In Tohoku, Learning the Lessons of “Let It Go”

Finding new meaning in the words of Disney’s hit song.


By Amya Miller


All media organizations have a marketing strategy to promote their work. Disney is no exception. The team involved in pitching Frozen to the world surely knew what they were doing. Or, did they? Did they anticipate, predict, and know the movie would be this big? Did they understand just how popular the theme song “Let it Go” would be?

“Let it Go” from Anna and the Queen of Snow as it’s called in Japan has touched a nerve. The phrase “it’s gone viral” doesn’t begin to describe the impact it has had on girls and women. The song celebrates courage, strength, and fearlessness. I appreciate the breath of fresh air offered by this song reminding me being a woman is fun. This message is often lacking in Japan, where in many communities being female is still fiercely difficult.

Back to Disney. Certainly there’s truth to the fact “Let it Go” is significant only because it’s a hit song from a hit movie. Its hipness makes it the new “it” song to sing, but here’s where this hit gets interesting. All throughout Japan, girls and women of all ages are singing. Toddlers are singing. Pre-teens are singing. Young women are singing. Older women are singing. They’re singing this song in English.

This is a big deal. When five-year old girls stand in their living rooms belting out “let it go!” with no shame, no embarrassment, and no hesitation, this breeds strength and courage. It’s a brave act in Japan for young girls to put themselves out there, especially in rural areas where daughters are still less of a prize than sons. Something about this song has hit home. It’s not just another English karaoke song. Little girls are singing. Little girls who otherwise wouldn’t dare try to stand out—let’s avoid all possibility of humiliation, please—these girls are now fearless. They all want to be Elsa, singing about feelings, courage, and strength.

Yuriko is an outspoken woman in one of the cities in Tohoku where I work. We became fast friends, finding a bond that celebrates being women. On my last trip to Iwate, Yuriko called me up and said, “I have to show you something.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Just meet me. I don’t want to tell you what it is. You have to see it.”
I agree and we get together one night after she put her three children to bed and had a few minutes to herself, grandma staying with the kids. We sat down at our table. A beaming Yuriko digs through her purse, and finding her cell phone taps a few buttons and holds it up for me.
“Watch this.”
I do. It’s a video.

Rio, Yuriko’s six-year old daughter is dressed in her favorite princess dress, tiara balanced on her head, trying to stand straight in mama’s high heels. She is serious as she sings “Let it Go” in katakana-English. She leans in. She holds out her arm in a sweeping arc. Her hand clutches her chest. Pushing away her three-year old brother who wants to be in the video, too, she sings. She sings.

I’ve found in trying to have a conversation with girls of any age in rural Japan, the response will not often be a strong and clear reply but rather a series of giggles hidden behind the hand. This attitude “I can’t possibly speak English” cloaked as humility actually destroys confidence. It’s code for “if I giggle I will be more appealing than if I’m vocal.” Modest women are more attractive than strong ones. Knowing our place means we are not bold like Elsa.

Which is why it’s a big and amazing deal that these girls taught and raised as the weaker sex belt out songs in English with no fear. Gone is the sentiment, “Oh, I wish I could speak English.” Over the weekend I sang this song repeatedly, I as queen, the girls as princesses. Never was there any hesitation. Nowhere did they show a lack of confidence. Of course they could carry a tune. Oh, it’s in English? So? They liked the song, it was popular, end of story. We would sing. We did sing. This was not a lollipop dream. We were not dancing unicorns on floating marshmallow clouds. Their singing was real. It never occurred to these girls they could not sing this song. This assumption and this courage is simply beautiful.

Kudos to Disney for finding the right song to hit the right nerve at just the right time. I’m thrilled for the young girls who get such joy in being Elsa, a strong and determined character. Who just, of course, happens to sing an incredible song. In English.

Sing on, girls. Let it go. Really. Let it go.

Amya Miller is Director of Global Public Relations for the City of Rikuzentakata

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