The Japanese Sandman

Music by Richard A. Whiting, lyrics by Raymond B. Egan, 1920

Describe the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Japan in the first decades of the 1900s. How did this relationship result in a different portrayal of Japan than China in popular culture in the United States?

What stereotypes of Japan and the Japanese are present in the lyrics of "The Japanese Sandman"?

How do the lyrics draw similarities between people in the Unites States and Japan, while also emphasizing differences and portraying the Japanese through stereotypes?

Compare and contrast "The Japanese Sandman" with "Chinatown, My Chinatown." How are the Japanese portrayed differently than the Chinese?

"The Japanese Sandman" recorded by Nora Bayes, 1920. Available on YouTube.

The song was later adapted as propaganda by the Americans, who used it in cartoons during World War II to satirize the Japanese. As in Daffy Duck's The Ducktators, where the song mocks Japanese characters (at 4:42).

It was also recorded by the Nazi propaganda band Charlie and His Orchestra with pro-German lyrics.

View the lyrics for "Japanese Sandman."

View the published score.

Richard A. Whiting (1891–1938) and Ray Egan (1890–1952) were a successful songwriting team, who wrote a number of well-known hits together before Whiting moved to Hollywood in 1929. Their most popular included "Till We Meet Again" (1918) and "Ain't We Got Fun?" (1921). Whiting is also responsible for a series of upbeat songs for films, such as "Hooray for Hollywood" (1937) and "On the Good Ship Lollipop" (1934).

"The Japanese Sandman" was written not long after the end of the First World War. As was common at this time, it is a song about escape. Many escapist songs depict a more innocent past or, as in the case of "The Japanese Sandman," an exotic locale. The sandman is a common figure in children's tales; he throws sand in children's eyes to put them to sleep and lull them to the world of dreams. In the song, the singer invites listeners to imagine traveling to Japan where the Japanese sandman will take your old days and trade them for new ones, allowing people to "start life anew."

Popular culture tended to portray Japan much differently than China. Whereas China was typically shown to be a land of drugs, crime, and disease, Japan was shown to be a place of culture and refinement. This is largely owed to the special political relationship that existed between the United States and Japan. Trade had existed between the nations since 1853, and when sugar plantations opened in the Kingdom of Hawaii in the late nineteenth century, many Japanese began to move to the islands, where they became the largest demographic group by the time Hawaii became part of the United States in 1898. Furthermore, in 1905 and 1906 the United States assisted in negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War, and in 1912 the mayor of Tokyo City sent 3,020 cherry trees to the United States capital, where they are still enjoyed today.

Nora Bayes Advertisement
Nora Bayes standing with an advertisment for Columbia Records.

"The Japanese Sandman" was a huge hit in the 1920s. Nora Bayes performed it on Broadway, Zez Confrey arranged it for piano roll, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra recorded it, and it was one of the first songs to sell over one million copies of sheet music. Its popularity inspired many jazz musicians to record it, including Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt, Artie Shaw, and many others. During the Second World War it was used in cartoons such as The Ducktators, which featured Daffy Duck and made fun of the Japanese. It was also recorded by the Nazi propaganda band Charlie and His Orchestra, with pro-German lyrics.

Compare this song to:

"Chinatown, My Chinatown" (in this unit). has a useful blog on the song's recording history with links to performances.



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