Warabe uta: what kind of song?

How do you define Warabe uta? A song? What kind of song? Some say it is Japanese folklore. Some claim it is a lullaby. Wikipedia defines warabe-uta as a Japanese children’s song, similar to nursery rhymes.

Warabe uta is a totally unique type of Japanese vocal storytelling. Presently it is treated like an element of Japanese vocal culture. Many years ago adults sang those songs to children, and children sang it while dancing or simply moving to the rhythm. The repetitive nature of the song bridged it with children’s bedtime songs. That is probably the reason why many scholars describe this genre as children’s songs.

The contents of these songs, on the other hand, s for a more mature audience. Take tōryanse for example, a representative of its genre.

Let me pass, let me pass
What is this narrow pathway here? 
It’s the narrow pathway of the Tenjin shrine

Please allow me to pass through
Those without good reason shall not pass

To celebrate this child’s 7th birthday
I’ve come to dedicate my offering
Going in will be fine, fine, but returning will be scary

It’s scary but
Let me pass, let me pass

To my mind, this song is a vocal vessel of a child image in the Japanese culture. In his diaries, Izumi Kyōka, the author of the notorious Kusa meikyū (Grass Labyrinth), talks of warabe uta. The song is allegedly introduced to evoke a sense of nostalgia and melancholy in his famous work. Izumi Kyōka describes warabe-uta as a children’s song that he uses as a tool create an image of a long gone childhood.

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