The Best National Anthem in the World – And Here’s Why!

OK, so we all know that national anthems are hardly the stuff we’d normally choose to listen to, but today I ask you to suspend judgement for a few minutes, be patient and open the mind.



the issue

First a question: as you go about your daily business, how often do you find you’re humming or singing to yourself? A pop song, a rock song, a rap, a tv theme, an advertising jingle, a piece of classical music or even a jazz riff. For most of us the answer would be “fairly often”. It’s in your head, you’re humming it as you make breakfast or walk to the station or sit at the computer. It lingers right there in your mind for minutes, hours, sometimes even a whole day.

Now consider how often you find yourself singing a national anthem as you sit at the traffic lights, take a shower, make a coffee. Have you ever?

So what’s the problem with national anthems? Well, I see a bunch of problems – but to keep it simple may I suggest just two: the words and the music.

Let me elaborate…

the music

National anthems aren’t cool. At all. They’re almost without exception militaristic or regal, pompous, loud and/or brass band marching kinds of songs. They’ll often start slowly, seriously and over the course of a couple of minutes build to a militaristic crescendo. And then repeat again, maybe twice again.

Think of a few familiar ones: (click the titles to listen)

USA: Star Spangled Banner
Brass-bathed, god-loving, militaristically rousing. Great crowd-energising stuff.

UK: God Save The Queen
Same thing. A nice crescendo of the horns, big brass, meaty cymbal crashes.

France: La Marseillaise
A marching tune if ever there was one. Ugh.

Without exception all just variations on a theme. The same old tired, heavy, serious and frankly dull theme.

And if you’re wondering whether I’m just being Euro-focussed, try further afield:

Brazilian national anthem

India: Jana Gana Mana

Egypt: Bilady, Bilady, Bilady

New Zealand: God Defend New Zealand

Yes, it’s all more of the same.

All these national anthems attempt to inspire a sense of power, love or pride for one’s country, which one could argue is the sole point of a national anthem. But they’re boring. They’re predictable. They’re old fashioned and over the top.

Why do they have to be so damn… dull and unsexy? Whatever happened to beauty?

Listen to this: it’s 君が代 (Kimigayo), the Japanese national anthem. Listen all the way through – it lasts less than a minute.

Japan: Kimigayo

Pompous? No.
Militaristic? Absolutely not.
Marching tune? Anything but.

Kimigayo – a soft, gently evocative melody. Beautiful chords. Could be perfect as the background score for a nature documentary, there as we witness the magic of the first rays of sunlight piercing the morning mist.

Even with an orchestral arrangement it doesn’t conjure up militaristic images, rather it takes on a cinematic quality, transforming into the finale of an epic film as the camera sweeps across a vast landscape:

Japan: Kimigayo (orchestral version)

And unlike all the other anthems above it’s a brief, simple tune. Whereas most national anthems tend to be cut short when played (perhaps to avoid the risk of people forgetting the words, or to prevent boredom), Kimigayo is always played in its entirety. Less than a minute and it’s done.

In fact it’s the shortest national anthem in the world.


the lyrics

This of course is where most national anthems reveal their true colours. They’re appallingly one-dimensional.

Again, let me quote a smattering of examples to illustrate:

America’s “Star Spangled Banner”:

O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

The UK’s “God Save The Queen”:

Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save the Queen.
O Lord, our God, arise,
Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall.

France’s “La Marseillaise”:

Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us of tyranny
The bloody banner is raised
Do you hear, in the countryside
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?

To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!

War. Power. Bloodshed. Glory. Courage.
The same old crap again and again.
Unbelievably depressing stuff isn’t it?

Again, such themes aren’t limited to countries from a caucasian, western heritage.

Here’s the Vietnamese anthem:

Armies of Vietnam, forward!
With one single determination to save our Motherland,
Our hurried steps resound on the long and arduous road.
Our flag, red with the blood of victory, bears the spirit of the country.
The distant rumbling of the guns mingles with our marching song.
The path to glory is built by the bodies of our foes.

This from China:

Lead on, comrades,
Vanguards ye are.
Hold fast your aim,
By sun and star.
Be earnest and brave,
Your country to save

And Thailand:

Thais are peace-loving, But at war we’re no cowards.
Sovereignty will not be threatened.
They will sacrifice every drop of their blood to contribute to the nation

Bolivia:

Let us keep the lofty name of our Fatherland
in glorious splendor conserved.
And, on its altars, once more we must swear:
to die before we would live as slaves!

Even those nations whose anthems don’t speak of war and glory generally focus on the old favorites – power and prosperity for their people:

Austria:

Bravely towards the new ages
See us striding, free, and faithful,
Assiduous and full of hope,
Unified, in fraternal choirs, let us
Pledge allegiance to you, Fatherland

Australia:

In history’s page, let every stage
Advance Australia Fair.
Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;

In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia Fair.

Burundi:

Our Burundi, worthy of our tenderest love,
We vow to your noble service our hands and hearts and lives.
May God, who gave you to us, keep you for us to venerate,
Under the shield of unity,
In peace, joy and prosperity.

Again, as with the music of the anthems, the lyrics seem like a boringly predictable cut-and-paste job. Cliche after cliche. There’s barely anything to distinguish one anthem from the other beyond the country’s name appearing in the lyrics.

Which brings us to Japan and Kimigayo:

May my Lord’s reign,
Continue for a thousand,
Eight thousand generations,
Until pebbles
Grow into boulders,
Covered in moss.

Yes, that’s it. The whole thing. Sheer poetic beauty.

Kimigayo has the oldest lyric of any national anthem in the world, based on a Waka poem written in the Heian period (794-1185).

There is a theory that this was originally a love poem, the “lord” referred to being the object of the writer’s adoration. What a wonderful context in which to hold love for one’s country.

Although written hundreds of years earlier, Kimigayo was adopted as national anthem during the brief years of Imperial Japan, so during that short period it could be interpreted as honoring the Emperor. But for the hundreds of years before and since however, the meaning of the lyric existed in or reverted to its original, entirely different context.

Kamui Gakuto, a famous Japanese musician, actor and author has said of this song:

“It’s a love song about one’s hopes for the world, in which the one he loves exists, to continue being this peaceful for a long time, even thousands and tens of thousands of years, long enough that moss will grow and spread over the entire rocks. So, this is Japan’s most famous love song…”

Enough said.

Kimigayo, Japan’s national anthem – short, concise, musically beautiful, evocative, and lyrically a poetic expression of love.

How can that not make for the greatest national anthem in the world?

——————————-

footnote

This simple love song is so versatile that there are a number of mixes featuring virtual idol Hatsune Miku!

Solo version:


Electro-house dub remix – clocks in at just 38 seconds!:


~ by JapanGasm on 21 July, 2011.

19 Responses to “The Best National Anthem in the World – And Here’s Why!”

  1. I respectfully disagree.

    • Hi, Alan.

      I’m interested – a bit more information please – what exactly do you disagree with?

      What would get your vote for the best national anthem, and why?

  2. Try the Croatian National Anthem…not about war, but about love of country and people.

    • Thanks Sunman,
      Yes, as you say the lyrics are quite inspiring. I do like all the nature references too – mountains, plains and deep blue sea. So it’s definitely halfway there!
      But the music – to be honest I find it similar to most other anthems – heavy, pompous, choral and with a big crescendo. Kimigayo in contrast has such a short, simple and evocative melody so the feeling it gives is very different.

  3. Kimigayo is 56 seconds long!

    • Some versions are, others are a bit longer or shorter – all depends on how fast you play it!

      But it’s the shortest national anthem in the world by quite a margin.

  4. there are national anthems shorter than kimigayo the indian national anthem is just 52 seconds.

  5. Hello frnds its a non sense kinda thing when some 1 speak about rankings of national anthem of any country, but fact is that every 1 loves his / her national anthem and is proud of it and i don’t find any reason discussing about that but instead we should think about bringing peace in world.

    • I think most people would agree with you Devendra that bringing peace to the world is far more important than talking about anthems!
      It’s perhaps the most important thing of all.

  6. listen to the Colombian anthem, i believe it is the most beautiful one ive heard when it comes to what they say. Tell me what you think.

  7. In terms of duration, Uganda’s national anthem is the shortest in the world. It is only 18 seconds long.

  8. national anthems are not skimpy rap or pop or R&B stuff to be played at the night club or sung in the car
    its supposed to be sung in attention with utmost respect and honour towards ur country
    i wonder whats happening to the world
    they r just forgetting their traditions n their respect towards their motherland

    BTW
    UNESCO HAS CHOSEN THE INDIAN NATIONAL ANTHEM AS THE BEST IN THE WORLD!!

  9. Indians grow up itz a rumour..

  10. I’m a bit of an anthem freak. I also love Japanese culture. So one day I went to look up the Japanese anthem. I was sorely disappointed. I’ve listened to it a couple of times since then, hoping I was just missing something, but each time I’m saddened about how they had the chance to have a cool, moving anthem. Bored isn’t the right word; I would rather say… disappointed. Even the Thai and Philippine anthems are better (not to put down the countries).

    But maybe that’s just me. I love marches, esp. Sousa and German marches, and waltzes (I hum waltzes and anthems to myself during the day, cant bear other stuff). And it’s certainly possible to be patriotic without being jingoistic or even nationalistic. Some people just really love their country from deep down, not because of superiority or anything. I think bringing that out – and maybe uniting people in that feeling – is the real reason for an anthem. If the Japanese anthem does that, more power to you.

    In any case, if you like moving songs, try http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAK23saAI1I Note that they no longer sing the first and second verses – they are /very/ sensitive to being perceived as militaristic.

    • I totally understand why you felt disappointed if you’re a lover of marches and songs which may generate a sense of unity.

      The Japanese anthem is almost completely the opposite. Musically it’s a simple, gentle, almost childlike melody. Definitely wouldn’t stir people into forceful action in the same way a triumphant march would.

      So in the sense that you mention (uniting people in patriotism etc.), that isn’t really the immediate effect of listening to Kimigayo. In that way Kimigayo is an anomaly among anthems and perhaps by many people’s definition could be regarded as a failure.

      But on the other hand, this is precisely why I feel it stands out.

      And, as nobody seems to have yet mentioned, the lyrics of the Japanese anthem are incredibly different from any other in their tone and poetic nature. Again, it isn’t the sort of thing to stir up patriotic emotion in the same way as the usual evocation of power, might, strength and victory. It’s soft, humble, focussing on nature rather than anything human.

      The qualities you suggest of evoking that deep love of a country without being in any way jingoistic or nationalistic, I am not sure if lyrically any exist. Kimigayo is the closest I’ve heard, but again it taps into a soft, heartfelt, gentle sense of humility rather than strength, energy and power.

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