Why Do Opening and Ending Song Lyrics Sometimes Get Subtitled In Japanese?

by Justin Sevakis,

Todd asked:

I've noticed that some, but not all openings seem to have hiragana/english subtitles (like in my hero academia). I had long been told that this was common in anime for kids, but i've also seen it in shows squarely aimed at adult otaku (the wisemans grandchild) do this as well. Is this a style choice for songs with english in them, a TV network requirement, an accessibility or learning thing), or just a weird holdover from days gone by?

It's a little bit of all of the above.

In the past, virtually every anime TV series had its opening and ending themes subtitled in Japanese. This was part of the overall effort towards pushing record sales of the songs used. For shows aimed at kids, being able to sing along with the songs was a nifty feature that got kids more excited for the show they were watching.

But the practice didn't just happen with anime -- it happened with classic TV dramas too. Japanese song lyrics aren't always easy to parse, even for native speakers, and lyrics with more complicated words and vocal stylings (rap, for example) can easily get misheard. (Nevermind garbled English lines sung with a thick Japanese accent.) Sometimes that's not a big deal, but knowing the real lyrics can be socially important... remember, karaoke has been a popular past time in Japan for a very long time, and private room karaoke venues are everywhere in Japan.

The downside of this, of course, is that having the lyrics on screen can be distracting. As foreign-language viewers we're used to reading subtitled lyrics, but if the song is in your native language, it's second nature for your eyes to follow along with the text of the lyrics rather than pay attention to the visuals. If the director and animation crew spent a long time animating a particularly spectacular visual sequence, they might rather you pay attention to that, instead. A few shows here and there opted not to caption the songs for that reason.

But the practice of subtitling lyrics carried on for pretty much the entire history of TV anime until the late 90s, when OVA projects started turning into late-night TV series. OVAs were usually intended to be a more premium, cinematic experience than what you could get on TV, and so it wasn't all that common for them to get their lyrics subtitled (unless they were aborted TV series in the first place). As late night anime became more of a thing, more directors and production committees eventually started dropping the subtitles. Captioning them simply went out of style.

These days you're starting to see some shows take up the practice again, particularly with shows where the production committee really wants to emphasize the song being used. The recent Anisong boom has brought renewed attention to these tracks, and as mainstream musicians and their agents vie for some of that sweet, sweet otaku money, it's hoped that fans get as amped for the songs as they do the anime itself. Some feel that having the lyrics to sing along with does make you feel like a kid again, and a particularly energetic anthem is an indelible part of the anime experience.

As someone who pretty much always relies on subtitled song lyrics, I sure can't argue that.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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