Yo ho ho and a bottle of shochu: Japan's Soran Bushi sea shanty

Yo ho ho and a bottle of shochu: Japan's Soran Bushi sea shanty

Soran Bushi (ソーラン節) is one of Japan's most popular min'yo (民謡, folk songs). It's a sea shanty that originated with migrant fishermen in the northern island of Hokkaido and is now performed all over Japan in schools and festivals.

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The song's lyrics sing of the joy of pulling in huge fish, descriptions of the rolling seas, and of course, trying to get girls. It's the usual stuff of sea shanties. Along with the song there's an elaborate dance that depicts pulling in a fishing net, setting out the boat, ocean waves, and other fishing-related motions.

Soran Bushi is performed by dancing groups during festivals throughout the year, most particularly during the Obon (お盆) season in the summertime, and is also commonly taught in Japanese schools. Some dance groups put their own unique twist on it by adding modern dance moves.

Heave ho!

Soran Bushi was created by migrant workers who went up to Hokkaido during the busy fishing season. They would sing the song while transferring herrings from drift nets to small boats. The migrant fishermen would work for days without sleep and they'd sing songs like Soran Bushi to stay awake. The lyrics were mostly improvisational and interspersed tales of the hearty fisherman's life with bawdy, dirty lyrics. In other words, whatever was on the fishermen's minds.

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Throughout the song, there are repeating refrains of dokkoisho (どっこいしょ) and soran (ソーラン) in a call and response pattern. These words have no particular meaning. Dokkoisho means something akin to 'heave ho,' words sung to encourage the fishermen to work. Soran was a word used to mark time.

The words are from an old fishermen's dialect from the coasts of Hokkaido. Throughout Japan in fishing communities there are words such as these that aren't widely known outside of the local area.

The word bushi (節) means folk song. Soran Bushi is often accompanied by traditional Japanese instruments such as drums and flutes but today the versions usually used are pre-recorded.

A modern twist

Like all folk songs, there is no original author, but the version that's most known was done by Takio Ito, a modern folk singer from Hokkaido. Born and raised in the village of Tsugaru, he began singing at an early age, influenced by the fishing and folk songs of his local area. In the 1980s, he formed the TAKiO Band and created a new min'yo style that combines traditional instruments with modern keyboards, drums, and electric guitars, and mixes traditional Japanese folk music with modern rock, jazz and Latin music. If you hear a modern version of Soran Bushi, it's probably his voice you hear.

Ready to try it out for yourself? You can start with the tutorial video below, and then look for local soran bushi clubs which are available in surprisingly many cities around the world.

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Cover photo by 小島健の目