Arts, Culture & Media

A Jewish folk song is preserved in a Japanese video game

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A boy in a Pikachu hat plays a Nintendo game console. 

Credit:

Kim Kyung-hoon/Reuters

In the world of video games, the journey ahead might last days or it might last just a few hours, but the soundtracks to those passing hours are often so integral to the game — and steeped in the intensity of a quest — that the music is timeless. 

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In 1996, Konami released the video game “Sexy Parodius” and the soundtrack is everything you’d want from an anthropomorphic world inhabited by scantily dressed women, flying pigs, kissing penguins, dragons and mythical humanlike beings. The soundtrack is fun, bright and delves into 8-bit wonders.

But there’s one song that stands out — a featured sample of “Mayim, Mayim,” an Old World Jewish song composed by Emanuel Amiran in the early 20th century.

“Lovely Otohime” plays during the third mission, with “Mayim, Mayim” layered underneath. Crashing drums and electronic horns burst as a flying pig hurls Pac-Man-like faces at an elderly woman.

Today, “Mayim, Mayim” — Hebrew for “water, water” — is most often heard at Hebrew schools and summer camps. How the song ended up in this Japanese video game has everything to do with a 20th-century geopolitical mess — World War II.

In August, Tablet, an American Jewish magazine, published an article about “Mayim, Mayim” being a big hit in Japanese video games because of the post-war US occupation. According to the article, from 1957 to 1958 a folk and square dance educator named Rickey Holden was enlisted to teach folk dances in Taiwan and Japan.

Merry White, an anthropology professor and specialist in contemporary Japanese culture, says dance was a popular program in Japanese schools during the US occupation because “it was felt that that would help to create a more democratic populace.” 

Many Japanese schools implemented programs that included music and dance immersion. 

That said, there’s no concrete link between US-inspired dance programs and “Mayim, Mayim” making it to Japan. It’s possible that “Mayim, Mayim” settled into Japan well before the post-war occupation. Jewish people were present — and held in high regard — in Japan, and even part of Japan’s plan to win over the US in the days before World War II. 

As White explains, Jewish people in Japan were seen as “interesting culturally,” adding that “to be Jewish in Japan is sometimes to be the object of very friendly curiosity, but also interest — strong interest.” 

Japan even resettled tens of thousands of Jews who were trying to escape the horrors of the Holocaust — a small number compared to the total murdered, but significant when many other countries turned Jews away.

“Those communities are small and do not represent the influence of Jews in Japan — which goes way beyond the Jews that live in Japan,” White adds.

White notes that Japan has a long history with folk music, dating back to the Meiji period from 1868 to 1912.

“Folk dance has always been done in Japan. It is not only during occupation that it was introduced. So, it’s not brand new, but it was revived after American interventions,” White says.

Preserving Jewish culture during the 20th century was often a covert operation — both because of the grave atrocities committed during the Holocaust and because of the atheistic culture of the Soviet Union. No cheat code or multiplayer arrangement can overcome the insurmountable damage done to Jewish culture and history during the 20th century. And while we’ll likely never know exactly how it came to be, somehow a video game made in Japan has preserved a piece of Jewish culture that was threatened with extinction just decades ago. 

The soundtrack of “Sexy Parodius” captures 20th-century curiosity in its friendliest form. It's an embrace, invitation and inclusion of culture as more of an experience than a commodity. “Lovely Otohime” embodies an enumerable and wide range of lived experiences of childhood in Japan and captures Japan’s cultural evolution from the Meiji period, through the occupation, to now. 

Future Folk shares the stories of communities through the music that they make. It is a co-production of PRI’s The World and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.