Vocaloid songs: Being vocal about disapproving collectivistic traditional values

By Chan Xue Hong

When the word “apocalypse” is mentioned, one would normally associate it with natural disasters and alien invasions that endanger the entire human species or lead to the end of the world. By this logic, nuclear bombings that endanger only single countries are not classified as apocalypses. This also implies that wars are not apocalypses. However, in Japan, war is regarded as an apocalypse[1]. The reason dates back to World War II, when the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki levelled Japan. From the perspective of the Japanese, the endless sight of decimated land, coupled with grey ashes, acid rain and countless dead or seriously injured bodies was like the end of the world[2].

            During the Edo period (1603-1867), Japan followed the traditional value of collectivism in the face of an apocalypse. Bushido, a traditional Japanese samurai belief, was widely propagated by the Japanese military in the past to promote the self-sacrifice of kamikaze pilots for the country during World War II[3]. These pilots were highly regarded and respected for their sacrifice. In fact, bushido also led to many other well-known self-sacrificial behaviours in World War II such as seppuku, hara-kiri[4]. Evidently, it is believed that loyalty to the country and honour should be expressed to one’s best abilities, even at the expense of one’s life.

            Today, there has been an increase in individualism in the Japanese society. Individualism refers to the idea that individuals in a society are mainly driven to action by their personal benefits rather than for the larger community[5]. There have been various social and economic factors that contributed to this rise in individualism. For instance, the introduction of pay-per-performance system has encouraged individuals to put themselves above others for the sake of economic benefits[6] It is thus interesting to examine how the rise in individualism has challenged the traditional notion of collectivism as portrayed in Japanese apocalyptic music.

            The Japanese doomsday vocaloid series by sasake.uk (2009-2010) which is a collection of songs about the degradation of humanity in war is one such work of art. I will be examining 2 out of 4 songs in the series – “Shuumatsu ga Yattekuru!” [The (Week)end is coming!][7] and “Bokura no 16bit Sensou” [Our 16bit War][8]– to look deeper into this contradiction. Both songs exceeded 1 million views on Nico Nico Douga, a commonly used video streaming site in Japan[9]. Hence, it is evident that the songs resonate with a significant proportion of the Japanese population and is reflective of their perspective. Both songs are set in turbulent war times where the personae views the war as an apocalyptic event. It is worth noticing that the songs are upbeat and the illustrations are drawn with childlike imagination and bright colours. This seems to convey a sense of light heartedness. Yet this is contrasted heavily by the lyrics and melody that are more negative and cryptic. The lyrics often imply that there was no freedom of choice for self-sacrifice. This contrast within the songs is analogous to the contrast in the views toward self-sacrifice. While the melody and visuals give off positive vibes, the lyrics suggest otherwise. The songs suggest that the historical concept of self-sacrifice in Japan is actually not as rosy as people think. This is because the loved ones of these “heroes” suffer emotionally and the cost of the death of their “heroes” is much more significant than the supposed benefits for the country. This change in prioritisation of individual benefits in the face of an apocalypse falls in place with the recent increase of individualism in Japan[10]. Thus, it is important to reconcile this contradictory presentation of self-sacrifice in Japanese pop culture and the traditional collectivistic value. 

As such, I argue that the difference in portrayal of self-sacrifice between the vocaloid doomsday series and Bushido is reflective of the disapproval of traditional collectivistic values by the current individualistic society. 

Iab Lo, Vocaloid, 2017, png, 1012 x 513, https://medium.com/@iab.lo275/reasons-why-you-should-listen-to-vocaloid-160cd40e75e1

The Vocaloid is a singing synthesizer which makes use of modern artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology[11]. It was first introduced in 2004 and allows any amateur producer to make use of the technology as a medium of self-expression through songs[12]. The use of vocaloid to sing the songs about self-sacrifice in an apocalypse shows that the younger generations think that traditional value of collectivism no longer has a place in their current individualistic society. The songs are conventionally sung by real people. The replacement of real singers with vocaloids signifies the replacement of traditional values by modern values. In addition, vocaloids are androids and songs are sung in a robotic manner[13]. The use of a non-human entity, to sing the songs possibly suggests that self-sacrifice, which is part of their tradition of collectivism, is inhumane, which contradicts the portrayal of self-sacrifice as an epitome of humanity by Bushido[14]. This may sound far-fetched, but it falls in place with the fact that the Japanese society is becoming more individualistic, where individual lives and lives of the loved ones are the priority, contrasting to the collectivistic nature of Japan’s tradition. According to Cambridge dictionary, humanity is the understanding towards other people[15]. In the current society, the “other people” had been limited to the individual lives and lives of loved ones, not the country. Hence, self-sacrifice is no longer considered to be the epitome of humanity. As vocaloids are used, it is also implied that how the vocaloids think is more rational as compared to humans, which means that the mindset of the current society is regarded as more rational as compared to the traditional mindset of collectivism. Hence, the use of vocaloid in these songs shows that traditional collectivistic values are already replaced in the current individualistic society. 

“Shuumatsu ga Yattekuru!”

The conflict in melodies, beats, illustrations and lyrics of “Shuumatsu ga Yattekuru!” show that the current individualistic Japanese society cannot reconcile with collectivistic traditions due to the conflict of interest between self-preservation and self-sacrifice in an apocalypse. “Shuumatsu ga Yattekuru!”is an upbeat song sung from the perspective of a girl indifferent about the oncoming defeat of Japan and only wants to be with her crush. However, her crush is drafted into war and dies before she could convey her feelings to him. She is devastated, but the world does not stop for her to come to terms with her feelings. There a disparity between the beats and illustration, and the melodies and lyrics of the song. The song is played within the range of Presto at 170 beats per minute, a very fast tempo[16]. The illustrations for the music also mostly make use of bright colours such as light blue, yellow, white and pink. The illustrations are drawn in a simplistic and cartoonish way, giving off an innocent and childish feeling. Upbeat and fast-paced songs, along with innocent illustrations are usually used in happy songs. However, the main melody of the song is in F# minor, a key that is normally used in sad songs[17]. In addition, the line repeated in the chorus “Shuumatsu ga Yattekuru!” has two meanings: the weekend is coming, and the end is coming. For the last few repetition of the chorus, the meaning of “Shuumatsu ga Yattekuru!” transitioned from simply “the weekend is coming” to include both meanings that “the end is coming” and “the weekend is coming”, but the girl’s crush is nowhere to be found. The conflicting nature of the melody, beat, illustrations and lyrics shows the difference in the portrayal of self-sacrifice in Bushido and self-sacrifice from the perspective of the loved ones. The innocent illustrations and upbeat music represent the portrayal of the boyfriend’s self-sacrifice done for the traditional Bushido value of collectivism. In comparison, the main melody and the lyrics represents how the current society feel about self-sacrifice for the greater good. In addition, as seen from “そんなこと別に 興味ないんだ” , which means “Not that I’m particularly interested in such things” with ‘such things’ referring to the political state of Japan[18], the girl was indifferent towards the defeat of Japan. It signifies that the people in the current society do not really care about the greater good of the society. Traditional lofty ideals of honour are no longer important to current society. While it was considered selfless to sacrifice for the country in the past, it is not actually selfless to sacrifice oneself as shown from the song as self-sacrifice brings pain to their loved ones. This song shows that individual benefits are not worth giving up for the benefits of the country. The individualistic mindset of the current society conflicts with the traditional collectivistic values and these traditional values are viewed as unworthy to follow as shown from the contradiction between the melodies, beats, lyrics and illustrations of the song.

“Bokura no 16bit Sensou”

The use of game music and illustrations in “Bokura no 16bit Sensou” when describing self-sacrifice contradicts the grandiose portrayal of self-sacrifice in bushido. This portrayal reflects how the modern Japan’s individualistic society mocks the traditional portrayal of self-sacrifice due to the lack of choice in performing self-sacrificial acts for the country. “Bokura no 16bit Sensou” follows the feelings and thoughts of the crush from the first song who was sent to war. Forced into the idea of national justice and self-sacrifice for the country, he was in complete servitude and had to listen to orders that contradicted his beliefs. The song’s music video setting is a game console, and the soldiers are represented by stickmen who are indistinguishable from one another. The background music of the song is also like video game music as it had constantly repeated motifs with staccato. The crush is symbolising of the individualistic modern society, while the player of the game signifies the traditional value of collectivism. The way the stickmen in the music video are controlled by a player through a game console also draws links to how traditional collectivistic values continue to restrict the modern Japanese. In addition, “何がセイギだ 何がギセイだ “秩序”は僕を裏切った”,  which means “Who said the JUSTICE! Who said the SACRIFICE! “ORDER” has betrayed me”[19] shows the unwillingness towards self-sacrificial acts and the resentment of being forced to sacrifice oneself by the people in the current society. This shows the infringement of basic human rights to think and act on their own behalf, which goes against the emphasis on human rights and liberty by the current individualistic society. The main character breaks free at the end by riding on an unidentified flying object (UFO). UFOs normally represent something unfamiliar to people and in this context, seems to represent individualism that was not previously prominent in Japan. This depicts that the people of modern Japan are ready to change and break free from the shackles of traditional values such as collectivism. Therefore, this use of game music and illustrations portray that the current society finds traditional collectivistic practices unpleasant and restrictive, especially in an apocalyptic context where lives are involved, and is ready to change it.

In conclusion, the way these songs discredit traditional collectivistic values is highly reflective of growing individualism in modern day Japan. Such works of art have made it obvious that traditional collectivistic values are becoming less appealing to the modern Japanese, especially when set in apocalyptic contexts that concern the lives of individuals and their loved ones. Despite such growing sentiments, the traditional value of Bushido is still present in modern Japan. One such act is Karoshi where 10000 employees are alleged to die from overworking for their company every year. However, people no longer see such practices as a norm but rather as a problem that needs to be tackled[20]. In this light, the shift away from collectivism towards individualism may not always be a selfish one. Ultimately, this represents a shift towards a more compassionate society where individuals are viewed with the same importance as the community they are part of. 

Watch the music videos below:


[1] Metz, A.J. 2020. “Meaning in Apocalypse.” Digital Commons at Oberlin. Accessed July 16, 2020. https://digitalcommons.oberlin.edu/honors/704/?utm_source=digitalcommons.oberlin.edu%2Fhonors%2F704&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages.

[2] Rothman, Lily. n.d. After The Bomb. https://time.com/after-the-bomb/.

[3] Powers, David. 2011. Japan: No Surrender in World War Two. February 17. https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/japan_no_surrender_01.shtml.

[4] artlit, Nancy, and Richard Yalman. 2016. Japanese Mass Suicides. July 2016. https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/japanese-mass-suicides.

[5] Ogihara, Yuji. 2017. Temporal Changes in Individualism and Their Ramification in Japan: Rising Individualism and Conflicts with Persisting Collectivism. May 23. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00695/full.

[6] Ogihara, Yuji. 2017. Temporal Changes in Individualism and Their Ramification in Japan: Rising Individualism and Conflicts with Persisting Collectivism. May 23. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00695/full.

[7] sasakure.uk. 2010. 【鏡音リンオリジナル曲】しゅうまつがやってくる!【PV付】[[Kagamine Rin original video] The Week(end) is coming! [PV]]. December 11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3Fs6TjSIy0&t=115s.

[8] sasakure.UK. 2019. ぼくらの16bit戦争 feat. GUMI [Official MV] sasakure.UK [Our 16bit War feat. GUMI [Official MV] saskure.UK]. July 12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKTDNQ2sTvM.

[9] Lu, Gang. 2008. Nico Nico Douga, More Popular Than YouTube in Japan. June 9. https://technode.com/2008/06/09/nico-nico-douga-more-popular-than-youtube-in-japan/.

[10] Ogihara, Yuji. 2017. Temporal Changes in Individualism and Their Ramification in Japan: Rising Individualism and Conflicts with Persisting Collectivism. May 23. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00695/full.

[11] 2020. Vocaloid. https://www.vocaloid.com/en/.

[12] Kenmochi, Hideki, and Hayato Ohshita. 2012. VOCALOID-Commercial singing synthesizer ased on sample concatenation. March 15. https://web.archive.org/web/20120315073026/http://www.interspeech2007.org/Technical/ssc_files/Yamaha/VOCALOID_Interspeech.pdf.

[13] n.d. Hatsune Miku: Vocal Android. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/DarthWiki/HatsuneMikuVocalAndroid.

[14] Ifeoma, Peters. 2021. Valors of the Old; Epitome of Refined Humanity. May 8. https://dnllegalandstyle.com/2021/valors-of-the-old-epitome-of-refined-humanity/.

[15] n.d. Humanity. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/humanity.

[16] Drum, Jordan. n.d. Tempo in Music. https://www.phoenixsymphony.org/uploads/Tempo.pdf.

[17] 2010. Key & BPM for しゅうまつがやってくる! by sasakure.UK [Key & BPM for The (Week)end is coming! by sasakure.UK]. March 3. https://tunebat.com/Info/-sasakure-UK/6FmtxLQQqxI2sufyaYX6vD.

[18] vgperson. 2021. しゅうまつがやってくる! (Shuumatsu ga Yattekuru!) [The (Week)end is coming! (Shuumatsu ga Yattekuru!)]. https://vocaloidlyrics.fandom.com/wiki/%E3%81%97%E3%82%85%E3%81%86%E3%81%BE%E3%81%A4%E3%81%8C%E3%82%84%E3%81%A3%E3%81%A6%E3%81%8F%E3%82%8B%EF%BC%81_(Shuumatsu_ga_Yattekuru!).

[19] ikuy398. 2021. ぼくらの16bit戦争 (Bokura no 16bit Wars)[Our 16bit War (Bokura no 16bit Wars)]. https://vocaloidlyrics.fandom.com/wiki/ぼくらの16bit戦争_(Bokura_no_16bit_Wars).

[20] Fuerte, Karina. 2021. The “Karoshi” Phenomenon is Now a Worldwide Problem . July 6. https://observatory.tec.mx/edu-news/karoshi-phenomenon.