Tuning in around the world: Japanese songs given a foreign lilt

Congolese children use grand gestures and don bright smiles as they sing "Sanpo" (A stroll), a song from the popular cartoon "My Neighbor Totoro," in Japanese.

The children appear in a video that received this year's Special Jury Prize on NHK's website for its TV programme, "We Love Japanese Songs!"

However, the video that topped the viewer's choice went to Saira Hosen Mo, a Bangladesh girl who sings a beautiful rendition of "Ippon no Enpitsu" (One pencil), an antiwar song by late singer Hibari Misora, followed by a Turkish band, which sang Yui's "Rolling Star."

The international TV and radio programme featuring foreigners singing Japanese songs has become extremely popular overseas, attracting an increasing number of fan-submitted videos from abroad.

"We Love Japanese Songs!" which introduces video clips of people from abroad singing popular Japanese songs, is aired by NHK's "World TV" and "World Radio Japan."

The production is the brainchild of World Radio Japan, which had a programme introducing Japanese pop culture overseas. The programme's staff members learned how much foreigners love Japanese songs by the large number of requests they received from overseas listeners for songs few Japanese know about.

The public broadcaster decided in January 2012 to produce a radio programme to introduce Japanese songs, and they began accepting video clips of amateurs singing songs. Last year, NHK began broadcasting the TV version of the programme to give people an idea how foreigners sing Japanese songs.

The videos are available online at www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/songs. Viewers can vote for the ones they like, and the programme then introduces songs that win a large number of votes. The programme also gives awards to excellent performances.

This year, the programme was broadcast on TV on Jan. 3 and on radio on Jan. 4 and 5.

While 225 videos were sent from 36 countries and territories last time, 338 from 47 countries and territories were received for the latest programme.

Though private TV stations also have similar programs, on which foreigners compete by singing Japanese songs, the NHK programme's special appeal is the large number of videos accessible on its special website, including poor and rough performances.

The largest number of videos were sent from Indonesia, where Japanese songs became popular before J-pop songs captured foreign hearts overseas. In the 1980s, Mayumi Itsuwa's "Kokoro no Tomo" (Friend of the heart) became a big hit in Indonesia. Videos from a wide variety of songs-ranging from ballads to enka-were sent from that country.

A large number of videos were also sent from Europe and the United States, including one in which a Hungarian man working as a Japanese translator cheerfully sings "Oka o Koete" (Beyond the hill) by late singer Ichiro Fujiyama, while accompanying himself on the accordion.

The Grand Prix winner was a Spanish flight attendant who frequently travels to Japan. She has become an enthusiastic fan of Japanese songs and takes enka lessons during her stay in Japan. In her winning entry, she sang a song written by her enka teacher while accompanied by flamenco dancers.

The programme's chief producer Hiro-yuki Inamoto said many of those who sent the videos began learning Japanese after becoming enamored with anime, manga and other cultural things.

"I can feel their deep love for Japanese culture so much I almost feel like crying," Inamoto said. "I wonder how they came to love Japanese songs so much. I really appreciate it as a Japanese."

However, given the inroads made by South Korea's K-pop, Inamoto stressed the need to take further steps to popularise Japanese songs overseas.

"We should not be simply pleased with the increase in the number of videos we receive," he said. "Because our programme already has a certain fan base, we'd like to develop into one of our station's major programs."

The programme's Japanese version will be aired on NHK's BS1 by the end of March.