If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands

In the summer of 2016, 71 years after the end of the Pacific War, If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands̨—the Little-known Story Behind the Well-known Song, aired on Japanese TV (NHK BS1). A drama special based on a true war-related story, it generated a lot of public interest. The song itself, “If You’re Happy,” was sung by Kyū Sakamoto (best known outside of Japan for his international hit, “Sukiyaki”) in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, and it became well known around the world. Yet few people know of its Christian origins.

Visit to the Philippines

The lyrics of the Japanese version were written by Mr. Rihito Kimura (82), an emeritus professor of Waseda University and member of United Church of Christ in Japan’s Reinanzaka Church in Tokyo.

Few people know of its Christian origins

He spent about a month in the Philippines in 1959 while a graduate student of Waseda University, representing YMCA of Japan to participate in a work-camp program sponsored by YMCA of the Philippines. He was based at Lucao Elementary School in Dagupan, the very city where the Japanese army had landed during the war. Kimura arrived unaware of what had happened there, committed to laboring alongside young Filipino YMCA members. Their work included tasks such as constructing a basketball court in the schoolyard, putting in drainage for the schoolhouse, and digging holes for simple toilets.

Kimura was the first Japanese person to visit the area following the war, and this meant that he was exposed to great bitterness and hatred from the local people. The Japanese army had committed atrocities against Filipino soldiers and civilians alike. As many as 450 people were locked inside a church that was doused in oil and set alight, and those who tried to escape were shot. Over a decade had passed since this massacre, but the walls of the city still bore the scars, and anti-Japanese sentiment remained very strong. Kimura recalls: “Until then, I had never doubted that Japan had been fighting for the liberation of Filipinos, Indonesians, and Koreans from the US and UK. That’s what I had been taught at school. But when I visited the Philippines and heard about the truth for the first time, I was really shocked as a Christian and couldn’t stop crying. I was truly sorry for my ignorance.”

Attitudes matter

Nevertheless, young Kimura gradually became close to the Filipinos who he worked, talked, and worshipped God together with. They gathered twice a day to read Scripture and pray. One of the camp workers said to him: “We were ill-treated by the Japanese during the war. I had imagined that if a Japanese person came to our village we would have killed them.” The Filipino continued, “But the war is over now. I was wrong to think that way. We young people should love and forgive one another. We don’t need to fight anymore. We are friends in Christ.”

One day in the schoolyard, Kimura happened to encounter the village children singing and gesturing to a Spanish folk song, and the words of Psalm 47:1 flashed through his mind: “Clap your hands, all you nations.” He reflected on how the villagers had expressed their kindness to him through their attitudes. This experience inspired him to write the lyrics for “If You’re Happy” to the Spanish melody. In his Japanese version one of the verses says, “If you’re happy, show it with your attitude.”

Back in Japan, he introduced the song on campus and at YMCA meetings, and it became so popular among college students that they sang it in music cafes and even at the Imperial Palace Plaza in Tokyo, where it caught the attention of singer Kyū Sakamoto.

In 2013, 56 years after his first visit to Lucao Elementary School, Mr. Kimura visited the school again with his wife. After a warm welcome he addressed the students, saying: “This song was born out of the suffering of war. Rather than fighting against one another, we need to work together for a peaceful future.” Then he joined with the children as they sang, If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.

1 Comment

  1. What an inspiring story. Praise God for the reconciliation He has enabled Christian Japanese to make after the horrors and devastation of war.

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