This is possibly my favourite Japanese song. It isn’t by some up-and-coming band, obscure electronica artist or even Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. It’s a traditional lullaby which originates from the village of Takeda near Kyoto, and one which has been sung among the Kansai burakumin for generations.
Burakumin (“hamlet people”) were an outcast community at the bottom of the Japanese social order that had historically been the victim of severe discrimination and ostracism. These communities were often made up of those with occupations considered impure or tainted by death – such as executioners, undertakers, workers in slaughterhouses, butchers or tanners. Professions such as these had severe social stigmas of kegare, or “defilement”, attached to them. A burakumin neighborhood within metropolitan Tokyo was the last to be served by streetcar, and is the site of butcher and leather shops to this day.
In this lullaby a young girl comforts herself with singing about her miserable situation. One day she was forcibly sent away to work for a rich family at a village across the mountain. Every day as she works with a baby on her back she is reminded of her family, looking at the silhouette of the mountains in the direction of her homeland.
I hate being a nursemaid,
The snow begins to fall, and the baby cries.
The Bon Festival has come, but why should I be happy?
I don’t have nice clothes or a sash to wear.
This child continues to cry and is mean to me.
I get thinner because the baby cries all day.
I want to quit here and go back.
To my parents’ home over there,
To my parents’ home over there.