Mediations of Japan: Ashita ga aru sa

This is a story about how a teenage crush turned into middle age corporate rage. It is also the story of how an American song from 1963 found new life as a successful Japanese ad campaign in 2001. Along the way we’ll have occasion to talk about the greatest English songs of all time — at least according to 200-odd (though they are really quite normal) Japanese college kids. The persistent reader will also encounter the Carpenters, the Beatles, Johnny Cymbal, a plane crash, and strange band names (though they are really par for the course in Japan) like “BUMP OF CHICKEN”, “Spitz”, “THE YELLOW MONKEY”, “SING LIKE TALKING”, “Dope HEADz” and “EGO-WRAPPIN”. In doing all of this you’ll be doing so much more than just surveying the contemporary Japanese music scene. What you’ll actually be experiencing is another exercise in ReDotPop — a blind dash across ever-mutating labyrinthine terrain — in which the products of contemporary popular culture emanate from, rub up against, prod, but ultimately assume the contours of everyday Japanese life.

But to get there, let’s start where I did a couple of weeks ago: in a chilly classroom on a muggy, overcast day, at a second-tier private college of pharmacology, asking 20 year-old Japanese kids with their sparkling, two-tone fingernails and their American flag T-shirts and leather aviator jackets with “Street Fucker” and “Night Clitter” stenciled on the sleeves, and their fluorescent bikini panties pulled up high on their hips so as to peer provocatively over the waist of their low-riding DKNY jeans, “List the five greatest English-language songs of all-time.” To which I was treated to the unexpected litany scrawled in yellows and whites in their all-too-self-conscious, English-as-a-second-language hands across the sea-green black board: “We’ve Only Just Begun”, “Born to be Wild”, “Saturday in the Park”, “Staying Alive”, and “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”. The greatest. Ever.

Unexpected, but not necessarily unpredictable. For, upon reflection, I realized these were all songs that have served as recent background on TV commercials in these parts. Along with “Magical Mystery Tour”, “Give Peace a Chance”, “Imagine” (John and The Beatles are disproportionately fancied here-not unlike the rest of the commercialized world), “Smoke on the Water”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “It’s not Unusual”, “Who’ll Stop the Rain”, and, ahem, Moooooooon Riverrrrrrrrrrrrrr. These songs are all part of an onslaught of hits from the mid-’60s to ’70s. Occasionally, an ’80s song will slither through the cracks, a stray “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, a renegade “Shout (Shout, let it all out)”. In any case, the reason is fairly obvious: these are all tunes from about the time that the folks making the ads today were passing through puberty, consuming those sounds, fomenting plans of personal liberation to that audio background. And now that they have fermented, having risen to positions of decision-making authority in the communication/power order, apparently these creative directors seem bent on feeding their hallowed sounds to a new generation of pubescent (and, apparently, if we judge by my class, post-pubescent) popcult-attuned brains. Thereby proving that in the realm of culture, the laws of cause and effect rule.

After thinking about it a little longer, though, I was surprising that my college kids didn’t say “A Pack of Lies”, but not in reference to the ludicrous list of tunes they were purporting to foist off on me as the best English songs of all time; rather, the name of the song which, with a fudge here and a filch there, served as the model for the monster hit that currently has ReDotPopsters going gaga. The song (although it is now more like a concept) is called “Ashita ga aru sa”-that’s “Tomorrow is another day” for you keeping score in the mother tongue. In the alternative, and not without a thick cloak of nuance, “ashita . . . ” might also mean “there’s always tomorrow”: the optimistic twist intended for when it was originally penned in 1963. After laying dormant for a good three decades, “Ashita” has recently witnessed a second coming of sorts: in 2001 it was remade as a song (not by one, but two singing groups), then was transformed into an ad campaign featuring 12 ads, and finally was spun into a television drama which just finished its 12 week run in early July. This is the logic of ReDotPop: everything comes from something and flows into something else. Permutations and transformations are the coin of the realm. Suddenly what folks see staring them in the face looks a lot less like popular culture and a lot more like a social phenomenon. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First comes the song.

“Ashita” was the follow-up of Sakamoto Q’s “Ue o muite arukou” (keep your head up while walking)-more popularly known Stateside as “Sukiyaki”. (Go figure). Its words were written by Aoshima Yukio, a comedian, writer, member of Parliament, and, most recently, Governor of Tokyo. Sakamoto (or, “Q-chan” as he was affectionately called), was a multi-hit heartthrob who died in the JAL plane crash that claimed 520 lives in 1985-still the worst domestic air disaster in Japanese history. His “Ashita” was a quickie adaptation of Johnny Cymbal’s “Pack of Lies”, a song which until a few months ago was lying around some garage in the States in demo form, but has since been reissued as a “maxi-single” in Japan. It’s a tough tune to keep in stock, though: HMV here in Sendai was out when I sought my copy, but informed me a new shipment was imminent, so many people had been clamoring for it. Ironically (but also indicating the quirky limits to universality in this global age), “Pack of Lies” is not available on any American-issued CD bearing Johnny Cymbal’s name.

According to his on-line bio, Cymbal “. . . recorded under as many names as Sybil had personalities”. Despite the multiple incarnations, he enjoyed a relatively long pop life due to the fact that he could write and produce songs, as well as sing and play-a combination of skills that, in the 1960s, was hard to come by in a single human package. While he recorded a couple of hits himself, including the droll “Mr. Bass Man”, “Bachelor Man” and “Teenage Heaven”, it was his writing for Elvis Presley (“Mary In The Morning”), Gene Pitney, Terri Gibbs, Mae West, and the Partridge Family, for which he probably is best remembered. Remember him now?

His aforementioned “Pack of Lies” may not have had any kind of shelf life in the U.S., but as “Ashita ga aru sa” it has come to command the attention of not one, but two, generations. So, Johnny, if you’re watching, perhaps this may provide some degree of psychic compensation for the legacy of David Cassidy on guitar and Florence Henderson on keys? Oh yeah. Johnny, we think we love you.

Anyway, back in the real world, in its first, Sakamoto Q, incarnation, “Ashita” posits young love that sputters excruciatingly toward fruition. At a train station a yearns for the pony-tailed girl in a “sailor suit” (euphemism for a school uniform). “She’ll come soon,” he tells himself. “Today I’m also waiting” he informs; but poignantly, he concludes, as if in absolution, “there’s always tomorrow, there’s always tomorrow, there’s always tomorrow, isn’t there?” Spying her next in the rain, he dreams of calling out to her to come share his umbrella (makes you wonder whether Sting and the Police knew Japanese). The words die in his throat, though, and watching in silence, he can merely console himself that “There’s always tomorrow, there’s always tomorrow, there’s always tomorrow, isn’t there?” The same deal the day that he follows behind the young girl “Around that corner and that corner.” He finally gives up, concluding, “There’s always tomorrow, right?”

“I finally have the courage to dial!” the boy triumphantly declares in the fourth verse. “With trembling fingers I call.” Despite the ringing, he acquiesces to trepidation: “I can’t wait until she answers-but, after all, there’s always tomorrow.” And, in fact, there is! The next verse finds our hero sitting opposite the object of his longing in a coffee shop. “Only one word ‘I love you’, came to my throat,” he confesses. “Up to here, up to here . . . but I couldn’t bring myself to say it.” And then the young hero reminds himself “tomorrow is another day, tomorrow is another day.”

In the final verse, we encounter the boy in a philosophical mood:

Tomorrow is another day, right? There’s always tomorrow
The young me has come to dream
Some day I’m sure she will understand
Tomorrow is another day

Cut to the present. With these same words the 2001 version of “Ashita” debuts. And this is where the stew thickens. In the hands of Ulfuls, a mainstream pop trio since 1998, and RE:Japan, a hastily amassed ensemble of thirty-something comedians and entertainers from the Osaka-based talent agency “Yoshimoto Kogyo”, “Ashita ga aru sa” becomes “Cheers for the salaryman”. On this version the listener is transported to the inner world of the Japanese corporation; the story, unspoiled, seeks to explain why one would have cause to celebrate the coming of another day.

The singer is a worker who has been with the company since its inception, a guy still wistful enough to declare: “There’s always tomorrow/the young me has a dream.” Yet, when he finds himself sharing an office with some uncouth kid who has just come on board he finds his belief fading. While he sings “Don’t pressure yourself / Your time will come I tell myself / There’s always tomorrow”, one wonders whether he believes it any more. With the third verse, though, he spies an opening; a way to move beyond the old patterns. A French boss has now taken charge. Could it be winds of change are possible? The hero declares: “This is the CHANCE, this is the CHANCE! / Let’s restudy and fix (our problems) / Tomorrow is another day.”

To no avail. For in the next verse (four, a number associated with death in Japanese), the singer allows:

One day I suddenly thought
Why am I working so hard?
For my family? For myself?
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
Tomorrow is another day, tomorrow is another day, tomorrow is another day, right?

In the last real verse (the finale is but a reprise of the opening), the hero reflects:

It is often said “today’s young people!”
Compared to my time (though) it has gotten better
Be charitable (overlook it), be charitable
Even if he can’t use polite language
Tomorrow is another day, tomorrow is another day, after all, tomorrow is another day

Not unlike the love song it succeeded, this “cheer for the salaryman” puts a twist on the notion that tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow, it suggests, does not have to be a metaphor for doom and repetitious failure. Change is actually possible. Salarymen do not have to be drones. They can break from the patterns of the past, act differently, live a fuller life. Japanese are not consigned to the role of automatons. A bit astray from odes to sexual discovery and teenage angst-no?

Consistent with the logic of ReDotPop where all cultural/knowledge forms flow one into another, the song was quickly snapped up by “Georgia”, the canned coffee produced by Coca-Cola, and became the fodder for a television ad campaign. The ads-produced in quick succession and now numbering 12-were based on the lyrics of the newest incarnation of “Ashita”, depicting the situations summarized above. In short order, the song/ad concept was put into development for a TV series, featuring the actors in the now-wildly popular ad campaign. Just as the series completed its April to July run, it was announced that a full-feature film based on the “cheers for the salaryman” concept would be put into production.

The series is set in a Japan-based import/export trading corporation, “Toaru” (a language play taken from the opening line of many Japanese fairy tales, in which the expression appears: “There once was this certain thing . . . “). Within the bowels of this certain company dwells a particular section (number 13, of all things), which is the repository for-perhaps you can guess by the name-all the castaways, failures and misfits (this, because Japanese companies, at least on TV, are committed to lifetime employment, and, therefore, can do nothing more than banish screw-ups to corporate purgatory). The storyline is basically lifted straight out of “Laurel and Hardy”, or “The Bad News Bears”, or any other Hollywood vehicle about career 86ers that incongruously foul themselves into victory. Thus, when a competition to design the ideal campaign for an as-yet uncreated product to be developed by a French food corp., and, for whatever improbable cause, Toaru’s president designates Section 13 to enter the competition, you are certain two things will happen: the gang in Section 13 will botch the chance AND they will ultimately win the contract.

The way they futz this one is by entrusting care of the development money to a worker who just happens to fall head over heels in love for the first time (in a manner described in the Godfather as “getting struck by the thunderbolt”). Of course, the impassioned fool immediately misappropriates $20,000 to win his maiden’s heart. Despite having blown basically all the money allocated by Toaru to subsidize product development, the group wins the competition by simply giving up in exhaustion. That is, in the wee hours prior to the presentation deadline, the Section Chief plops down in a chair and cracks open a cold brew.

In this case, the brew is the Japanese cultural favorite ramune (la-moo-nay), a pressurized cider with a marble in place of a bottle cap that keeps the carbonation from dissipating. The disconsolate members of Section 13 jump in unison, struck by a thunderbolt of a different kind: champagne! The product they must create for import into Japan is the iconic French food packaged in the iconic Japanese container. The name the members of Section 13 select for their serendipitous product: “Demain”-“ashita” by another name. And to the rousing strains of “tomorrow is another day” the triumphant ne’er-do-wells of Section 13 march off into the sunrise, no longer downtrodden sararimen (and women) as much as triumphant heroes (and heroines).

One ironic element of both the ad campaign and the series is that Hamada X was tabbed to fill in the role of the frustrated lead. As narrator in the song and as Section Chief brought in to shape up the forever bankrupt Section 13, Hamada-san gives voice to one whose dreams have been dashed in the face of an unforgiving world based on tireless effort and conformity to tired rules. The irony is that Hamada-san is best known as a member of the popular comedy duo, “Downtown”, a group which made its reputation as masters of anti-establishment, off-color, scatological humor. One jest embedded in the first ad lies in the casting of the previously uncouth Hamada as the stodgy corporate cog; so, too, the idea that he would end up regarding the new employee with the orange hair and lack of decorum as a potential danger to his regularized salaried world. This joke is integrated into the TV series, as well, although the “new, new human being” (in Japanese “shin shinjinrui”) has blond hair and comes with an elite C.V. padded by graduation from a university in the States. His egregious error is breaking the precious dish of an American executive whose company Section 13 is seeking to do business with, then refuse to apologize for the mistake.

This plot element was also important in both the song and the first Georgia ad-the idea that Japanese actually could stand up to a foreign boss. It reflects an idea of contemporary currency insofar as, for a great majority in the society, confronting outsiders remains open to question. Here we’re not talking about whether it is possible; rather whether it is permissible. While Japan is unquestionably a world power — exporting U.N special envoys, baseball players, game software and cartoon characters to far-flung lands, and serving as the site for G8 meetings and soccer tournaments — the matter of whether or not it has the gumption, let alone the right, to challenge the political and cultural elite in the global theater is still very much up open to dispute. In a word, Japanese are still rather insecure and inexperienced when it comes to the unseemly art of taking a stand.

This is not to say that the oppositional mentality is without precedent in Japanese culture. Not only was it a fashion in the years leading up to the Pacific War, but since reconstruction it has been practiced by a vocal nationalist minority in the streets of major cities nearly every Sunday. And until about ten years ago the impassioned vitriol blared over loudspeakers affixed to micro-buses was the beginning and end of the confrontational cultural reality. And then, a former movie star teamed with a chairman of one of Japan’s major corporations to pen a runaway best-selling polemic, “The Japan that Can Say ‘No’.”

That chairman, Akira Morita of Sony, has long-since passed away, but his tract-mate, Shintaro Ishihara, is currently Governor of Tokyo. Visible and vocal, Ishihara is a cantankerous coot who, on the strength of his repeated forays into the realm of public opinion, has many Japanese publicly wondering: “why does the American army have to be in Japan?”; “Why doesn’t Japan have its own military (as opposed to the currently styled “Self-Defense Force)”?; “Why does Japan always have to give in to America?”. And, as “ashita” demonstrates, these are themes that have moved from the political arena squarely into the realm of popular culture.

Just ask the members of RE:Japan, the band comprised of the cast of the TV show, Ashita ga aru sa. In their name we perceive how we are supposed to receive their show, and decode their song. Given the current state of Japan — the audible despair, the stagnant economy, the corporate firings, ubiquitous bankruptcies, rampant embezzlement, deficit spending, disintegrating families, falling standards, ineradicable youth crime — the glisten has long worn off the machine. It has been worse for the workaday schmuck, the long-suffering “sarariman”. Despite the Ichiro boom (tracked daily at the top of every news broadcast) and the Koizumi phenomenon (a prime minister who beat all the backroom boys and has won a tidal wave of popular support), there is not a lot for the Japanese everyman to cheer about. Daily life is still a thankless, merciless black hole. And that’s what may account for the ashita ga arau sa phenomenon. In the song, the ads, the TV Show, the movie, at the core is the workaday stiff: a human who is resilient, unbowed, and, most importantly, ultimately successful.

There is an expression in Japanese: ware ware nihonjin (we Japanese). It usually serves as the predicate for the explanation for why Japanese are a unique people. Ware ware nihonjin is often the grounds for cultural (and political) exceptionalism, but it also is serviceable in explaining social organization and justifying human behavior. It also works in decoding cultural texts. Reading the current ads and songs and TV shows that “Ashita” has spawned, one perceives the distinctive strain of “we Japanese”. Hamada’s crew crows: “We Japanese may work with foreign companies, but we do our own thing. Even when we get punished for it, we persevere. We are creative and inspired. We shake off the bad stuff, endure. Even if we work for Section 13, even if we are labeled screw-up and misfit. We remind ourselves that there’s always tomorrow. No matter how many times we get kicked, we stand right back up and do it again. So, give us three cheers; support your local salarymen and women. We are the backbone of this country. The reason why Japan will once again be great.”

At least, that appears to be the message in the most visible recent phenomenon in ReDotPop-land. Ashita ga aru sa. Just ask my English class. The girl wearing the “Don’ min-take one day at a time” shirt; the boy sporting the “Hemp friends club” patch. Ask them right after one of my weekly incendiary exams threatens to blow them away.