If you ask a Japanese person where Croatia is, they’ll probably have no idea. This makes sense, though, as there are only 30ish Croatians currently living in Japan1. That means most Japanese people have never even seen a Croatian, even on accident, in real life. Despite this, one of the most popular songs sung by choirs in Japan is Croatian… and it’s not just any old Croatian song. This song is extremely nationalistic and patriotic for the Croats. It would be like if the Japanese were singing the Star Spangled Banner or God Bless America in all their choirs for some random reason.
Oh, but there is a reason! It’s not just something the Japanese found in a shipwreck on their shores in the early 1900s. Wait, actually it was. Let’s start this story from the beginning.
Nikola Šubić Zrinski
This is the man who started it all: Nikola Šubić Zrinski, born in 1508. According to the print of him (above), he was so smart that his massive brains spilled out of his head. He also had a very distinguished military career where he’s particularly known for the Siege of Vienna. In fact, he was so awesome in battles that Croat composer Ivan Zajc wrote a song about him called “U Boj, U Boj” (“To battle, to battle”) in 1866. This was later incorporated into his opera, titled “Nikola Šubić Zrinski,” in 1876.
Look how badass the dude is. This opera and song became popular in Croatia, but how did it spread to Japan, which is basically on the exact opposite side of the globe?
Let’s jump ahead to approximately fifty years after “U Boj, U Boj’s” initial creation. It’s 1918, and many things are going on. World War I was wrapping up (Japan was on our side during this one) and everyone was coming home, including a group of Czech soldiers stuck in Siberia. Japanese and American forces went in to get them out and brought them back by sea.
One of the ships, the SS Heffron, had the bad luck of running aground near Mutsurejima Island off of Shimonoseki. To make matters worse, this was followed up by a typhoon. Needless to say, repairs were needed so Japan eventually towed the ship Kobe where it underwent repairs at the Mitsubishi Shipyard. The soldiers would just have to chillax for a while.
This is where things get interesting. The Hyogo Prefecture Chief of Foreign Affairs knew that some of the Czech officers spoke English. To make the soldiers feel more comfortable in this foreign land, he sent English speaker Shioji Yoshitaka, a student at Kwansei (aka Kansei) Gakuin University, to go hang out with and talk to them.
On his way home from school every day, Yoshitaka would visit the soldiers. On one fateful day he happened upon some of the soldiers holding their orchestra and choir rehearsals (war back then was apparently way more musical). Coincidentally, Yoshitaka was a member of the Kwansei Gakuin University Glee Club. If you’ve ever seen an episode of GLEE on television, you can probably imagine that this is the part where they sang an entire conversation back and forth at each other.
Yoshitaka: OOooOOoooH! I didn’t know that you sang! You should have rang! ♫
Czech Officer: Wait a minute? What is that voice? It’s so melodious and a lot like singinggggg! ♪
Yoshitaka: Weee both sing! We both have sonnnngs! Let’s make a culturallll exchange! ♬
Czech Officer: Sounds great. This must be fate! Listen to this Croatian numbahhhh!
(All soldiers present begin singing ‘U Boj, U Boj’ together while dancing around Yoshitaka)
I’m sure that’s exactly how it went. Anyways, they decided to do a cultural exchange of music, so Yoshitaka and the Kwansei Gakuin Univeristy Glee Club started meeting up with the Czech soldiers to sing together.
“U Boj, U Boj” In Japan
By the time the repairs were complete the Kwansei Gakuin Glee Club knew four new choruses. In particular, “U Boj, U Boj” really grabbed their gleeful hearts, and so during the farewell party they sang it for the soldiers before they left. I’m sure some of them were all like “Okay, yeah, I’ve heard that song before,” but other soldiers were reportedly brought to tears.
Also before they left they took this sweet picture you can barely make out. Must have been using some sweet 1919 Fuji Film 0.03 megapixel technology.
Just because the Czech Soldiers were gone, it doesn’t mean the Kwansei Glee Club ever stopped singing “U Boj, U Boj.” For a while it was apparently a kind of “secret song” only known amongst members, but at some point they decided to fervently spread it all across Japan (and spread it did). The Kwansei Gakuin University Glee Club won the National Competition of Male Choirs three times with “U Boj, U Boj”. Even today, the Kwansei Glee Club sings “U Boj, U Boj” as a finale to every public performance. Talk about dedication!
According to Croatian Ambassador Stambuk, who spoke at the Kwansei Gakuin Glee Club’s 109th anniversary, “there is no academic male choir in Japan that doesn’t have this aria on their repertoire.” So, apparently they’ve done well reaching their goal. One thing during Stambuk’s speech did come as a shock to all the Japanese people singing it, though… “U Boj, U Boj” is not a Czech song, it’s a Croatian one (but you already knew that). For some reason this Czech army unit had U Boj in their repertoire, and because of that the Japanese just assumed it was Czech. Perhaps there was a Croatian in their group, perhaps the song was given to them as a gift… it’s hard to say. Whatever it was, Ambassador Stambuk tried to make it clear that the Croatians are to blame for this song, not the Czechs. It took nearly a hundred years to clear that misconception up.
Why Is “U Boj, U Boj” So Popular?
I have my own ideas, but one of the biggest ones is the actual content of the song. That being said, I’m not entirely sure that the Kwansei Glee Club had any idea of what the lyrics of the song meant, though who knows. I’m sure they figured it out eventually, so perhaps this is what helped to propel it to its level of popularity.
The song itself is about Zrinski (remember him?) who, after the Siege of Siget, decides to die a “heroic death” where I’m assuming he pulls a Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai and charges the Turks head on. These themes of self-sacrifice and heroism supposedly pull on Japanese heart strings because of the parallels with a lot of similar stories about the samurai.
But who am I to say? Maybe it just sounded nice to the Kwansei Glee Club members’ ears, and that’s why so many Japanese choirs sing this song today. Speaking of “sounding good in our ears,” I’ll let you judge that line for yourself. Here’s the Funken Glee Club singing it in 2006.
So how was it? Feeling particularly nationalistic for the Croats now? I’m not so into opera myself, but I think it’s pretty interesting that so many Japanese choirs sing this Croatian song (while not even knowing it’s Croatian). Knowing the history behind it makes it that much better, too.
By the way, this article was the result of bribery. I just can’t resist when people draw awesome pictures for me! Thanks Mirta!
As of 2006 ↩