Our brains latch onto music effortlessly.
This means that even if you can’t carry a tune, you can benefit from learning Japanese music.
By singing a Japanese song, you will absorb vocabulary and natural sentence structure without even trying.
Not to mention, singing in Japanese is a heck of a lot of fun!
The first step is to bring music into your Japanese language learning routine. It’s certainly entertaining to study Japanese through movies, dramas, or anime, but knowing how to belt out a crowd-pleasing tune will take you leagues farther. Once you first step foot in Japan, you will learn that karaoke culture is a matter of national pride. By learning how to sing Japanese songs and, specifically, popular karaoke hits, you will build your confidence and find a fantastic way to connect with Japanese culture.
In this post, we will look at some tips for learning Japanese songs, as well as 5 classics which are guaranteed to wow your Japanese friends next time you hit up a カラオケボックス (karaoke bokkusu – karaoke joint).
Why Learn Japanese through Songs?
Maybe you think you’re not a great singer, or you’re too shy to rock the karaoke stage. Well, there are tons of reasons to learn music. Think of music as just one more tool in your language learning arsenal. The main purpose of singing will be to advance your Japanese skills. Give yourself a chance! You might surprise yourself with how confident you become once you start singing.
You can improve your pronunciation and intonation.
While Japanese is generally flat in its intonation, it does have its rises and falls, stressed and unstressed syllables. It also has several sounds that can be difficult for native speakers of English and the Romance Languages to pronounce. But by listening to songs and repeating them line by line, you can improve your listening comprehension, learn intonation patterns, and practice trouble sounds until they naturally become part of your spoken Japanese.
You can improve your vocabulary.
In any language, songs are written by people for people to relate to and enjoy. Songwriters use words, phrases and metaphors to attract listeners and strike a chord with them. When you learn Japanese songs, you can pick up all kinds of useful everyday vocabulary you may not see in a textbook, and discover different ways to describe things and express feelings and ideas.
You can learn about culture and history.
The word なつかしい (natsukashii) in Japanese means “nostalgic” or “a blast from the past.” You’ll often hear Japanese say this when they hear songs from a particular era, because they remind them of what their lives – and Japan – were like back then. Learning a song can teach you more about the time it came out: if the song happened to become hugely popular, what was happening in Japan to make it so? What was it about the song that resonated with Japanese people at the time? Thus, your cultural knowledge expands, and you find new ways to relate to your Japanese friends!
You can connect with people.
As Nobel Prize Winner Rabindranath Tagore said, “Music fills the infinite between two souls.” When you sing a Japanese song at karaoke or mention a Japanese song you like, you create a bridge between yourself, your culture and Japanese culture. “どうやって知りましたか？” (Douyatte shirimashitaka — How did you find out about that song?), they’ll ask you, surprised. From there, you can talk about different types of music you enjoy, find out what Japanese or Western artists you both enjoy – before you know it, you’ll have made a cross-cultural connection!
How to Learn Japanese Songs: A 5-Step Recipe for Success
1. Listen without the lyrics.
This will help you get a feel for the intonation and the sounds you hear. Listen for words and phrases you know. Try to figure out what the song means overall and, as best you can, the meaning of the individual lines. You should repeat this step at least a couple of times.
2. Listen with the lyrics.
Do this to confirm or clarify what you heard the first time. As you listen, read along. You may want to “mouth” or shadow sections that are hard for you to pronounce.
There are a couple of ways to find lyrics: You can find subtitled videos on YouTube for thousands of popular Japanese songs. Most of them have Japanese subtitles, but for those still learning katakana and hiragana, you can find some videos with romaji subtitles, too.
You can also get lyrics from sites like Uta-Net.com, which have huge libraries of Japanese song lyrics. I recommend printing the lyrics out; you can write romaji or furigana over any unfamiliar kanji or vocabulary, and you can take your printout to the カラオケボックス with you in case you need a cheat sheet!
3. Look up unfamiliar words in a good dictionary or app.
Those that give example sentences are the best because you can see how the word is used in context and what particles typically go with it. Doing this also helps you better understand the meaning of the song.
The greatest benefit of doing this is that it’s an easy way to add to your active vocabulary. Because you listen to and repeat the word several times when learning the song, you internalize it quickly. Before you know it, you’re using it in sentences!
Another option is FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
The interactive captions let you hover over any word to see a definition and useful example sentences. You can later quiz yourself using video clips, drawn from a diverse library of fun content. FluentU is an all-in-one resource for you to learn Japanese songs really, really well.
4. Shadow the whole song.
Follow the lyrics and sing along, being careful to match your pronunciation and intonation. For an additional challenge, try folding your lyric sheet in half, or take it away completely!
5. Sing out loud to yourself.
To see how you sound, record yourself with your computer, handheld recorder or app. Play it back. Nobody likes the sound of their own voice, but this step comes strongly recommended as part of the learning process. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! Karaoke (vocal-less) CD’s or YouTube videos are also available to practice with. After you’ve mastered your song of choice solo, all that’s left is your big karaoke debut!
Learn Japanese Through Music: 5 Modern Karaoke Classics
Congratulations! You have learned a Japanese song thoroughly from start to finish. Now it’s time to debut before your friends at karaoke! 頑張ってね！ (Ganbatte ne – good luck!)
Still wondering which songs will ensure karaoke success? These 5 classic Japanese pop songs are guaranteed to get the party started!
1. “Kawa no nagare no you ni” – Hibari Misora
This was the last single Misora, a lengendary enka singer, released before her death. It has come to symbolize not only her life, but the ever-changing nature of things: the only thing that is permanent is the fact that nothing is permanent at all. Practically a national anthem in Japan, “Kawa no nagare no you ni” is still performed frequently on TV by acts paying tribute to Misora.
2. “Sekai ni hitotsu dake no hana” – SMAP
Boy band SMAP are hardly boys anymore – all of its members are pushing 40 – but they remain hugely popular in Japan. This 2004 smash is one of their most beloved songs, and has become something of a Japanese standard. Even kindergarteners learn it in school! SMAP are not known for their vocal talents, so “Seka ni hitotsu dake no hana” like most of their songs, is a mid-tempo, mid-range number that’s not too difficult to sing.
3. “Koi suru foochuun kukkie” – AKB48
Ubiquitous aidoru (idol) group AKB48 have had one hit after another since they broke out in 2008, but this 2013 single is arguably their most popular. It’s upbeat, sing-song melody is easy to follow and the lyrics are fairly basic, which has helped the song cross generations: kids and seniors alike love it!
4. “Makenaide” – ZARD
Makenaide literally means “don’t lose,” or “don’t give up.” So it’s no wonder that it has become a sports anthem, often played during events, pre-game shows, highlight reels and the like. This inspirational number is basically the Japanese equivalent of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” Everyone gets on their feet and belts out the words to its catchy chorus. This is a number that’s guaranteed to get everyone singing along with you at karaoke.
5. “Linda Linda” – The Blue Hearts
“Linda Linda” is a stone-cold karaoke classic. Go to karaoke with a group of Japanese friends, and there’s about a 70% chance somebody will sing it – unless you sing it first! It’s a pretty fast-paced rock song, so it’s not that easy to follow – but it’s great fun to just belt out at the top of your register. Try this one when you want to get everyone jumping and fist-pumping!