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In Session: The Politics and Poetics of Language in Contemporary Japan
Abe Road: Kuwata Keisuke's Linguistic Simulacrum as Political Parody in Japan
Friday, March 26, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Temple University, United States
In May 2009, Japanese rock star Kuwata Keisuke performed a parody of the Beatles’ Abbey Road on his weekly television show. His Japanese lyrics criticized corruption in Japanese politics and commented on sociopolitical issues. Kuwata’s parody was unusual because Japanese recording artists rarely engage in politics, due to broadcasting industry guidelines that disallow politically controversial lyrics. Furthermore, Kuwata presented the show as a “mishearing” of a beloved album: he sang Japanese lyrics that sounded remarkably like the original English ones—a difficult feat, given the phonetic and morphological differences between the languages. Using International Phonetic Alphabet charts, I demonstrate Kuwata’s linguistic sleight of hand: he picked Japanese words with consonants and vowels that are phonetically similar to the English lyrics by type or place of articulation; he modified his pronunciation and contracted prosodic units to match the English sounds. He was particularly mindful to match or choose similar vowels and consonants on the stressed parts of musical phrases, e.g., onsets, (anticipated) downbeats, and cadences. He thus transformed “She Came In through the Bathroom Window” into a polemic against capital punishment and “Carry That Weight” into a contemplation of the debt crisis.
Abe Road illustrates the value of intertextuality in protest music: it captures attention, recalls cultural heroes, and makes political critique entertaining. Only by presenting his acrid commentary as a “cover” of this well-known album, aided by sophisticated manipulation of the Japanese language, was Kuwata, as a rock musician, able to criticize Japanese politicians on nationwide media.