I moved to Japan after graduation for a thousand small reasons. This song is one of them.
Original Music Video
“One Liter of Tears” Versions
I spent the summer before my senior year studying for the LSAT and working on the database at Dad’s office. I pulled my BGM from YouTube, and I was exploring foreign music at the time. This is one of the songs I found and couldn’t let go of. I didn’t know any Japanese, so I didn’t read the title as sangatsu kokonoka: instead I just saw “Three Nine,” like most of you. I listened to it so much that eventually I was playing the chords on the guitar and singing words I didn’t understand at home, at the beach, and in Duke Gardens, filled with longing for something I didn’t understand.
On the other side of the sea, I sang this to my Japanese coworkers at my first party and at farewell parties in my last month. I almost sang it on my very last day of junior high to complete the circle after performing “Take Me Home Country Road,” but I decided not to. Why? I didn’t want to stay on stage too long; I thought it was too much of a love song, and I was afraid of making kids cry and feel more sentimental just before I left their lives. I didn’t need to take a risk for my own fulfillment. It’s one of those 50/50 decisions I’ll always remember, but in remembering it I can pray for my students again.
So, what captivated me besides the music itself?
1. The natural imagery in the lyrics. “The overflowing drops of light one by one warm the morning. Beside you, I’m a little embarrassed after a huge yawn.” Japanese writers often describe the weather, the trees, and the birds when they’re actually painting their emotions. This lends variety and authenticity to their works and also makes them easier to enjoy and remember.
2. The expressive non-expressiveness of the characters in the music video. I’d be stereotyping it if I said Americans make big, obvious faces and say just what they’re thinking whenever they feel emotional, and Japanese never do, but this video caught me off-guard. These characters’ hearts are so full, but they show it differently.
3. “From now on, I want you to be quietly smiling beside me.” These words are the key to a Japanese heart. “I love you” is dramatic, but promising to stand by someone sounds more genuine there.
4. March is graduation month, so this is the main character’s big day. Homeroom classes sometimes become closer than families. The teacher calmly says, “I think it was a great year. And from tomorrow…from tomorrow.” And then quietly cries, just like his students are. This made me so curious about Japanese schools, and those schools would become my world.
5. I was so ignorant of the country that I didn’t realize the thing the girl was buying at the convenience store was a rice ball (onigiri), the single most common food item, and I couldn’t understand why there was a man in a kimono inside offering to pay for it…or that he was buying it for her at all.
6. The traditional Japanese wedding was captivating.
7. The images of a student wandering in the city with a camera, especially when she changed her student train pass which expired March 9, reminded me so much of my adventures in Madrid.
8. I related so much to the “I am so young and old” feeling she must have had while filming the children on the swings.
9. “The cherry blossom buds continue on into spring.” At that time of year, you can see hints of the cherry blossoms that fully bloom at the end of March and beginning of April. It’s an appropriate metaphor for my relationship with Japan at the time.
10. The last verse is an accented run of la la la’s. Some words are universal.
11. As for “One Litre of Tears,” it was a very popular Japanese soap opera based on a devastating diary. The main character, Aya, is 15-year old girl with spinocerebellar ataxia, a fatal and incurable disease that handicaps the body like Parkinson’s, and the show is about her struggle to live life to the fullest. She is the conductor in the video. Of course, I didn’t know this when I first saw it: “Why are her parents crying?” I thought (there were no subtitles). I untangled the threads on Wikipedia afterward. Some of my Asian friends at Duke knew the drama, too, so suddenly we had another conversation topic. It felt so cool that there a vast culture suddenly available to me: our school dramas are pretty different, in setting at the very least.
12. Every homeroom class sings together at the Culture Festival, which is a nice bonding experience that we should try more in America. I liked that they found new harmonies, and the way the class’s singing was a little off made the recording more real.
I felt like I was standing at the door of a new aesthetic universe. I wanted to know more. The next year, I moved there. This is my third consecutive March 9 in Asia, and now I feel like this was the only road I could have taken.