of Ontario.
Long before Guy Lombardo and his band, the tune travelled to Japan, a few years after Commodore Perry`s “Black Ships” ended the country`s long stretch of self-imposed isolation in 1853. Japan was in a period of modernization and wanted to learn about Western technology and culture. Officials travelled to the US and other countries, and likewise, the government invited Westerners to come to Japan, including Luther Whiting Mason in 1880. The music teacher from Boston brought with him musical instruments, pedagogy, and textbooks to help establish a music curriculum in Tokyo. One of the textbooks included “Auld Lang Syne.” The tune and others with it were incorporated into Japanese textbooks, many with different Japanese lyrics.
The lyrics to “Hotaru no Hikari” are credited to Chikai Inagaki (稲垣千頴), a teacher in Tokyo at the time. They are about a student spending many days, and years, studying by the light of fireflies. The song is also about peace and about a brighter future for Japan. To me, it poignantly symbolizes the “ganbare” (頑張れ) spirit of Japan – the “Go get `em,” “Hang in there!” kind of feeling you get when working hard and delaying gratification.
“Hotaru no Hikari” lyrics.
More importantly than being played in store PA speakers during closing time, “Hotaru no Hikai” is popularly sung at school graduations. It is a way to commemorate hard-working students, who must one day say goodbye to school life and move on to the future. As in the Western world, it also has a place in modern-day New Year’s celebrations.
It is sung as the last song in a popular New Year`s show – NHK`s Kouhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦), whose official translation is “Year-End Song Festival,” but literally means “Red and White Song Battle.” Popular music artists compete in all-female (red) and all-male (white) teams, and at the very end, come together to sing “Hotaru no Hikari.”
After a few months of living in Japan, I was afraid that the frequency with which I heard the tune to “Auld Lang Syne” and “Hotaru no Hikari” would lessen its emotional resonance with me. It was in every store during closing time – not only was I annoyed at having to leave the store, but I was also annoyed at having such a poignant song being used in such a trivial way. It was almost like hearing Christmas music two months too early in the States.
However, hearing it at my school`s graduation this past February proved otherwise. Hearing the old, familiar tune brought tears to my eyes, as I thought not only of endings and beginnings but how certain feelings can transfer over not only ages but cultures. The song still resonates with me, perhaps even more so now with the added layers of cultural significance. Now whenever I hear it played, even if it`s in the grocery store, it brings a smile to my face, and is a good reminder of beginnings and endings, of beautiful transitions, and having to move on. It`s ok, though, because we all have to go home some time, whatever we imagine that to be.