My Juhachiban/’Go-to song’

Recently The Japan Society asked for contributions from members on the topic of their juhachiban or ‘go-to song’ at karaoke. Juhachiban literally means ’18’, but, according to the definition Wikipedia, its the term given to the one song which singers are especially good at and which they use to show off their singing abilities and is in reference to Kabuki Juhachiban, the 18 best kabuki plays. I sent off a contribution – which was originally published at https://www.japansociety.org.uk/memberscontribution?corner=19&cornercat=5 – about my juhachiban, which I am re-posting here and which points out that using terms like ‘especially good’ can be misleading.

On my phone I have a playlist called ‘Like a night out in Tokyo’ (the reason for this title will become clear as you read on) in which I have a collection of songs that I like to attempt at karaoke. I cannot say more than ‘attempt’ as I am largely tone-deaf when it comes to singing and so anything more than ‘murder’ is being quite generous.  

The playlist is useful for those moments when it’s suddenly my turn to select something to put into the karaoke machine and my mind goes blank. I can turn to my phone and scroll through the list of songs and see which one may appeal to me (but probably not the assembled others) at that time. The playlist is also good for other times when I want to recollect a fun night out with others doing karaoke (admittedly the amount of fun that I had and others had as I sang the songs could be very different). 

Out of all the songs on the playlist (currently about 80 of them), there is one that I would still consider to be my jūhachiban. It is very tempting to go with ‘Annie’s Song’ by John Denver, but I don’t actually sing the original version in karaoke, as I will ignore what’s on the screen and use instead the words of the Sheffield United anthem, ‘The Greasy Chip Butty’ song, which includes the line ‘Like a night out in Sheffield’ (hence the name of the playlist, which is also a nod to the city where I have probably done the most karaoke). 

No, my jūhachiban is the 10th Japanese song I probably ever heard. I can suggest this as it’s the 10th track on the first Japanese CD a friend gave me at high school – ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ by REBECCA (see also Influential Albums). The song is the title track itself and is a stunning (at least until I sing it) ballad. While ‘Friends’ (which I also sometime attempt) is probably the most well-known track from that CD, the title track is a favourite among many REBECCA fans – of which I include myself… although I never got to see them live and have yet to see their lead singer, Nokko, live either, but I do have (I think) all of REBECCA’s and Nokko’s albums and the titles of the chapters of my second novel, ‘Tokyo 20/20 Vision’ are the titles of songs by REBECCA. 

I suppose one of the things I like about this song now is the theme itself. It speaks to nostalgia and childhood, and I suppose helps me to think back to my very enjoyable high school days at Concord College where my interest in Japan really took off and which led to me studying Japanese university and, ultimately, my career related to Japan. In its own way ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ played a part in this. This makes it easy for me to understand those students, which these days tend to represent the majority of students, who study Japan due to an interest in some contemporary cultural aspect of Japan, whether it be music, TV, film, anime, or manga, for example.  

Another thing that’s good about ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ is that it’s a slow song. I’m not sure whether this is suited to me (or vice-versa), but I’m not sure any song really is suited to me for singing at karaoke. But, a slow song has a key advantage. When you’re learning kanji, you have time to try to recall the kanji that’s on the screen (when I first went to karaoke it was rare to have any furigana)… although to be honest, more often than not, due to pace of song and the relative lack of lyrics for a song that lasts over five minutes (there’s a lot of instrumentals) I think I tend to recall most of lyrics from memory rather than worry about what’s on screen.  

While the slowness is good – the song is not without its challenges. First, there is a part where the final note of ‘tomorrow’ needs to be held for quite a long time. Not easy if you can’t sing well. Second, to what degree should I try to copy the original pronunciation of the singer (especially on the two English words themselves) or should I put my own spin on it? The answer is largely irrelevant given how I end up singing it, I suspect. 

Of course, the lead singer of REBECCA is female and so there have been times when I’ve wondered about the song really works with any male voice (let alone mine), but I think it does and at least (unlike some other songs I attempt – for some reason most of my favourite Japanese acts have female singers) with ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ I don’t have the recurring puzzle about whether to switch ‘atashi’ to ‘watashi’. 

There you have it. ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ by REBECCA is the one that I would be putting into the karaoke machine at a Japan Society party… but I dare say most will take the opportunity to pop out for a comfort break when I lift up the microphone. 

Here is a link to ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ on YouTube…

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