Japanese Rumba

Jerry F. Miller, 1955

Why were there so many US soldiers in Japan in the 1940s?

This song was humorous entertainment for soldiers in Japan, and the Japanese locals also enjoyed the song. What is it about the lyrics that would cause it to be so widely popular? Who is the butt of the jokes?

Do you think the humor aimed at American soldiers makes the musical stereotypes more acceptable? If so, how?

In addition to orientalist musical features that are supposed to sound Asian to American soldiers, what other styles of music are heard? How does this add to the song's humor?

"Japanese Rumba" performed by Nobuo Nishimoto and George Shimabukuro, and the Columbia Tokyo Orchestra. Available on YouTube and Spotify.


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Babysan cartoon by Bill Hume.
Babysan cartoon by Bill Hume.

"Japanese Rumba" is an example of a GI song, a type of song composed for American soldiers stationed in postwar Japan. G. I. songs were broadcast on the Far East Network and issued on souvenir records that the soldiers could take home. "Japanese Rumba" was written by Jerry F. Miller, an arranger for an air force dance band, when he was stationed in Nagoya, Japan. First performed in 1949, the song was later issued on the 1951 souvenir EP World Famous Japanese Hit Melodies in an arrangement by the Japanese Itsuro Raymond Hattori and sung by Japanese American soldiers Nobuo Nishimoto and George Shimabukuro.

The song, which features lyrics in Japanese—or, more accurately, "bamboo English," a pidgin form of Japanese used by non-Japanese speaking soldiers to communicate with the locals—pokes fun at the linguistic struggles of Americans in Japan. The first verse roughly translates to "Where go, here come / Hey, well, good morning," the second to "What mama-san, hurry up papa-san, yes / Hey, girl, wait a moment, please," and the third to "What, well, nice makeup, yes / What do, eh good afternoon."

"Japanese Rumba" features several orientalist musical conventions and stereotypes, perhaps most prominently a melodic introduction that uses a "Chinese"-like pentatonic melody with parallel harmonies ending with a gong strike. Following solos by muted trombone and muted trumpet, there is also an orientalist musical interlude that leads to verse three. This interlude borrows its melody from another popular G. I. song, "China Night," which was written by Japanese composer Hamako Watanabe.

The arrangement features the characteristic percussion instruments of the Cuban rumba, which include claves and conga or bongo drums. The rumba had been a popular style played by American big bands since the 1930s, and bands had long combined Caribbean and orientalist conventions, such as in the Xavier Cugat Orchestra's "Chino Soy" (Chinese Rumba), released in 1935. "Japanese Rumba" also includes the Spanish phrase "ay ay ay." The incongruity of the Caribbean and Japanese elements amplifies the song's humor.

Despite its use of musical stereotypes, "Japanese Rumba" was popular with the locals who listened to American radio broadcasts. American music, particularly jazz, became very popular in postwar Japan. Having been banned during the war, it symbolized freedom and a new beginning. In 1952 the Gene Krupa Trio was the first group to visit Japan and play for Japanese audiences. The following year Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic and Louis Armstrong and His All Stars performed to great acclaim.



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