A short essay by Haruki Murakami, from the book Murakami Radio.
The lyrics to old songs are difficult to understand. Such is the case with the nursery rhyme “Red Shoes.” Take this one line:
The little girl wearing red shoes, taken away by an i-jisan.
“I-jisan” is just “iji,” the Japanese word for a stranger or a foreigner with the honorific “san” added to the end, but a lot of people don’t realize that. It’s kind of an old word and they draw out the pronunciation in the song. It leaves people scratching their heads. I did a search online to see how people interpret that lyric and I put together a list of their incorrect guesses.
The vast majority people who mishear the word think it’s either “iijisan” (nice uncle) or “hijisan” (great grandpa). It doesn’t make much sense for it to be someone elderly like a great grandparent. In the song, the person takes the little girl by the hand and they walk all the way to the harbor. That would be pretty tough for the old guy. I know it’s none of my business but I’m concerned for his safety. Now if it was the girl’s nice uncle, that sounds like a happy ending. But you have to think a little harder. Who’s to say the uncle is such a nice guy? What if he turned into a bad, creepy uncle overnight?
One person thought the word was “chijisan” (governor). I saw that and was shocked anyone would think that was the line. A governor taking a little girl away? How strange. But then I realized that wouldn’t be odd behavior for a governor in Osaka. That’s just considered hospitality. Now if we’re talking about some Tokyo governor, trying to teach the kid some kind of moral lesson, it feels scary again. Either way, thinking it was a governor isn’t that bad of a mistake. It’s makes more sense for the time period than a foreigner taking the girl away.
Then we come to one that makes absolutely no sense at all: “ninjinsan,” Japanese for Mister Carrot. What would happen if a carrot came to take someone away from Yokohama? Would would you do? Personally, having a foreigner come and whisk me away sounds fun if I don’t think about it that much. Of course, brief innocent romps without repercussions aren’t the subjects of nursery rhymes.
But knowing the correct words to these old songs doesn’t really matter. You could make it through life without understanding the lyrics or even getting them wrong. In fact, it might be better. If you’re fuzzy on the words you’re just left with the catchy melody, right? And every so often those sounds snap into form with meaning like they’re being illuminated by a big lamp. You need some mysteries in life. Mister Carrot, you’re alright with me.