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- The national anthem from countries around the world is the best tool to promote international exchange -
In Close Up this month we introduce the KOKKA-NO-WA-Project. Have you ever sung the national anthem of another country? Can you imagine how surprised and impressed a citizen of another country would be to hear a foreigner singing their national anthem? Mr. Ryota Asami, disseminating information about national anthems from around the world as a "National Anthem Researcher", began the KOKKA-NO-WA Project as a result of his experiences singing the national anthem in order to befriend local people in countries around the world. We spoke with Mr. Asami--who asserts that the national anthem is the best communication tool--about their allure and the genuine enjoyment of international exchange facilitated through the singing of national anthems.
Why were you first interested in the national anthems of the world?
As a student I travelled to many foreign countries and in order to befriend local people I tried various strategies to break the ice, such as showing them origami, Japanese coins, Kendama (a cup and ball game), ocarina, Nankin Tamasudare (a traditional street performance from Japan), etc. I thought that both Kendama and Nankin Tamasudare were good prospects, but they proved problematic because baggage inspectors at a foreign airport and a train station thought they were a weapon or dynamite (laughing). Consequently, when contemplating of a better way I heard a student in Venice sing the national anthem of Italy, and it piqued my interest. After that I began to memorize and sing the national anthem of each country I visited, and this turned out to be highly popular. On some occasions I even thought I was a star judging by the amount of people who came to listen (laughing).
Are these experiences what led you to establishing the KOKKA-NO-WA Project?
Yes. People from more than 190 countries and regions live in Japan, but I felt there were few opportunities to meet somebody from a foreign country. So I mulled over ideas on how to develop friendships and it occurred to me to employ the national anthem as I did when travelling as a student. I often say that the national anthem is the best communication tool for various reasons: no props are needed to sing it; though the pronunciation may not be perfect, listeners know you are singing their anthem when they hear the melody; it delights people to learn that you are genuinely interested in their country; the local who hears it will remember you because so few people can sing the anthem of another country; and much can be learned about a country through the lyrics and melody. The KOKKA-NO-WA Project was founded in 2015 with the goal to promote international exchange and multiculturalism via the national anthem, the best communication tool.
What are the principle activities?
There are three foundational activities. The first is to gather and disseminate information on national anthems. Though information on anthems can be found on the Internet and in books, many are inaccurate. We therefore ask trusted organizations, including embassies, to provide correct information which we disseminate. The second is to make audio and video recordings of the national anthems. Foreigners we have met are recorded singing the anthem of their country. I am often impressed by the emotion evident in the singers’ voices toward their country. The third is to plan and host events related to a national anthem. These are mainly international exchange gatherings known as World Food Rallies in which food and cultural experiences are shared and the national anthem of a country is sung in unison with the common objective that participants develop a sincere interest in the homeland of foreigners living in Japan. Because events are usually organized with embassies, the venues are typically in the embassy or ambassador’s residence.
Can you tell us some anecdotes related to national anthems?
There are some national anthems that do not have lyrics, the current anthem of Spain being one example. Actually, there were several attempts to write lyrics in the past, but these failed for various reasons including the discontent of regional authorities seeking more autonomy from the central government. Another anecdote demonstrating political influences is the case of Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, which is without a national anthem due to the Taliban's interpretation of the Koran prohibiting music; and the case of South Africa's current anthem which combines religious hymns sung as a symbol of the Black Liberation Movement and the former national anthem during the apartheid era. On the other hand, there are several amusing anecdotes too. Mexico's anthem has a unique origin in that after the public convocation to write lyrics for the anthem, one man who was unwilling to try, was nagged and confined to a room by his fiancé until he wrote the lyrics, which were subsequently adopted. Latin American countries tend to have such long anthems that many school children faint when singing it during the daily morning routine. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to change the lyrics or melody of an anthem, which was recently done when Canada changed "sons" to "us" to create a gender-free anthem.
Can you tell me the aspects which make the activities difficult and the ones that make them worthwhile?
It is a barrier to our activities that some people presume that singing national anthems implies a biased way of thinking. Due to the unfinished post-war issues, Japanese citizens tend to believe that the national anthem is linked to political ideology, but in English the term national anthem is understood to be a song of praise about a country. In other words, singing another person's national anthem is a sign of respect for their country. The unwavering objective of our activities is to facilitate international exchange by singing the anthems of other countries. Some event participants were initially apprehensive, but after singing the anthem these same people were delighted, saying they had formed an attachment to the country, and I feel very fortunate to have shared this activity. It pleases me to witness the diplomats of the embassies gush with emotion, "Japanese people sang our national anthem!". In addition, some of our events were reported in the local news of foreign countries which resulted in feelings of affection toward the Japanese people and a positive image of Japan. It makes me happy, too.
Please tell us about any activities planned for the future.
The KOKKA-NO-WA Project is now five years old. Our organization is not widely known but an increasing number of people are helping with events and we have established contacts with people in other organizations. In addition, we've had the opportunity to plan events with companies and administrative bodies and spoke in educational institutions about national anthems from around the world. The objective of the KOKKA-NO-WA Project is to connect people via the national anthem and create a circle of people. With the goal to promote international exchange and multiculturalism via this circle, we endeavor to do something interesting, something that can't be done only by us, nor only by them. Being a national anthem researcher I would like people to appreciate the anthems of the world. I have met many people and asked them to sing their national anthem, from an Iraqi refugee who cried reminiscing about his homeland as he tried to sing, to an Englishman who were reluctant to sing, saying, “I object to the lyrics about the Queen”. I would like to transmit the diverse values that exist in the world through national anthems which reflect the history, culture, social conditions, etc. of each country.
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