A couple of days ago, I was at my school’s opening ceremony. During the ceremony, the school band played the Japanese anthem: Kimi Ga Yo. I remarked to one of my co-workers that the original music was composed by an Irishman. Needless to say, they called me a liar and demanded proof.
Little did they know, I knew the history of John William Fenton.
Fenton was born in Kinsale, County Cork in 1828. He joined the British Army and was appointed as the Bandmaster of the 10th Foot Regiment. In 1868, in order to protect a small community of non-nationals living in Yokohma, Fenton’s unit was deployed to Japan. This was, in part, due to the recent military defeat of forces loyal to the Tokugawa Shogun (pretty much a military dictator) by Imperial forces loyal to the emperor. This led to the possibility of lingering danger and resentment of foreigners, many of whom helped overthrow the Shogun.
Fenton can also claim to be the father of military band music in Japan. After Japanese naval cadets overheard Fenton’s band practising, they asked him to instruct them in the art of military marching music. Japan’s leadership believed in creating a modern, unified country, but they lacked an official anthem. As such, Fenton was commissioned to compose the score for an anthem, while a Japanese artillery captain, Iwao Oyama chose the words. Oyama chose the words from a 10th century poem praising the emperor. This new anthem, called Kimi Ga yo was performed for the emperor shortly after.
In 1870 Fenton’s arrangement, which was considered too upbeat and similar to a military march, was replaced with something more sombre by Hayashi Hiromori. However, a decade later, in 1880, a different composer, Franz Eckbert, proposed a new tune, taking elements from both arrangements, and using Western-style harmonies and instruments.
To this day, Fenton’s original score is performed in Myokoji Shrine in Yokohama, near to where Fenton was originally stationed.
Fenton’s anthem sounded like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01tQ2zU6eXY
The current anthem sounds like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVBREAXs10U