Above is a recording of the song「蛍の光」(hotaru no hikari) taken at the Shuri High School graduation ceremony in Naha-shi, Okinawa, Japan.
「蛍の光」(light of the firefly) is a Japanese folk song sung to the music of the Scottish “Auld Lang Syne.” However, the lyrics of 「蛍の光」are vastly different from “Auld Lang Syne,” and unlike the latter, which is often sung on New Year’s Eve, the Japanese oicotype is almost always used to conclude graduation ceremonies. It has become so integral to Japanese society and culture, in fact, that most Japanese people do not realize that it originated outside of the country, and those who hear it overseas mistakenly think they are hearing a Japanese song. My informant said she has even heard instrumental versions of 「蛍の光」broadcast at restaurants and supermarkets to indicate that it is almost closing time–a practice so engrained in their society that everyone automatically knows, when the music comes on, that it is time to leave.
My informant, whose best friend had been present at the Shuri High School graduation ceremony, said that she would never have thought of the melody as being derived from a Scottish folk song. She had heard and sung it at every single graduation from elementary school on, as had her parents, and her parents before that. Simply hearing this song, she said, was enough to bring back all the nostalgia of graduation, and her mother had said that, even a few months after my informant’s graduation, listening to the song brought tears to her eyes.
Technically speaking, though they learn that the song has four verses, the last two are almost never sung, if only because the latter half contains decidedly nationalistic characteristics–and nationalism has been discouraged in Japan since the American occupation after World War II.
The lyrics of the first two verses, then, are as follows:
And translated, they go something like this:
Light of fireflies, and snow by the window
Many suns and moons spent reading
Years have gone by without notice
Day has dawned; and in this morning, we part.
Stay or leave, it doesn’t matter
Hold my memories, in so many
corners of my heart; in one breath,
while we are happy, sing.
Very different from “Auld Lang Syne,” the lyrics are definitely geared towards the ceremonial rites of graduation, and initiation into a new kind of life. No one truly knows the composer of this song, though it is often said, according to my informant, that it had risen out of some college professor’s attempt to set Japanese words to the Scottish tune, and had spread from college graduations all the way down to elementary school moving-up ceremonies.
Strangely enough, however, this is apparently not the only variation or oicotype of “Auld Lang Syne” that exists across the world. When speaking to a Korean friend and mentioning this folklore find, he told me that Korean students sing a Korean oicotype of “Auld Lang Syne” at their graduation ceremonies–singing it for me a little bit so I could hear that the melody was exactly the same though the lyrics, of course, were different. My Taiwanese friend, furthermore, chimed in with, “us too!” and told us that they did the same at their graduation, singing another version of Auld Lang Syne, this time in Taiwanese. Upon doing some research, I found that there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of variations of this song all across the world, used as national anthems, farewell songs (Peru), funeral songs (China), and so on. A common thread that seems to tie most of these together, it seems, is the theme of ending something–ending a relationship, a life, or a part of life.
ANNOTATION: There is a song in Japan by a popular pop band called いきものがかり (Ikimonogakari) titled 「ホタルノヒカリ」(which reads and sounds exactly the same as 蛍の光, though it has been changed into another form of the Japanese alphabet, called katakana). Though the lyrics and the melody are completely different, the meaning inherent in the song is very much that of the original 蛍の光–it alludes to graduating, to leaving behind friends to venture into the summer and into the path towards your dreams. “Like the light of the firefly,” The lead singer sings, “the memories will forever glow in my heart, even if the fire of experience eventually fades away.” Japanese pop singers like to churn out these sorts of graduation songs, probably because they have such a wide and receptive audience. 蛍の光, which was birthed out of a Scottish folk song, has become an oft-used symbol in the Japanese pop music world to represent a nostalgia-tinged departure.
<いきものがかり. ”ホタルノヒカリ.” ホタルノヒカリ. ERJ, 2009. MP3.>
<Ikimonogakari. “Hotaru no Hikari” Hotaru no Hikari. ERJ, 2009. MP3.>