Olympic anthem of the day #17: Japan!

Super Shinzo Abe. Er...

Super Shinzo Abe! Er…

What was the best anthem at the lympics? Going by Twitter, it was Japan’s, and by a mile.

Every time it was played – for Kōhei Uchimura at the gymnastics, for the amazing Risako Kawai at the wrestling – the comments were the same: “So beautiful”; “So moving”; “Why can’t we have an anthem like Japan’s?”

And every one those comments was right.

I know far too much about Japan’s anthem having travelled across that country while researching my book on these songs. And it’s not just the world’s most beautiful anthem, it’s also its most controversial, with a deeply sad story behind it, filled with politicians hounding people to stand and sing, even though the anthem’s associated with the country’s militaristic past.

Who’s been one of the main politicians behind that hounding? Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister and a man who featured prominently in last night’s Closing Ceremony, appearing as Super Mario just moments after Japan’s anthem was sung (that’s him in the photo). Which city in Japan’s got the worst anthem laws? Tokyo, whose new right wing give it was also at the ceremony.

I look forward to hearing Japan’s anthem a lot over the next few years, but I hope Abe doesn’t try to pass any more laws trying to force people to respect it. Hosting the Olympics is always a time for national pride, but it’s never a time to blindly force that pride on a population.

Hello Japan! Hello India!

Republic or Death! Japanese edition

Amazing news #1! Someone in Japan’s translated the chapter of my book all about their controversial national anthem and is passing it around the country’s teachers – who refuse to stand for the song – as I type.

Amazing news #2! My book’s reached India. Here’s an insanely good Times of India review.

“Hilarious”? “Unforgettable”? “Will inspire deep thought over the meaning, construction and symbols of patriotism and national identity”? My book is apparently all of those and more! Thanks very much to the reviewer who I probably should send some rupees to now!

Things you shouldn’t do while giving a talk on BBC radio

  1. Start by basically saying, “Hello ladeez!”
  2. Make a joke about the IRA
  3. Sing
  4. Simplify the Ukraine-Russia conflict to such a point it makes it seem like you’re taking Russia’s side
  5. Sing some more
  6. Offend everyone in Cornwall
  7. Announce you have a pasty chest

With all that in mind, here’s a talk I did about nationalism that’s just been broadcast as part of Radio 4’s excellent Four Thought programme.

It’s a bit different from my usual book chat, but if you’d like some of that instead I was also on Monocle magazine’s Weekly show this week and you can listen here.

It features lots of really great questions about foreign policy, which is nice and they also say some lovely things about my book, which is even nicer!

I’m on from 13 minutes and straight afterwards is an amazing interview with the founder of Mubi, and there’s also a brilliant one about hip-hop and fashion to round things off. Basically, listen to it all, and then subscribe as, like Four Thought, it’s always an amazing listen.

Finally, yesterday, I did my first ever book talk! A proper one. Like for an hour and everything. It was a lot of fun, even the bits when I seemed to end up DJing national anthems, and seemed to go down really well so drop me a line if you’d like me to do one for you too. Call the Newham Bookshop (who booked it) or the Wanstead Tap (who hosted it) if you want an objective review!

I’m next at Birmingham Waterstones on 26 November, 7pm, in case any of you are nearby. Come! Singing not obligatory!

The Rugby World Cup’s anthems: from porn to tragedy, and everything in between!

Sergio Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni and Matias Aguero screaming Italy's national anthem before the playing Wales (stolen from Stu Forster/Getty Images!)

Sergio Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni and Matias Aguero screaming Italy’s national anthem before playing Wales (stolen from Stu Forster/Getty Images!)

The Rugby World Cup’s been introducing people to some fantastic national anthems. Not least my favourite, Uruguay’s. Wait until the end of this clip to see a huge, 6-foot, 20-odd stone man being brought to tears by singing it.

Or go here to see a man from Fiji showing equal emotion.

The fascinating, politically significant and often hilarious stories behind many of the anthems are all in my book, Republic or Death!, which features chapters on South Africa’s five-language anthem, Japan’s haunting Kimigayo, France’s rousing Marseillaise, Uruguay’s rambunctious anthem, the US’s Star-Spangled Banner and even my very own God Save the Queen.

But for those who’re yet to pick up a copy and just want a quick guide to interesting things they can say in the pub while watching matches, here are some fact’s for you:

Uruguay’s: the man behind this genuinely great song is more famous in his home country for writing a poem called Apology for the Penis that tries to prove the male appendage is better than its female equivalent. As his biographer told me, “His life is a bad example for schoolchildren, but respectability is not a requirement for literary appreciation!” He also used to black-up so he could write “in the jargon of slaves”. Hmm.

France’s: to keep with the smut theme, the author of la Marseillaise found his life so upended after writing that song that he had to write pornographic ditties to make a living. One’s about a couple having sex in a stream. Unsurprisingly, it’s not as widely known today as his anthem!

Japan’s: the country’s anthem was first written by a British soldier, but he got the music so wrong – it went up when a Japanese singer would naturally go down, and vice versa – the Japanese had to overhaul it. The song, Kimigayo, is also easily the most controversial anthem of all time – the chapter about it in my book is filled with so much tragedy and sadness, it’s a real turning point – which explains why the Japanese team have been ignoring it and singing a rap called Japanese Warrior instead!

South Africa’s: Immediately after apartheid South Africa played three songs one after the other as its anthem. It took Nelson Mandela a year to realise he’d made a huge mistake by requiring that – even he was bored by having to stand there for 6 minutes to listen to it all – and order a change. Today’s five-language anthem is the beautiful result.

Wales: We wouldn’t sing national anthems before sports event it wasn’t for the Welsh. In 1905, their rugby team sang Land of My Fathers (Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau) in response to a visiting New Zealand team’s haka and soon the world was copying their example. So the next time you find yourself having to bellow one, blame Wales!

An utterly essential interview in The Atlantic you must read now!

The Atlantic feature cover

Yes, it’s with me, and it is about my book on national anthems! But it’s easily the best I’ve done to promote it.

It covers everything from the importance of these songs, to the similarities between the composer of la Marseillaise and Kanye West, to why theories of banal nationalism have got it wrong on anthems (yes, that’s one for the academics among you). I really think it gets across the importance and excitement of these songs.

Head here and read it now!

Massive thanks to The Atlantic’s foreign desk for liking my book so much they wanted to write about it even though it’s not actually out in the States, and for such intelligent, thought-provoking questions.

And if you’re a US book publisher who saw it and liked the sound of the book, feel free to get in touch!

In other US news: to any Americans who heard me on the BBC earlier. Yes, the impeachment comment was silly, my apologies. When I said it I wondered what the hell had just come out of my mouth. I stand by the assassination one though!

Dumbwalking in Tokyo

Using a smart phone at Shibuya Crossing

Dumbwalking is what you do when you’re staring at a smartphone and end up falling over someone’s bag and knocking your teeth out. It’s also the number one threat to Japanese society as we know it!

Here’s a piece about it I recently recorded for the BBC’s excellent From Our Own Correspondent programme.

You can also read about it on the BBC’s website.

I basically spent a night trying to trip people up at the Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo. Yes, I’m surprised I got paid for it too.

Sorry this has got nothing to do with national anthems – the point of this blog – but I made this on a recent trip to Japan to research the country’s anthem so it’s, sort of, relevant!

One fact I forgot to mention in the piece is that Japanese newspapers publish “death by smartphone” statistics giving running counts of how many people have been run over while updating their Facebook status. Seriously. I’m sure newspapers in other countries will be doing the same soon.

The woman in the photo is NOT a dumbwalker, by the way. She’s just a very nice person I met at Shibuya and was happy to pretend to be one for me!

Japan’s national anthem, sung by the people of Japan!

Here is – I promise – THE MOST AMAZING YOUTUBE CLIP YOU’LL EVER SEE… of a man awkwardly singing Japan’s national anthem on a bullet train!

I made this last month while travelling around Japan to research the country’s anthem, Kimigayo.

It features kimono-wearers in Kyoto, people at a cherry blossom party in Osaka, and even a man at the Myokohji Temple in Yokohama – the place where the anthem was born.

I’ve made videos like this in France and the US before. It proved a little harder to get people to sing in Japan. I think that’s because everyone’s afraid of disturbing the peace (I got turned down by SO many people on Tokyo’s subway). But it may also be because no one wants to be mistaken for a member of a right-wing group.

Arigato to everyone who sung for me despite that!

If you’d like to find out what the song’s about, click through to YouTube. The words are in Japanese and English in the description box.