It was the summer of 2006. My Japanese host mother and I had just returned from a day out in the sweltering Matsuyama sun. We’d done some shopping, met with some of her family, and we’d also stopped off at a video rental store. It was a pretty standard day in the life of a high school exchange student during the endless days of Japanese summer break.
There was something special about this day, though. The movie my host mother had so graciously rented for me was one I’d long hoped to see. One that wouldn’t be released in American until a decade later.
Only Yesterday (or, in Japanese, Omoide Poro Poro/おもひでぽろぽろ), was at the time a sort of holy grail for American fans of the vaunted Studio Ghibli. By 2006, the year of my summertime homestay, Miyazaki Hayao and his beloved animation studio were already household names in the US. Fans could access most of the studio’s films on DVD stateside.
One picture, however, remained elusive. Disney, Ghibli’s US distributor, seemed to have no interest in releasing Takahata Isao’s 1991 contemplative drama Only Yesterday. The film had been Japan’s biggest box office draw in the year of its release. But Disney seemed to believe that this long, down-to-earth slice-of-life picture was unmarketable. (An entire section focusing on an elementary school class coming to terms with learning about menstruation probably didn’t help.)
At 16, I was already a huge Ghibli fan (and, if you can’t tell already, a pretty big geek). I plopped down in front of the Kuramoto family room CRT. My excitement knew no bounds. I could finally see this elusive film. Soon I was doing my best to concentrate on the Japanese dialogue. (Three years of high school Japanese wasn’t quite enough to grasp the intricacies of the film’s human emotion or discussions of organic farming ethos. Apparently.)In the background music, I'd recognized the incredibly familiar refrain of an accordion, playing a song I'd known since pre-school. Click To Tweet
Then, during one of the many scenes set in a Japanese elementary school in the 1960s, I heard something I’d never expected. Something that didn’t come from the Japanese culture I’d been immersed in for the past three months of my exchange. It wasn’t some ubiquitous sound from generalized American culture, either. It was something from my other culture – something much more personal.
This was something Jewish.
In the background music, I’d recognized the incredibly familiar refrain of an accordion. It played a song I’d known since pre-school. I’d sung and danced to a hundred times. But I’d never once heard outside of a Jewish context. It was a song I’d never expected to hear in Japan. Until then I’d encountered not a single Jewish cultural artifact there.
My eyes went wide as I spoke out to no one in particular. “That’s Mayim Mayim.”
Mayim Mayim – Hebrew Classic, Japanese Staple
Mayim Mayim (video) is easily among the best-known Israeli folk dances in the American Jewish community. I know, that might not sound like a major superlative, but believe me – it is.
Anyone who’s ever been a Jewish child and been to Jewish daycare, Hebrew school, or summer camp will invariably have danced to its easy-to-learn Hebrew refrain dozens of times. Israeli folk dancing is a big thing. Joyous dance is a major part of Jewish celebration (or, as we call such an occasion in Hebrew, Simcha). And Mayim Mayim is probably only second to the world-famous Hava Nagila in the rankings of most-danced Jewish folksongs.
But unlike Hava Nagila, whose tune is associated with Jews by people the world over, Mayim Mayim isn’t a song I’d ever expect someone without a good deal of experience in the Jewish community or with Israel to know. It’s a song I associate entirely with being in a Jewish space. Which makes the fact that it’s incredibly well-known in Japan all the more interesting.
Mayim Mayim isn’t just a song some Japanese people may have heard at some point. More than likely, any given person in Japan will have had the experience of joining hands and dancing in a circle to the catchy folksong. The song has been a staple of Japanese gym classes for more than half a century; beyond that, it’s been used as TV and anime theme songs, featured in Japanese movies, and is even the subject of Japanese internet memes. Mayim Mayim is its own cultural entity in Japan, known by just about everyone. They know it even if they might not have any idea where the song came from or what it means.
So, just what is this catchy Hebrew tune about? And how did it end up becoming such a staple so far away from its Middle Eastern birthplace?
The Birth of a New Folk Culture in the Middle East
The place: the British Mandate of Palestine in the 1930s. Less than two decades earlier, this land had been ruled as a distant backwater of the Ottoman Empire. With the Turkish defeat in WWI and the breakup of the Ottoman state, however, it had fallen to the British. They were left to govern the native Arab population – and a growing community of Jewish returnees.
Jews had lived in the region for thousands of years. However, the vast majority had long been in a state of diasporic exile. Now, many were returning to their cultural homeland. They had been spurred on by Theodore Herzl’s call to create a Jewish state which could protect the oft-abused Jewish population. They came from numerous countries – Poland, Yemen, England, Russia, the Netherlands, Lithuania. (Later waves would see millions of Jews arrive from even more diverse locals: Morocco, Tunisia, Iran, Uzbekistan, India, South Africa, America.)
Increased antisemitism and violent pogroms in Europe in the 1920s and 30s spurred more and more Jews to flee their homes. Those who felt the need to create a permanent safe haven for their beset-upon people came to Palestine, ready to build new communities to revitalize Eretz Yisrael. (Communities whose increasing presence could not help but cause anxiety in the local Arab population, leading to sporadic – and then chronic – conflict.)
All Jews shared overarching culture and a connection to the land. But these newcomers had arrived from a number of countries and spoke numerous separate languages. Some came from communities with centuries-old traditions grown in their former host countries, such as Russia or Lithuania. To create a new nation-state, they would need to find a common tongue – and to create a new national culture. The first was accomplished by the near-miraculous revival of Hebrew, long used only in liturgy, as a living language. The second came about via the efforts of a handful of dedicated men and women. They looked deep into the Jewish past and combined it with elements of the varied worldwide Jewish cultures. They then crafted something almost-ancient, almost-brand-new.
These emerging old-new art forms resulted in a unique synthesis of folk culture and idealistic, forward-looking modernism. And one of the most successful of these new Israeli cultural artifacts was the Israeli Folk Dance.
Dancing NationThey sought to recreate the dances spoken of in the Torah. But with none having been passed down to them, they needed to recreate them as best they could. Click To Tweet
Dance has always been an important part of Jewish cultural life. The Torah (known as the Old Testament to Christians) and the equally important Talmud contain over thirty separate words for dance movements. In the 18th century, the then-new Hasidic movement, itself focused on intertwining religious practice with unburdened joy, incorporated ecstatic dance into their praying. Throughout Europe and the Middle East, Jewish communities adopted and modified local dance cultures into their own.
The new Jews of Eretz Yisrael, however, were different. Their communities were more secular than religious. From 1909, with the founding of the first socialist-collective Kibbutz, they lived and worked the land together. For these idealistic men and women, dance became an aspect of everyday life. It was a way to express their togetherness, their communal aspirations towards the founding of a new state. At first, they danced in choreographies brought with them from their home countries. Poles taught the Polka and Mazurka, Russians the Rondo, and Romanians the Hora. (According to Dina Roginsky, this last dance, which involves clasping hands and touching shoulders, “came to symbolize the pioneers’ new Zionist socialist ideology of equality, solidarity, and unmediated contact with each other and the Earth.”)
Soon, however, these activists realized that maintaining a non-Jewish musical and dance culture would do little to further their nation-building goals. Rivka Sturman and Gurit Kadman, two women of the era, set out to found a new Israeli dance culture. They sought to recreate the dances spoken of in the Torah. But with none having been passed down to them, they needed to recreate them as best they could. Sturman and Kadman created a synthesis of aspects of Yemeni and Hasidic Jewish dances with those from non-Jewish Europe, adding in what they observed from the local Arab, Druze, and Circassian cultures. (They believed that like the Yemeni Jews, the Arabs had a culture closer to the Biblical ideal than Jews who had long lived in Europe.)
The result was an energetic, exciting new form of dance, actively promoted by the Jewish communities themselves as well as the local Jewish self-government, the Yishuv. Israeli Folk Dance blossomed into a true cultural staple over the decades. Hundreds of Israeli dance sessions occur each week in Israel, and the annual Karmiel Dance Festival draws in a quarter-million participants a year. Israeli Folk Dance has spread to the diaspora, where young Jews like myself join in dance sessions at synagogue, Hebrew school, and summer camp. Israeli Folk Dance is now so ingrained that it often feels just as “folksy” as the name implies; like an old tradition created by anonymous choreographers from ages long gone.
Of course, this isn’t quite the case.
Like Water from the Desert
In 1937, a little more than a decade before the State of Israel would come into existence amidst terrible war, water was found in the desert. Kibbutz Na’an, founded in 1930 in central Mandatory Palestine, had been searching for a viable water source nearby for seven years. With water finally discovered, and a deep well newly dug, the longevity of their community had just been reassured. To celebrate, a “water festival” was planned. And for such a festival, a new dance was called for.
Else Dublon, a choreographer, had arrived to the British Mandate the year before, leaving an increasingly antisemitic and dangerous Germany behind her. She’d moved to northern Kibbutz Yagur, where she’d struck up a working relationship with composer Yehuda Sharrett. When they received an invitation to create a new dance for Na’an’s water festival, they knew just the right song to use.
Sharrett had only recently set a line from the Book of Isaih to music. The Biblical quote could not have been more fitting for the occasion:
ושאבתם־מים בששון ממעיני הישועה / Ushavtem-mayim b’sason, mimainei hayeshua / “With joy you shall draw water from the springs of salvation.”
That’s right – “Mayim Mayim” means “water, water.”
Dublon added choreography to further demonstrate the aquatic theming. She later explained that:
My dance began with a step which I felt expressed waves. The next part, in which the dancers entered the circle, expressed the flowing of the water from the well.Else Dublon, from the “Israel Dance Documentation Project”
They brought the dance to Kibbutz Na’an, where it was a huge hit. Visiting youth from other kibbutzim brought the dance back with them, from whence it soon disseminated across the whole of the Yishuv. By the time the Yishuv morphed into the independent State of Israel in 1948, Mayim Mayim was already a part of the local culture.
A decade later, and a world away, it would do the same in a very different country.
Mizu, Mizu, EverywhereSoon, luminaries of the nobility like Prince Mikasa (brother to Hirohito) were seen dancing hand-in-hand with foreigners and commoners alike. Click To Tweet
In the early 1950s, on the exact opposite end of Asia from Israel, Japan was in the midst of its difficult recovery from the devastation of WWII. These were the waning years of the American Occupation. The occupation sought to (forcefully) guide post-war Japan away from its militaristic past and towards democracy.
Japan was slowly emerging from the haze of defeat, its ruined economy and bombed-out infrastructure gradually coming back to life. The Japan of those years was often a depressing place, with many suffering from lack of purpose – sometimes culminating in an all-encompassing malaise known as kyodatsu (虚脱).
Some at the American military GHQ thought they knew a cure for this deep ennui. Surely some good ol’ folk dancing would do the trick, getting people moving and interacting with foreign culture in a positive way. Best of all, thought U.S. Army Recreation Specialist Warren Nibro, folk dance could have its own democratizing effect. Such dances, where all joined in together as equals regardless of social rank, might have the effect of helping level the hierarchical playing field of Japanese society. GHQ began promoting folk dancing and hoedowns across Japan. Meanwhile, private foreign groups began hosting dances. Soon, luminaries of the nobility like Prince Mikasa (brother to Hirohito) were seen dancing hand-in-hand with foreigners and commoners alike.
Grandiose ideas about democratization aside, foreign folk dance did indeed spread like wildfire across a Japan then barren of amusement and distractions. Soon groups like the National Folk Dance Federation of Japan had popped up, helping to spread local Japanese dance traditions alongside foreign styles. In 1955, two years after Occupation’s end, the Japanese government began instituting foreign folk dance as a required part of public school physical education. Soon it made its way to annual school sports days (運動会) as well.
In 1958, American dance pioneer Ricky Holden arrived in Japan fresh off promoting folk dance in Japan’s former colony of Taiwan. Holden had studied Israeli Folk Dance in the newborn Jewish state itself and had come away with great admiration for it. He introduced Mayim Mayim to Taiwan, where it too became a huge hit – and, it seems, he may have done the same for Japan. Mayim Mayim made its way from YMCA folk dance lessons to labor movement meetings, where the song was used to help bring in crowds. (The socialist authors of the dance would probably have appreciated this fact.) It became a standard in the movement, but more lastingly, also became a regular feature of Japanese elementary schools nationwide. Truly, it was a case of “water, water, everywhere.”
Like the drip-drip-drip of water from a spigot, over the decades Mayim Mayim slowly soaked into the cultural consciousness of Japan. The tune, now ubiquitous, began showing up in unexpected places. In 1984, it was used as the ending theme for the quiz show “Appare Gaijin DON Bishari!!” (The show focused on teaching foreigners about Japanese culture – but used an Israeli song as its anthem.) The same version of the song, complete with Japanese lyrics, was used as the opening of the children’s show “Pakkun Tamago.” (I’m extremely happy to say that you can listen to that version right here.) Later, Mayim Mayim was used for a food ad by the Marumiya Corporation. Here, they made put “mayim” to punny use by changing the lyrics to “mai, mai, umai donburi!” (“Tasty meat over rice!”)
The references don’t stop there. I’ve already mentioned Mayim Mayim’s cameo in Only Yesterday in 1991; in 1995, it famously appeared in Konami’s near-pornographic game Sexy Parodius. Next came its use in the internationally-released Gameboy Camera. Mayim Mayim has since featured in innumerable anime series (I personally caught it in 2004’s Jubei-chan: The Ninja Girl-The Counter Attack of the Siberian Yagyu). And how about a hilariously dramatic usage from 2017 comedy film Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High?
Next came the memes. In 2009, a remix of the Sexy Parodius version launched a wave of meme-y remixes on sites like Nico-Nico Douga and the infamous 2-Channel. Such videos often combine anime scenes and dialogue to create hyper, crazed character themes versions of the song. (As an example, here’s one for Mr. Osomatsu alongside a Kimestu no Yaiba version. Notice the huge view counts.) As many as 1800 separate versions of this meme exist.
Mayim Mayim: Flowing Ever Onwards"Just where would we find an Israel-jin? Is there even an Israeli restaurant in Osaka?" Click To Tweet
Mayim Mayim has truly penetrated deep into the shared Japanese psyche. Indeed, Google Trends seems to think that Japan is more interested in the song than the rest of the world combined.
Despite this fact, I’d hazard that only a small percentage of Japanese people who know of the song are aware of its origins or meaning. Whenever I’ve mentioned the song to Japanese friends, they’ve always easily recognized it; they’ve also been completely unaware of it being Hebrew, Israeli, or its connection to Judaism. (Not a knock against my friends – I doubt American kids know much about the folk songs they dance to either.) To underscore this point, I recently watched a segment from “MBS Announcer Kotonoha” where the announcers in question wander around Osaka looking for people who know the origins of Mayim Mayim. (No one can remember that “B’sason” comes after “mayim,” and one woman guesses that “mayim” might mean “chime.”)
Their quest takes them to a recycle shop, where they find a folk song compilation. The CD’s first track is Mayim Mayim, and informs them that it comes from Israel. They decide to find an Israeli to tell them more. (“Just where would we find an Israel-jin? Is there even an Israeli restaurant in Osaka?”). Finally, they reach Rudy’s Club Delicious, an Israeli restaurant that lies beneath Higashi-Umeda Station. (I’ve been there before – pretty good schnitzel). Rudy explains to them the song’s biblical origins, while a cartoon insert shows ancient Israelites dancing around a well. (The ancient Israelites in question are for some reason wearing hijabs and Saudi Arabian thobes.)
Inaccurate portrayal of Jews aside, this segment shows just how much this earworm of an Israeli folk song has become a part of Japanese culture. Created to celebrate the thriving of a reunified people in the desert and later used to hearten the doldrums of a recovering post-war society, Mayim Mayim continues to bring people together in far-flung locals worldwide. And for myself, it serves as a rare, small stream through which my Jewish identity connects with the larger Japanese culture I so often engage with and exist within. I’d happily draw water from such a spring.
Dina Roginsky. (2007). Folklore, Folklorism, and Synchronization: Preserved-Created Folklore in Israel. Journal of Folklore Research, 44(1), 41-66.
Kaufman, A. (1951). Indigenous and Imported Elements in the New Folk Dance in Israel. Journal of the International Folk Music Council, 3, 55-57. doi:10.2307/835774
マイム・マイム – フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア』. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/マイム・マイム
(2018.)「マイム・マイム」の「マイム」って何？Courrier Japon. https://courrier.jp/news/archives/103956/