Written by Leah Branstetter

The Hidden Histories of “Fujiyama Mama”

The Hidden Histories of “Fujiyama Mama” by Leah Branstetter

I’ve been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too /
The same I did to them, baby, I can do to you.

With these words, Wanda Jackson launched her international career as a rock and roll performer late in the year 1957—well before she had attained widespread name recognition in the United States. As she likes to tell her audiences now:

Performance at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, July 21, 2018
Footage courtesy of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

I’m going to go back now to the year 1959. … Finally, I got a number one song in rock and roll. [Applause.] Thank you, but it wasn’t in America. [Laughs.] It took them a little bit longer to find me. But Japan found me in ’59 and made this song number one for a whole summer. And those people still sing it today—I can’t believe it. Like an evergreen song, you know? Every generation. It’s amazing. But anyway, maybe some of y’all will remember this one. [Opening of “Fujiyama Mama”]

Jackson is not the only one to be somewhat perplexed by the success of “Fujiyama Mama” in Japan; critics and historians have offered little in the way of explaining how a song that so explicitly references the atomic bombings of 1945 could become a nationwide, chart-topping hit during a time when its potential audience in Japan was not even a full generation removed from the devastation of the war. At the same time, there are theories as to why the song—now a cult classic among fans of 1950s rockabilly and a signature song for Jackson—was not a hit in the United States. Foremost among these hypotheses is one that Jackson herself has espoused both onstage and off: “Nobody would play it,” she insists. “They barely had accepted Elvis and the other ones, and they weren’t too sure about accepting a teenage girl singing this kind of music.” 1

The song’s lyrics are usually cited by critics as the main reason for both its success in Japan and its failure in the United States. “I suspect,” writes rockabilly historian Craig Morrison, “that [Japanese] listeners were happier about the local place names (perhaps the only lyrics they could understand) than the memory of war-time destruction.” 2 Meanwhile, Americans who did fully comprehend the sexually charged lyrics were presumably put off by Jackson’s forthright delivery of them. “In terms of pure energy, vocal charisma, aggressive sexuality, and her stylistic mastery of both rhythm & blues and country elements,” a 2012 rock history textbook claims, “Jackson stands revealed on [her] records as a performer who could readily go toe-to-toe (or pelvis to pelvis!) with Elvis Presley or with any of the other major male rock’n’rollers of this period.” The book’s authors, however, also wish us understand that “the essential conservatism of the 1950s, politically and culturally, made it a particularly inauspicious time to be seen as a rebellious and empowered young woman.”3 Placing the innuendo in “stands revealed” and “pelvis to pelvis” aside for the moment, I wish to focus on how such assessments of Jackson’s music reflect discussions of women’s performances within a genre that has been defined as masculine.4

The textbook cited above repeats a common narrative in which male performance of early rock and roll is normal and natural, while female performers are held up as exceptions. The song “Fujiyama Mama” is cited perhaps more often than any other as evidence that women, too, could sing rock and roll. As one reference book states: “Mt. Fuji lofts its snow-covered regalness over Japan. An eagerly erupting volcano, it hisses and glowers, waiting to get ticked off enough to blow its top. Wanda Jackson offers us the ultimate Virile Female metaphor here. [Jackson] did volcanic Rockabilly. Only a few female rock and rollers . . . have ever blasted Wanda’s incredible energy.”5 Commentators often interpret this sexualized energy as an attack on the status quo. David Sanjek, in one of the first scholarly essays about women in rockabilly, wrote that in the song, “Wanda Jackson sang in 1958 [sic] of eradicating the forces of male-centred social hegemony. The singer announces authoritatively that she has visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki and can display the same cataclysmic energy as did the devices dropped on those cities.”6

There is no doubt that Jackson’s career has been remarkable, and that she deserves both critical attention and a place in the history books. There are, however, reasons to nuance readings of her 1950s recordings as proto-feminist statements. “To create music within a male-defined domain is a treacherous task,” writes musicologist Susan McClary. “As some women composers of so-called serious or experimental music are discovering, many of the forms and conventional procedures of presumably value-free music are saturated with hidden patriarchal narratives, images, agendas. The options available to a woman in rock and roll are especially constrictive, for this musical discourse is typically characterized by a phallic backbeat.”7 In other words, the presence of sexism the music industry—and women’s strategies for negotiating this field where they lack power—is distinct from the ways that gender is encoded into or represented by the music itself. It is possible, therefore, for a woman to overcome gender bias on one level while re-inscribing patriarchal structures on another. Conflation of these different levels of discourse can lead to critical slippage: Wanda Jackson’s relative success in a male-dominated genre has led many commentators to view even the lyrics of songs she did not write as expressions of her personal empowerment.

We cannot, however, take it for granted that a given recording represents the unmediated artistic expression of the performer herself. Lyricists in the early rock era were significantly more likely to be male than female. Additionally, male record company executives and employees frequently had at least some, if not full, control over song selection, arrangements, and even nuances of performance—and if they were not pleased with the final product, it was their prerogative to prevent its release or promotion. This question of agency in women’s performances of lyrics by men has arisen in several corners of feminist musicology. Ruth Solie, in her landmark analysis of Robert Schumann’s Frauenlieben und -leben song cycle—settings of poems by Adelbert von Chamisso that chronicle a female protagonist’s betrothal, marriage, maternity, and emotional inability to cope with widowhood—has cautioned that the expression of fantasies constructed by men but expressed through the voice of a female singer might falsely “convey the authority of experience,” thereby creating an “impersonation of a woman by the voices of male culture, a spurious autobiographical act.”8

The opposing point of view is that women can also use performative mediation to revise and reclaim ownership of a song’s sentiments. Sanjek argues, following Hazel Carby, that “the actual author of the material matters less than how the work was utilised to project an image of feminine autonomy . . . . The female rockabilly singers were rarely in a position to write, let alone choose, their songs, but the opportunity to place their personal signature upon a song that implied if not endorsed individual liberation remains a rare opportunity not to be denied.”9 But how do we tell the impersonators from the subversives?

Critical discussion of “Fujiyama Mama” clearly needs to do more than attach the apparent qualities of the song’s protagonist to its performer—if for no other reason than that Mt. Fuji hasn’t erupted since the early eighteenth century. In order to understand which aspects of Jackson’s 1950s performances may have been insurrectionary, we need to place songs like this one in context and examine the gender/power relationships that are at work in its creation history, lyrics, musical symbolism, mode of performance, distribution, and reception. One way to do this is through the methodology of the song profile, which Jeffrey Magee has defined as “a selective but in-depth exploration of a song’s composition and performance history that makes apparent how variable meanings are socially constructed through time.” 10

My profile of “Fujiyama Mama” will also consider variations in meanings across genders and cultures, positioning the song as a nexus between several different power structures rather than as a straightforward token of empowerment or hoped-for empowerment. The first part of this article will challenge previous readings of Jackson’s “Fujiyama Mama” by comparing the song to earlier recordings and to the gendered rhetoric of the Cold War contained in what have been dubbed “atomic sex songs”11; the second part will show how the song and its reception reflect the political dynamics between the United States and Japan in the postwar period. Ultimately, I argue that if we stop at a surface-level reading of Jackson’s recording and aim only at establishing her credentials as rock and roll pioneer or champion of women’s rights, we risk masking a more complex gendered history.

Origins & Early Performances

The story of “Fujiyama Mama” begins nearly four years before Wanda Jackson took it into the recording studio. The song, written in 1954, is credited to Earl Burrows (né Earl Solomon Burroughs, but best known by his stage name “Jack Hammer”), who soon after co-authored another libidinous song replete with explosions: “Great Balls of Fire.”12 Jack Hammer remains an obscure figure, and the information he has made publicly available is often couched in hyperbole.

Image of a twenty or thirty-something year old African American man printed on newsprint. Text reads "Jack Hammer is one of Roulette's newest artists. Jack is a multi-talented individual. He dances, emcees, writes, songs as well as sings. He is known to night club audiences through the country. "Girl, Girl, Girl" is his first release for Roulette, backed by "Chant of Love." Jack wrote both of these songs. The label expects his belting style to attract many disk buyers.
Billboard printed a profile of Jack Hammer in February of 1958, noting that he was a singer, songwriter, emcee, and dancer.

He was born in New Orleans, raised in California, and established professionally in New York by the mid-1950s. Some sources give his date of birth as 1925 or 1933, while others make the unlikely claim that he was born in 1940 and wrote “Fujiyama Mama” at the age of fourteen. 13 From trade and popular press reports, we can gather that he was not only a songwriter, but also a dancer, emcee, and a rhythm and blues singer in his own right. 14 Jet magazine, on the other hand, tracked the dramas of his personal life: in 1958, for example, his nineteen-year-old pin-up model wife (and mother of his five-month-old son) was apprehended for check forgery. A few months later, Hammer himself was arrested in New York and tried for statutory rape, but the charges were dropped when the alleged victim—a sixteen-year-old white girl—denied the affair on the witness stand. For his part, Hammer, who is African American, admitted to escorting the girl, but only until he found out that she was sixteen and not nineteen. 15

From such limited biographical information, it is impossible to determine whether Jack Hammer intended to create a song in “Fujiyama Mama” that would give female performers an opportunity to express the sexual desires that contemporary social mores would have them repress.  In any case, his intent matters little. The work of interpreting his lyrics began with the first two recordings of the song, cut in 1955 by rhythm and blues singer Annisteen Allen (née Ernestine Allen in 1920, d. 1992) and white pop singer Eileen Barton (1924–2006). It is with these two often overlooked performances that I will also begin.

Annisteen Allen

Annisteen Allen’s “Fujiyama Mama” was released by Capitol Records, the same label that would later issue Jackson’s cover. Billboard noted upon the single’s debut that the “clever lyrics and Oriental sound gimmicks here make this an unusually strong piece of material for Miss Allen and she drives it home solidly. The beat is easy and swingy. Fine box wax, altho many jocks will not spin it, due to the off-beat lyric.” 16 Though the reviewer doesn’t specify what he finds “off-beat,” there is a good chance the double entendres in the lyrics had something to do with his complaint.  By this time, Allen had nearly a decade-long history of confronting trade journal reviewers with racy lyrics. Her very first record, made with Lucky Millinder’s band in 1946, featured a song entitled “How Big Can You Get, Little Man?” This song utilized some of the same euphemisms as “Fujiyama Mama,” asking, for example, “How big can you get, little man, before you blow your top?”17

“How Big Can You Get Little Man”
Lucky Millinder & His Orchestra with Annisteen Allen, 1946

At least one of Allen’s early singles with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra was labeled “not recommended for radio” by Billboard. The material Allen was performing in the early fifties, like her 1953 R&B chart hit “Baby, I’m Doin’ It,” was not much cleaner. In performing hokum blues numbers like “Fujiyama Mama”—which is a twelve-bar blues with frequent flatted thirds and sevenths in the melody—Allen is aligned with the legacy of women’s blues established in the 1920s, a tradition that is often held up as the gold standard of female empowerment through music. In a frequently cited essay on blueswomen, Hazel Carby argued that these singers “occupied a privileged space; they had broken out of the boundaries of the home and taken their sensuality and sexuality out of the private into the public sphere.”18

Other scholars, however, have been reluctant to hear women’s blues as unequivocally liberated. Elijah Wald contends that blues records demonstrate a set of constraints, because, “in a pattern that has been repeated ad infinitum, black performers were ghettoized, and their access to the recording world was dependent on their singing ‘black’ music, whatever their own tastes or the repertoire they may have featured in their live shows.”19 This fact casts doubt on whether singers were fully in charge of the process by which their sexuality was made public, and the degree to which their sentiments reflect the lives of others. Ann Ducille has critiqued Carby, noting that “the discourse that champions the sexual ‘self-invention’ and ‘authenticity’ of blues queens . . . does so without examining the reflexive nature of the invention—without interrogating the role of ideology in shaping the period, its artists, and its attention to black female sexuality.”20 In other words, the question of whether the singer shapes the circumstances or the circumstances shape the singer often goes unasked. This is particularly true of the women who continued the blues tradition in the postwar period. Annisteen Allen, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Ann Cole, and Pearl Bailey, and numerous others have been almost entirely left out of the history of this period. This erasure obscures our knowledge of how Allen and her contemporaries may have gone about manipulating musical elements in blues written by men in order to “occupy a privileged space.”

Whether the eroticism in Allen’s rendition of “Fujiyama Mama” is imposed or self-constructed, however, it is also undercut by the backing arrangement. We as listeners get the sense that the backing vocalists and instrumentalists are not perceiving Allen as an entirely threatening sexual presence. The constant riffing of the male backing vocalists on the phrase “Fujiyama Mama” places the female protagonist not only in the presence of a single addressee—the second-person “you, baby” indicated in the lyrics—but also under the gaze of a group of men who seem to be egging her on and even making light of her attempts to appear powerful.

Whenever Allen reaches the end of a verse, i.e., at the very moment when she has completed a list of violent actions she is prepared to undertake, a chorus of small, cartoonish voices emanating from the back of the mix lets out a squeal that comes closer to an expression of amusement than fear of annihilation.

The instrumental accompaniment is replete with humorous stereotypes of Asian music, the “Oriental sound gimmicks” referred to in Billboard: chimes playing gapped scales, tinny crashes meant to evoke gong strikes, and other somewhat ridiculous percussive effects at several levels of remove from any authentic Japanese music. Combined with the unquestionably Western rhythm section and saxophones, the aural effect is that Allen’s protagonist is merely play-acting the part of an exotic Eastern seductress; the musical cues tell us that she is not to be taken seriously. If the lyrics present the “ultimate virile female metaphor,” then Allen or the producers at her record label apparently chose to bypass this interpretation.

Annisteen Allen, “Fujiyama Mama”

Eileen Barton’s background presented her audiences with an entirely different set of expectations. The daughter of vaudeville performers, Barton debuted on stage and on the airwaves at a prodigiously early age. Her big break came during her teen years, when Frank Sinatra made her a co-star on his radio show.21 Chart success came next. In 1950, her record “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake” sold more than a million copies. This hit launched a brief period of celebrity, but also forever typecast her as a singer of novelties. As was the case for a number of other pop singers who were successful in the waning years of the swing era, the advent of rock and roll brought career challenges.

Barton, in her early thirties when she recorded “Fujiyama Mama,” was apparently struggling to recapture the success she had had in her teens and twenties. She was one of many white pop singers who attempted to transition to styles closer to rhythm and blues in an effort to appeal to the youth market. “In comparison to the white male rockers making dents in the Top 40 charts,” writes Gillian Gaar in She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll, “the white female performers having Top 40 hits were in no sense as wild and abandoned as Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, or Elvis Presley. . . . Nonethess,” she continues, “there were some women who did dare to rock more than Georgia Gibbs or Patti Page ever did.”  In reality, some of Georgia Gibbs’s mid-1950s covers of rock and roll and R&B songs have as much squealing and growling as any of Wanda Jackson’s. This vocal noise—even when symbolic of sexual abandon—was in and of itself a novelty element exploited on many records by male and female performers alike.22

Eileen Barton

Barton’s career has fallen into this historical gap between swing and rock and roll, and her recording of “Fujiyama Mama” is rarely mentioned. The record may well have been the result of her label’s A&R man going hunting for repertoire that would capitalize both on demand for more novelty tunes from Barton and on the growing popularity of rhythm and blues. When “Fujiyama Mama” was released on Coral records in the spring of 1955, it was as the B-side to an adaptation of “I’d’ve Baked a Cake,” restyled to fit over a 12-bar blues.

Variety noted that “the idea of turning Eileen Barton’s 1950 hit . . . into a rhythm and blues hit must have looked great on paper, but it doesn’t come off . . . . ‘Fujiyama Mama’ is an r&b tune that is more like the real mccoy and Miss Barton socks it home.”23 Barton’s vocal delivery is strong and confident, but she does not add the growls and other vocal effects often read as markers of sexual empowerment by contemporary critics—a factor that has perhaps kept this recording from receiving the same kind of retrospective attention as Wanda Jackson’s. For her part, Barton thought of “Fujiyama Mama” as a trite novelty tune—describing it in interviews as “terrible”—and would probably not be disappointed that it has been forgotten.24

The multiple levels of racial masquerading at play on Barton’s record—which ultimately represents a white woman covering a black woman impersonating an Asian woman—do create the possibility for musical confusion. Covers of rhythm and blues by white singers omitted aural markers of Otherness as a matter of habit, ostensibly to make the songs more palatable to white audiences. This process often included the removal of innuendo from the lyrics. Barton’s version of “Fujiyama Mama,” however, is a close copy of Allen’s, presented with the original text intact. Even the backing vocals are nearly identical between the two versions. A big difference, however, is that the arrangement accompanying Barton’s rendition lacks not only many of the stylistic elements of rhythm and blues—such as the strong off-beat rhythms and slow tempo—but also most of the gimmicky Orientalisms. Perhaps the producer felt that posing as Asian would be less acceptable for a white woman, but the result is a novelty tune without the novelties. A variety of silly percussive sound effects are still present, but without melodies or instruments that American listeners would immediately recognize as “Asian,” these lack internal musical logic. Despite the fact that Barton’s vocals are strong, the whole arrangement comes off as a little ridiculous. If Allen’s rendering can be read as a representation of threatening sexuality not taken as credible, then Barton’s is not particularly threatening in the first place.

Eileen Barton, “Fujiyama Mama”

Like the two 1955 recordings, Wanda Jackson’s 1957 pressing of “Fujiyama Mama” received generally positive reviews in the trade press, but it met with limited popular success in the United States. Unlike her predecessors, however, Jackson had lucky timing, and her interpretation set her up both for her Japanese superstardom and for lasting critical acclaim—a thread I will pick up again later. First, however, it is worth considering the context in which audiences in the fifties may have interpreted the references to atomic power.

The Atom Bomb in American Popular Culture and Music

The 1950s saw a resurgence of atomic-themed songs, many of which could have influenced Jack Hammer and his interpreters. Songs about the atom bomb initially appeared during in the late 1940s as part of Americans’ efforts to “[take] the atom bomb in stride,” as Paul Boyer claims in The Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. “Comedians (not all of them professionals) strained to find humor in the new weapon. A radio newscaster commented that Hiroshima ‘looked like Ebbetts Field after a game between the Giants and the Dodgers.’ Others joked that Japan was suffering from ‘atomic ache.’ Only one radio entertainer—Milton Berle—explicitly refused to make jokes about the atomic bomb.”25 Commercial interests also wasted no time capitalizing on the nation’s obsession with the bomb, and references to atomic power turned up in all kinds of unexpected places: one could buy atomic cocktails, atomic jewelry, and even atomic undergarments.  

The commercial music industry did not lag behind in offering atomic-themed merchandise to American consumers. Country music historian Charles Wolfe has identified a pattern in the way new technologies have been incorporated into popular song, and he convincingly argues that songs about the atom bomb fit this paradigm: “[Technological advances] usually appeared first as simply the subject of a song. Then, if the piece of technology affected the lives of a substantial number of people, it became a metaphor.” 26 Songs from the 1940s incorporated the bomb in a more literal way, often weighing the ethical issues related to its deployment. “Atomic power, atomic power,” sang the Buchanan Brothers in one of several songs on this theme, “was given by the mighty hand of God.” According to the brothers, who wrote their song within days of the attack on Nagasaki:

Hiroshima, Nagasaki paid a big price for their sins
When scorched from the face of the earth
Their battles could not win.

Country-western songs that attributed the discovery of the atom bomb to God’s will that America win the war were common, as were those that warned about the potential consequences of misusing such awesome power. 

Beginning in 1949, the Soviet Union’s ascension to the status of nuclear-armed superpower brought about renewed atomic fears in the United States. “What that atomic bomb had done to Japan, it could do to us,” a New York City minister told the press, foreshadowing the Fujiyama Mama’s threat.27 This fear lead to Harry Truman’s establishment of the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FDCA) in 1950. In addition to generating an onslaught of public service announcements instructing Americans how to survive atomic attack, which were broadcast through every available form of mass media, the FDCA and its local offices organized evacuation drills known as “Operation Alerts.” These drills, which would empty out large urban centers like Times Square, began in 1954 and were certainly events that entertainment professionals such as Jack Hammer may have experienced firsthand in New York City.28 And as the reality of the atom bomb—and shortly thereafter, the hydrogen bomb—became part of everyday life for most Americans, nuclear warfare increasingly became a favorite metaphor of songwriters. The symbolic link between atomic destruction and sex was established in song early on in the Cold War.29

Atomic Sex Songs
and Explosive Female Sexuality

A number of companies in the 1950s began marketing home fallout shelters to consumers. These were a tough sell, despite the government’s push to encourage citizens to invest in this kind of protection. One high-profile advertising campaign in the late fifties challenged newlywed couples to remain underground for a “honeymoon” of two weeks—the length of time that Americans were advised to remain in shelters should an atomic attack occur. (If they made it, then they were rewarded with a real honeymoon in a more traditional location.) Bill Geerhart and Ken Sitz have noted that “these honeymoon stunts captured so much media attention . . . because the sexual subtexts of such arrangements were so plainly evident.”30 Like this advertising scheme, many pop songs from this era play on the erotic circumstances that could result from enemy attack. One of the most famous atom bomb songs, Bill Haley’s “Thirteen Women” (originally the A-side of the 1955 smash hit “Rock around the Clock”), is a male fantasy of a post-nuclear holocaust environment in which the protagonist is the only man left in town—but there are still thirteen women. These women attend to his every need, feeding him, dancing for him, and even bringing him diamonds. Geerhart and Sitz write that the song’s “creeping beat, the plucked electric guitar (that signifies the hydrogen explosion) and the risqué lyrics make this tune a landmark Bomb tune and the king of its own subgenre: the Atomic Sex song.”31

While many of these songs were, like “Fujiyama Mama,” novelty numbers replete with sound effects, this subgenre of “atomic sex songs” reflected a very real anxiety: the fear that an attack could lead to sexual chaos. It was thought that such mayhem would result in the destruction of families and of the moral fiber that Americans would need to exhibit in order to win a war against a depraved enemy. In 1951, the executive director of the American Social Hygiene Association published an article articulating the dangers of an atomic attack. In it, he predicted that if the United States were to be bombed, there would subsequently be a “1,000 percent increase” in venereal disease because “moral standards would relax and promiscuity would increase.”32 Elaine Tyler May has argued that women became the focus of this anxiety, because their “economic and sexual behavior seemed to have changed dramatically” in the postwar period.33

Destructive female sexuality was hardly a new construct, but it found a new guise in the atomic age. As one lawyer noted in 1955, “The time-tested formula for the ‘sexed up’ cover of a paperback book is a near-naked girl with a revolver, and it is curious that critics should comment so often on the nudity and ignore the imminence of death. Within the letter of the law, as in the popular culture, sex and violence tend to be entangled—we label an atomic bomb with the title of a Rita Hayworth movie [Gilda] and call an abbreviated bathing suit a “Bikini”—but in the courts, it is exceptional that [sex and violence in the mass media] are prosecuted with equal emphasis.”34 This connection between women and explosives that took hold in the forties persisted into the 1950s. Military airmen fighting in the Korean War, for example, continued the World War II tradition of painting figures of nude, pin-up style female figures—“bombshells”—on the noses of their planes.

Considering these dual anxieties over sex and violence, it is perhaps not surprising that a large subset of “atomic sex songs” dealt specifically with explosive female sexuality. The imagery and language of “Fujiyama Mama” are clearly paralleled in this body of songs. “Atom Bomb Baby” (1948) for example, mentions both dynamite and the bomb:

Dude Martin’s Round-Up Gang, “Atom Bomb Baby”

She’s used her TNT tactics
To bring a man down to her size
It would take a secret weapon or a Superman
To harness her energy
So stay clear away from this red headed A-bomb
‘Cause she belongs to me!”

“Fujiyama Mama,” however, is somewhat unusual because it features a female protagonist. By far the majority of atomic sex songs about “explosive” women are delivered from a male perspective. This may be what prompted David Sanjek to write that “ironically, in these lyrics, Jackson echoes the very language used to repress women during the Cold War and confirm them in a repressively maternal and familial role.”35 It is, as I have already discussed, problematic to attach agency to Jackson. But even working from the argument that it was she who chose to perform this text, it is difficult to sustain the claim that the use of gendered Cold War language and imagery is purely ironic here.

A survey of the few atomic sex songs that are from a woman’s point of view reveals that the majority of them are revisions of songs originally intended to be performed by a man. “Thirteen Men,” recorded by Dinah Shore and later by Ann-Margaret, reverses the situation presented in Bill Haley’s rendition of “Thirteen Women,” leaving one woman alone with thirteen men. “Atomic Baby,” performed by R&B singer Linda Hayes in 1953, also alters the lyrics of an earlier song by the same title, recorded by Amos Milburn in 1950.

Amos Milburn “Atomic Baby” (recorded 1950) /
Linda Hayes with the Red Callendar Sextette (recorded 1953)

Milburn (final verse):
Yeah, she’s a little bitty mama who needs a whole lot of room
She’s a little bitty mama who needs a whole lot of room
She can ignite your rockets and lead you onto the moon

Hayes (final verse):
Well I’m a little bitty mama, I don’t need a whole lot of room
Yeah, teeny, weeny mama, don’t need a whole lot of room
If I ignite your rockets, I’ll shoot you to the moon

Direct comparison makes it clear that Hayes’s version relocates the male fantasy into a female protagonist; in both songs, it is the man who conspicuously receives sexual pleasure and is “shot to the moon.” Although “Fujiyama Mama” does not appear to be an answer song or a revision, it could easily have been a response to a song that would begin: “You went to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too / the things you did to them baby, you can do to me.” The fact that some, if not most, of the euphemistic imagery—phallic bombs and sticks of dynamite, ejaculatory explosions—could be symbolic of male arousal and release supports a reading of “Fujiyama Mama” as a relocated male fantasy. We might also view “Fujiyama Mama” as an example of what Jane Caputi calls “nuclear pornography,” in which “feminized characters parade phallocentric projections and conceits, such as, woman as victim, object, evil seducer, dominatrix, and scapegoat.” Safely located in a Japanese woman, such unbridled and even queer sexuality could be mediated for an American audience—the Japanese were widely viewed in America as debased and deserving of the punishment they received.

How then, do we begin to understand the song’s positive reception with Japanese audiences?

Wanda Jackson Goes to Tokyo

When Wanda Jackson arrived in Japan in the summer of 1959 for seven weeks of touring, she had no idea how famous she—and her recording of “Fujiyama Mama”—had become on the island nation. She recalls the moment of realization, which came while she and her father waited to deplane in Tokyo:

[Daddy] looked out and saw a red carpet and he saw photographers, and … pretty Japanese girls in all their regalia. He said, “boy, there must be somebody important on here!” I said “really?” And he said “yeah, you ought to see this.” People up there on the top of the airport with signs written in Japanese—we couldn’t read them. And so I said, “maybe it’s a movie star.” And he said “yeah, or some dignitary.” . . . And boy, we were just stretching our necks looking around for everybody that walked by! We got to the second or third stair going a down—we had no jetways, of course—and Daddy punched me from behind. And he said “Baby, I think you better start smiling. This is all for you.”36

She was greeted by photographers, adoring fans with flowers, and the Japanese tour promoters, who had scheduled a press conference for her. For $700 a week, she began performing anywhere from two to five shows per day. The popularity of “Fujiyama Mama” seemed strange to her even then. “It’s just a little song comparing a woman, well, to the atomic bomb! But the Japanese people have always loved this. They took it for what it was: it was a good rock and roll song.”37 The cultural conditions that allowed the defeated Japanese to appreciate “a teenage girl singing this kind of music” while the Americans did not, however, were not quite so straightforward.

Jackson first heard “Fujiyama Mama” on a jukebox in 1955, when she was still a high school student. She liked Annisteen Allen’s recording and was interested in Asian culture (“I had my bedroom done in Oriental things—I just loved it”) and the decision to cover the song seems to have been partially hers. “My record producer . . . was a little worried about the lyrics,” she recollects, “but he let me have my way.”38 Since Capitol had released the original recording of the song, Jackson may be misremembering, or perhaps the concern was over her recording a rhythm and blues song, or the fact that the earlier disc had not charted. In any case, a comment she made to the Japanese press in 1959 indicates that the song choice may have initially been the label’s idea: “I felt that [the song’s] style fit who I am as a performer very well. That’s why I gladly accepted the offer to record it.”39 Of course, the style of the song changed between Annisteen Allen’s recording and Jackon’s. Like Eileen Barton, Jackson kept the lyrics the same (although she changed the order of the verses and added some repetition), but forwent any Orientalist gimmicks. Also gone, however, are the male doo-wop singers and the bluesy backing band. These are replaced with country-blues guitar riffs, and, of course, Jackson’s much-lauded vocals. Billboard summarized: “a blues, Wanda Jackson chants it in a gravel-voiced style. The oriental title reflects a current fad, but does not detract from the fact that the side is a strong country blues.”40

Many critics today feel that Jackson out-bluesed Annisteen Allen. One commentator calls “Fujiyama Mama” Jackson’s “most lyrically and musically daring recording,” noting that “Jackson eschewed the original . . . and added growls, shrieks, and soft deep-voiced interludes to the song.”41 These vocal techniques, which are so often associated with wildness in the literature on women rockers, do not always equate with personal rebellion. Sanjek, after declaring “Fujiyama Mama” an affront on male-centered hegemony admits that Jackson has said that she “didn’t like all that screamin’ and hollerin’,” which “reinforces how tenuous even the most seemingly aggressive behaviour may be.”42 Growls and shrieks in recordings of female rockabillies often came at the behest of record producers who thought that these sounds would sell, even when performers were resistant to them. The experience that Jackson recalls fifty years later was a combination of taking direction from both Capitol Records’s Ken Nelson and her father, and also of finding her own voice: “That was a song I hadn’t done very much on stage or anything,” she recalls:

I didn’t really know . . . what tempo I wanted it; what key would be best—you can move them a little, it makes a big difference in the sound—so [Ken Nelson] was having me do that. And finally we settled in. And then he [Nelson] was still wanting something. And Daddy could see—Daddy was in the control room—he could see I was getting frustrated and confused. And he called a break, or told Ken “just a minute.” He came in the studio, and pulled me aside. And Daddy never had to say much. He was a man of few words, and pretty quiet spoken. But he said, “Wanda, You rear back. And you sing that song however you want to sing it.” I said, “Okay! If Daddy said it.” I’m really not that young any more, but I depended a lot on what he said and what he thought about things. So I went back and I started and—that growl just came out like that. You know it was kind of—it kind of amazed me.43

Her relationship with this music was always complex. Jackson told a Japanese interviewer in 1959: “Please think of me as a Country and Western singer. I sing rockabilly style because that’s what people seem to want.”44  And this was no less the case in Japan. She performed this particular rockabilly number—“Fujiyama Mama”—with Western-styled Japanese bands, clothed in a kimono, because that is what the people seemed to want. And, in feeling like something of an impersonator of a rockabilly singer, Jackson may have had more in common with her Japanese counterparts than she knew.

GI Songs and American Musical Styles in Postwar Japan

A standard explanation of the success of “Fujiyama Mama” in Japan is that listeners were simply excited about the Japanese references in the song and that they did not understand the rest of the lyrics. Jackson herself has supposed this to be one reason for the song’s popularity. “This is almost like the national anthem over there,” she tells audiences. “To this day, I can’t understand why. I think maybe they didn’t understand the words.”45 There may be some truth to this: during the U.S. Occupation, most Japanese spoke little, if any, English. In the context of an American song that places the cities “Nagasaki” and “Hiroshima” in close proximity, however, it seems like most Japanese could get the gist. Furthermore, Capitol Records Japan released a pressing of the single that included a transcription of the lyrics in both English and Japanese, so anyone who actually owned the record had at least a loose translation available.46 The “local place names” theory is, therefore, a partial explanation at best.

Capitol’s 45 of “Fujiyama Mama” in sleeve with lyrics

The occupation of Japan lasted officially for just over six years, from August of 1945 until April of 1952—although the Korean War saw more than 250,000 Americans stationed in Japan, particularly on Okinawa, and many more passing through on their way to or from the theater of war on the Korean peninsula. Even as late as 1956, some hundred thousand U.S. servicemen remained in the country. Over the course of this decade, a great deal of cultural exchange took place, even if the flow tended to be somewhat unidirectional. The Japanese, writes John Dower in his Pulitzer-prize-winning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, “found themselves longing for material affluence of the sort their American overlords conspicuously enjoyed.”47 The cultures of defeat and consumerism quickly intertwined, and music was a point of confluence.

In the years leading up to World War II, American jazz had been popular in Japan—Western music was generally censored in the country for the duration of the war—and it became popular once again after 1945.48 Jazz spread from American military bases to urban coffee shops, and it came into Japanese homes via broadcasts from the US Forces’ Far East Network.49 As the popularity of swing and jazz waned somewhat, boogie-woogie became a fad—particularly after a famous scene in Akira Kurosawa’s 1948 film Drunken Angel featured Shizuko Kasagi performing a number called “Jungle Boogie.” Kasagi followed this with the equally popular “Tokyo Boogie Woogie,” which was a hit with American GIs. American films, particularly Westerns, helped to create a large market for rockabilly and country music, especially among Japanese youth. Clubs that catered mainly to white servicemen from the American South often specialized in country and rockabilly styles.50 Japanese performers recorded covers of songs by popular American singers like Elvis Presley, often taking care to reproduce even the subtlest musical nuances of the original performance—albeit with some pronunciation difficulties (which Time magazine condescendingly referred to as “transoceanic mutilation, as in Rub Me Tender and Rittoru Dahring”).51

Military bases were important musical centers. Some enterprising Japanese musicians sought to make a living by performing American music for American soldiers; the GIs themselves also wrote and performed lyrics about their experiences as military men in a foreign country, and these songs offer detailed descriptions of eating Japanese food, observing Japanese culture, and courting Japanese women. The songs were usually in English with a few Japanese words thrown in for exotic effect. Japanese artists frequently covered GI songs in much the same way that they covered other types of American music—even when the lyrics were less-than-flattering portrayals of their culture.52 This music, both in the original versions and in the Japanese covers, also featured the same kinds of stereotyped musical Orientalisms as Annisteen Allen’s recording of “Fujiyama Mama.” A comparison of the lyrics of GI songs from this period to “Fujiyama Mama” reveals a number of additional similarities; at least one scholar of Japanese popular music has mistaken the Jack Hammer’s composition for a bona fide GI song.53 While this does not appear to be the case, the influence of GI songs can help to contextualize the verses of “Fujiyama Mama” that depict drinking, smoking, and shooting. The lyrics of “Yopparai [Drunken] Blues” (1954), for example, depict a soldier drinking sake for the express purpose of getting drunk:

Saturday after pay day and my pocket feeling fine
I’ve got to kill the thirst of mine with good old native wine
Bring me sake, takusan [lots of] sake
takusan sake.

Another GI song, called “Sachiko” (1951), dealt with romantic relations between American men and Japanese women—and it also gives precedence for the rhyming of “Fujiyama” with “mama”:

Back in the land of Hirohito [Japanese Emperor at the time]
I’ve got the cutest koibito [lover]
No matter where I go, her kisses haunt me so
Her name is Sachiko
Within the sight of Fujiyama
I wooed this cherry blossom mama

While military men were the primary audience of these songs, some became more widely popular in the United States. “Gomen nasai” (“Forgive Me”), for example, became a bestseller in 1953. The song, a soldier’s apology to his Japanese girlfriend for cheating on her, is credited to a former army sergeant and a Japanese songwriter. Several recordings were in circulation, including one by Harry Belafonte, and another by a popular female Japanese singer named Cheimi Eri. (The latter was recorded in Japan, distributed by an American label, and attributed to “Cheimi Eri and G.I. Joe.”) Proceeds from sales of the song were intended to support abandoned and illegitimate children of U.S. servicemen.54

Ultimately, the gender/power relationship expressed in “Sachiko” or “Gomen nasai”—between an American man and a Japanese woman, between the conqueror and the conquered—may be the key to revealing the ways these same relationships are at work in “Fujiyama Mama.”

American Men
and Japanese Women

Earlier, I posited “Fujiyama Mama” as a relocated male fantasy. This interpretation takes on new dimensions when we consider the implications of an American male fantasizing about a Japanese female. John Dower has written that “the eroticization of defeated Japan in the eyes of the conquerors took place almost immediately, creating a complex interplay of assumed masculine and feminine roles that has colored U.S.–Japan relations ever since.”55 In fact, portrayals of Japan as feminine and childlike helped Americans to make the transition from viewing the Japanese as enemies to viewing them as an ally merely in need of masculine leadership.56 “Following a familiar colonial trope of heterosexual rescue and romance,” notes Mire Koikari, “some American men expressed their desire to save Japanese women in more personal ways.”57

In the early days of the US Occupation, the Japanese government launched a mission to protect the chastity of the majority of the country’s women, which was achieved by asking a few to prostitute themselves in order to keep foreign military men satisfied—a new version of the system set up during World War II that had forced many thousands of women into sexual slavery servicing Japanese troops. Widows, orphans, and Korean and Chinese women already working in pleasure and entertainment districts were among those recruited for this duty.58 The 1,360 women who answered advertisements posted by what was to become known as the “Recreation and Amusement Association” (RAA) were immediately put to work, even before beds or privacy partitions were available in the bordellos. Some estimates place the number of men each prostitute serviced each day at between fifteen and sixty, and a visit cost about 30 yen ($1.56).59 The RAA, which initially consisted of a single location in Tokyo, soon opened additional brothels both in the capital and in other cities. The RAA also employed large numbers of musicians and ran a nationwide system of cabarets, nightclubs, and dance halls that featured Western music for the entertainment of the GIs and their Japanese escorts.60 The Japanese government’s stated aim was to provide “jazz and women for American soldiers.”61

Almost powerless to stop fraternization between American men and Japanese women under these circumstances, the U.S. Army resorted to scare tactics to try to keep men from overindulging. The American media and even the military leadership depicted geishas as dangerous seductresses. An army pamphlet (quoted in Time magazine) warned servicemen in 1945 that Japanese women “do as their men tell them, and many of them have been told to kill you. Sex is one of the oldest and most effective weapons in history. The Geisha girl knows how to wield it charmingly. She may entice you only to poison you. She may slit your throat. Stay away from the women of Japan—all of them.”62

This state-sponsored prostitution lasted until 1946, when the spread of venereal disease—which was generally blamed on women, who were consequently subjected to detainment and forced pelvic examinations—became so rampant among the military clientele of the brothels that the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP) was compelled to shut down the RAA. The nightclub scene catering to GIs, however, continued through the Occupation and beyond its official end. Some women moved directly from the sex trade into the entertainment industry. A large venue, like those in Tokyo’s Ginza district, might employ eighty women as hostesses and waitresses and several hundred performers.63 After the outlawing of public prostitution, however, most of the comfort women who worked for the RAA were subsequently sent off without any additional reimbursement, many infected with syphilis or gonorrhea.64 This was by no means the end of all prostitution. Now essentially deregulated, private prostitution flourished, practiced by women known as panpan in Japanese and as “Baby-san” by the GIs. Some estimates place the number of prostitutes in Japan by the Occupation’s midpoint at 59,000, though this number might be skewed by the fact that little social distinction was made between sex workers and other women in serious, long-term relationships with soldiers.65

Bill Hume cartoon of “Babysan” dancing in an American Servicemen’s club (published in 1953)

For Americans, “Baby-san” was desirable because she was more submissive and eager to please than the women back home. At the same time, American GIs believed that their behavior toward Japanese women was helping to liberate them, and they rationalized their actions—and even sexual violence—by believing in their own superiority over Japanese men. The new constitution imposed on Japan by its occupiers did include legal reforms benefitting women, including the right to vote. On the other hand, Japanese women had almost no recourse against abuse or neglect by American servicemen. Only thirty-nine percent of approximately five thousand Occupation babies were supported by their American fathers, and their Japanese mothers were often financially devastated and socially outcast.66 Paternity determined citizenship at the time, so biracial children of servicemen were not considered Japanese citizens. And, between 1950 and 1959, Eugenic Protection Commissions ordered compulsory sterilizations of more than eight thousand women with an aim of preventing the births of mixed-race children.67

Still, many of the panpan actively sought out GIs as patrons, who would trade cigarettes, cosmetics, and cash for sexual favors. Some panpan made themselves up to look like Hollywood starlets in the hopes of attracting an American, while others donned kimonos in efforts to play to exotic geisha fantasies.68 Such conduct made the panpan into what Takemae Eiji has described as a “despised underclass,” as they “challenged the sexual authority of Japanese men while rejecting traditional female roles.” 69 Unlike the public prostitutes who had to perform their services indiscriminately and who were generally subjected to poor treatment, however, panpan could be loyal—or relatively loyal—to a single customer for the length of his stay in Japan. They also learned to speak what Dower describes as “a polyglot form of English, a hybrid mix of hooker’s Japanese and the GI’s native tongue that was sometimes called ‘panglish,’” which allowed them to communicate verbally with their Joes.70

I wish to conclude by asking: how do we understand the language of “Fujiyama Mama” in this context?

Japanese Covers

The highest-paid musician in Japan’s entertainment industry in 1956, and the third-highest paid citizen in the entire country, was a teenaged girl. During the same era when her counterparts in the United States like Wanda Jackson were struggling to succeed in the music business, Misora Hibari’s celebrity was so great that her handlers would not allow her in public except to perform.71 

Hibari was the most famous of the many young women who dominated the Japanese music industry in the 1950s in every venue from military nightclubs to broadcast singing competitions to the tops of the popularity charts.72 “Nowhere is the child entertainer stronger than in the field of American-style singing,” a newspaper correspondent wrote from Tokyo in 1955. “The popularity of juvenile singers, nearly all girls, has helped push Japan’s record industry into a place not far below the nation’s wealthy movie studios as the biggest money-making industry in the country.”73 Although feminine gender roles were widely considered to be even more constraining in Japan than they were in the United States, some of the most popular and economically successful singers were girls and women. And in the late 1950s, many of them were performing rock and roll.74

Misora Hibari in the 1950s

Hibari launched her career singing boogie-woogie numbers as a child star. One Japanese women’s magazine tied her success to the nation’s failures, though without mentioning her by name: “That those boogie-woogie numbers shouted through a wide-open mouth would touch people’s hearts is no doubt a technique that arises from the postwar sense of liberation, but when we encounter a wicked boogie-woogie number skillfully sung and danced by an innocent young singer, it only reinforces our sense of being a defeated nation.”75  Although Hibari became famous later in her career for singing enka, a genre thought of as more authentically Japanese, during the 1950s, she was known for her imitations of American songs—and for her Western fashion sense. “In the current vogue for teen-age chanteuses,” noted the New York Times, “others have risen to challenge Hibari’s supremacy, but the Yokohama fishmonger’s daughter is still the champion. . . . She is typical of the ‘new’ Japanese girl with her pert short bob, and chic frock. Her modest demeanor, coupled with the aura of glamour around her, makes her what every Japanese girl aspires to be these days—a combination of Madame Butterfly and Betty Grable.”76 Physical descriptions of Hibari in the American press echo GI portrayals of “Baby-san,” the girl who perfected the art of substituting for American women. As one sailor wrote: “To the strains of the ‘Japanese Rhumba,’ this young Japanese girl, with a sailor partner, jives and jitterbugs her way across the clubroom floor. Her slim body, tucked into skirt and sweater, arches to the rocking rhythm. Her comely oriental features slide into a fun loving laugh. She looks Japanese. She looks American. Nice, you think. Incongruous, you think. Sexy, you think.”77

While a number of the Japanese male singers of country music and rockabilly had college educations, many of the female singers who performed and recorded American music came out of the entertainment industry that sprouted up around Occupation military installments. “Tomi” Fujiyama, for example, started out performing shows on American military bases and in clubs and then went on to have a long career recording country music.78

Not unlike the panpan, many of the women who were successful performing American genres of music came from the lower classes and ultimately used their earnings to support their families. “Nearly all the top stars among the juvenile singers come from poor families,” one newspaper report stated, “and therefore have not had a formal education. For girls, this means they are not taught to be shy and retiring in public, and their voices are not ruined for Western-style singing by the completely different requirements of Japanese singing.”79 Western styles perhaps also traversed gender lines more easily in Japan because they did not have the same associations they had in America. Rockabiri, as it was known in Japan, was not a narrow style associated with white men from the South—it was virtually any style of music that might be called “rock and roll” in the English-speaking world. And, as Michael Bourdaghs explains, “the boundaries of the new genre were quite loose, and even singers associated primarily with enka tried their hands at it.”80

Three of Japan’s most famous enka singers—Hibari, Izumi Yukimura, and Chiemi Eri—who also performed together as a supergroup known as the “Three Girls,” all recorded rokabiri numbers during the fifties. Each of these stars came to the genre after recording other styles of American music, including GI songs, country music, and big band jazz. Eri, for example, made a cover version of Bill Haley’s “Rock around the Clock” that includes nearly a minute of free-form scat singing; her spirited cover of Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” precedes Brenda Lee’s by several years.

Clip: Chiemi Eri, “Rock around the Clock”

These young performers were dubbed “‘parrot’ singers” by one Australian paper, which explained how the songs were learned by rote: “Although virtually none of the audience can understand a word of English, the Japanese singers spend hours sitting in a room with a gramophone, listening to the latest recordings by Joni James or Dinah Shore.”81 American women frequently provided models for these cover versions; while American audiences passed up so many recordings by women—or never had a chance to hear them in the first place—Japanese performers sought them out. Izumi Yukimura’s recording of “Great Balls of Fire,” for example, shows that she learned the song not by listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, but rather to Georgia Gibbs.

Clip: Georgia Gibbs, “Great Balls of Fire”
Clip: Izumi Yukimura, “Great Balls of Fire”

Not all of the rockabilly material was of American origins, however. In addition to her covers of American country and pop songs, Hibari also made ventures into original rock and roll songs entirely in Japanese, including “Rockabilly Kenpoh” (“Rockabilly Swordfight”) and “Rockabilly Geisha.” “Rockabilly Kenpoh,” recorded in 1958, features an aural impersonation of fencers that sounds uncannily like Wanda Jackson’s trademark growl.

Clip: Misora Hibari, “Rockabilly Kenpoh”

Arguably, then, Wanda Jackson happened to record “Fujiyama Mama” at a particular moment in history when both Japanese culture and Japanese musical tastes were primed to receive it. This is emphasized by the fact that the song was also covered in the 1950s by at least two Japanese women: Izumi Yukimura and Tamaki Sawa. Yukimura’s version in particular is a close imitation of Wanda Jackson, although she throws in even more growling and squealing than her model. Both of the Japanese renditions of the song retain the references to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and both also insert Japanese-language verses between the original English ones. Yukimura, for example, adds the following reworking of Jack Hammer’s original text, here translated from Japanese:

I’m the famous Fujiyama Mama
Hidden beneath my bare skin whiter than snow
Is the secret dynamite of my passion.
Once I set my mind to it, voila!
It’s burning rock’n’roll like a fiery volcano.

Once exploded nothing can stop me
I’ll sing, dance, yell and throw a fit.
Nobody can stop me, voila!
Fujiyama yama, Fujiyama
It’s love, it’s flame, soaring above the clouds,

Clip: Izumi Yukimura, “Fujiyama Mama”

Whether Yukimura, or any unknown lyricist who provided the new verses, was deliberately evoking the panpan—even subtly—remains uncertain. The sight of prostitutes with soldiers was so common during the years when Yukimura was growing up that panpan asobi, or pretending to be prostitutes, was a children’s activity.83 She told Life magazine in 1961 that she had begun memorizing American lyrics at the age of fifteen and performing them in “cabarets,” so it is not outside the realm of possibility that this view of the song resonated with her, particularly as English and Japanese collided in the lyrics.84 Regardless, John Dower’s summary of the panpan phenomenon rings true in this context: “The panpan openly, brazenly prostituted themselves to the conqueror—while others, especially the ‘good’ Japanese who consorted with the Americans as privileged elites, only did it figuratively. This was unsettling.”85 In other words, every segment of Japanese society during the Occupation and its aftermath could identify at some level with the plight of the panpan.86



What this journey of “Fujiyama Mama” from a relatively unsuccessful R&B record to a smash hit in post-Occupation Japan demonstrates is just how many different factors played into the reception of the song. What Ann Ducille has said about constructions of gender in the 1920s applies equally well here: “the many colliding ideologies, colluding imperatives, and conflicting agendas of the era make it difficult to determine definitively who constructed whom.”87  Similarly, in arguing against reductionist theories of female empowerment/disempowerment, philosopher Monique Deveaux writes that such reductions can “[obscure] the complex ways in which gender is constructed, and the fact that differences among women—age, race, culture, sexual orientation, and class—translate into myriad variations in responses to ideals of femininity and their attendant practices.”88 Analysis of women’s musical performances therefore should do more to address intersectionality, asking not just “is the music empowering?” but who it empowers, how it accomplishes this, and in what context.

More than a half-century after she first recorded “Fujiyama Mama,” Wanda Jackson still performs it in concert—complete with the references to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Having long outlived many of her male contemporaries from the first wave of rock and roll as well as the other women who recorded the song, Jackson has the advantage of being able to provide the context for most people who listen to “Fujiyama Mama” today. The Cold War rhetoric and Japanese references have less immediacy now, and the story she chooses to tell has little to do with prostitutes, “parrot” singers, or an atom bomb named “Gilda.” Instead, she speaks about a song that was simply ahead of its time. Of course, “Fujiyama Mama” was very much a product of its time, as I hope to have shown. Whatever reasons American audiences in the mid-twentieth century may have had for their reluctance to accept twenty-year-old Wanda Jackson singing the song, one thing is certain: contemporary audiences love the woman who sings it now. In that sense, perhaps the song has become a symbol of power. It is only by looking at the many meanings Jackson’s records had for listeners in the fifties, however, that we can appreciate how things have changed.


Epilogue: I did most of the work on this article in 2012. When I met Wanda Jackson for the first time in the summer of 2018, we talked a little bit about “Fujiyama Mama.” She didn’t recall having heard any of the covers from the fifties by Japanese women, at least not any with verses in Japanese. We listened to a bit of Hibari’s together.


  1. Wanda Jackson in concert at Skipper’s Smokehouse, Tampa Florida, 16 February 2009. See YouTube video VpXb8igC2X0 (accessed 15 August 2012).
  2. Morrison, Go Cat Go, 132.
  3. Schloss, Starr, and Waterman, Rock, 71–3.
  4. For a discussion of the discursive definition of rock—and its gendered nature—see Coates, “It’s a Man’s, Man’s World.”
  5. Dean, Rock ’n’ Roll Gold Rush, 139.
  6. Sanjek, “Fujiyama Mama,” 140. Jackson’s recording was actually made in late 1957.
  7. McClary, Feminine Endings, 154.
  8. Solie, “Whose Life,” 220.
  9. Sanjek, “Fujiyama Mama,” 143.
  10. Jeffrey Magee, “Irving Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’: Ethnic Affiliations and Musical Transformations,” Musical Quarterly 84, no. 4 (2000): 538.
  11. Geerhart and Sitz, Atomic Platters, 42.
  12. Copyright for “Fujiyama Mama” was filed on 30 November 1954. “Great Balls of Fire” was popularized by Jerry Lee Lewis, but Georgia Gibbs, a prominent female pop singer of the era, also recorded the song.
  13. Hammer’s authorized website, www.jack-h.com, is one of the sources that states that he was born in 1940 (last accessed 5 September 2012).
  14. See Billboard, “Jack Hammer,” 3 February 1958. Queries I made through jack-h.com and Hammer’s Facebook fan page in 2012, but although a relative indicated he might speak to me about the song, he never did.
  15. See the “Entertainment” feature of Jet in the 4 December 1958 and 3 September 1959 issues.
  16. “Record Reviews,” Billboard, 19 Feb 1955.
  17. Only a few weeks after Allen’s recording of “Fujiyama Mama” was released, Variety printed an influential editorial titled “A Warning to the Music Business,” arguing that more self-censorship was needed within the industry to protect the growing audience of young listeners from the “leer-ics” in rhythm and blues—and echoing nationwide parental concerns over the emergent genre of rock and roll. See Abel Green, “A Warning to the Music Business,” Variety, 23 February 1955.
  18. Carby, “It Jus’ Be Dat Way,” 479.
  19. Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta, 22.
  20. Ducille, “Blue Notes on Black Sexuality,” 421.
  21. See Kathleen Teltsch, “The Chosen Lady,” New York Times, 29 October 1944.
  22. Gaar, She’s a Rebel, 20.
  23. Herm Schoenfeld, “Jocks, Jukes, and Disks,” Variety, 9 March 1955.
  24. See Eileen Barton, interview with Rex Strother, See Eileen Barton, interview with Rex Strother (accessed 20 April 2012).
  25. Boyer, Bomb’s Early Light, 10.
  26. Wolfe, “Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb,” 104.
  27. Quoted in Boyer, Bomb’s Early Light, 3.
  28. Geerhart and Sitz, Atomic Platters, 6.
  29. Boyer, Bomb’s Early Light, 11–12.
  30. Geerhart and Sitz, Atomic Platters, 8.
  31. Geerhart and Sitz, Atomic Platters, 42.
  32. Quoted in May, Homeward Bound, 93.
  33. May, Homeward Bound, 93.
  34. Larrabee, “Cultural Context of Sex Censorship,” 686. Bikini was a location in the Marshall Islands were the U.S. tested nuclear weapons beginning in 1946. The swimsuit was so called because of its “explosive” effect.
  35. Sanjek, “Fujiyama Mama,” 140.
  36. Wanda Jackson, oral history interview with Holly George-Warren (recorded in December of 2011) in the collection of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Library and Archives.
  37. Wanda Jackson, oral history interview with Holly George-Warren (recorded in December of 2011) in the collection of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Library and Archives.
  38. See Wanda Jackson, oral history interview with Holly George-Warren (recorded in December of 2011) in the collection of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Library and Archives, and Jackson, The Best of Wanda Jackson, 3. 
  39. Kurosawa, Rutsu, 68. All translations of this source were kindly provided by Motoaki Kashino.
  40. “Record Reviews,” Billboard, 9 December 1959.
  41. La Chapelle, “Country Music and Domesticity,” 40.
  42. Sanjek, “Female Elvis,” 158.
  43. Wanda Jackson, oral history interview with Holly George-Warren (recorded in December of 2011) in the collection of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Library and Archives.
  44. Kurosawa, Rutsu, 71.
  45. Wanda Jackson in concert at Skipper’s Smokehouse, Tampa Florida, 16 February 2009. See YouTube video VpXb8igC2X0 (accessed 15 August 2012).
  46. The Japanese pressing of “Fujiyama Mama” has come up for sale on e-Bay recently and sellers have confirmed that a lyrics sheet in Japanese and English is included. I have not yet been able to verify the accuracy of the translation.
  47. Dower, Embracing Defeat, 26.
  48. McGoldrick, “Annie Laurie to Lady Madonna,” 14.
  49. Stevens, Japanese Popular Music 39; Cope, Japrocksampler, 31.
  50. Stevens, Japanese Popular Music, 40; Furmanovsky, “American Country Music in Japan,” 360.
  51. Waseda, “Looking Both Ways,” 151–52. “Rittoru Dahring,” Time, 14 April 1958.
  52. aseda, “Looking Both Ways,” 151–52
  53. Hosokawa, “Soy Sauce Music,” 124–25.
  54. “GI Apology in ‘Mystery Song’ Causes Stir,” Washington Post, 4 February 1953.
  55. Dower, Embracing Defeat, 137.
  56. Shibusawa, America’s Geisha Ally, 4.
  57. Mire Koikari, “Feminism and the Cold War,” japanfocus.com (accessed 19 August 2012).
  58. Atkins, Blue Nippon, 175.
  59. Dower, Embracing Defeat, 129; Kovner, Occupying Power, 23.
  60. McGoldrick, “Annie Laurie to Lady Madonna,” 14.
  61. Atkins, Blue Nippon, 175.
  62. Quoted in Kovner, Occupying Power, 29.
  63. See Pilzer, Hearts of Pine, 114–15, for the personal account of one female cabaret employee. As in taxi dance halls in America, soldiers could also pay a nominal fee for a dance with a Japanese woman in many of these establishments.
  64. Dower, Embracing Defeat, 131.
  65. Eiji, The Allied Occupation, 71.
  66. Shibusawa, America’s Geisha Ally, 41–43.
  67. Kovner, Occupying Power, 68–69.
  68. Kovner, Occupying Power, 31, 58.
  69. Eiji, The Allied Occupation of Japan, 69.
  70. Dower, Embracing Defeat, 134–35. Panpan who were devoted to one patron were known as “onlies” (or onriis in Japanese).
  71. See “Japan’s ‘Lark of the Beautiful Sky,’” New York Times, 9 June 1957; and “Writing Pays in Japan,” New York Times, 31 March 1957. Hibari’s reclusive lifestyle was founded in part on an event that occurred in 1957: a young woman, reportedly jealous of Hibari’s beauty, threw sulphuric acid in the singer’s face in a failed attempt to disfigure her.

    Japanese names here will be presented with given name first, family name last.
  72. Furmanovsky, “American Country Music in Japan,” 364–65.
  73. “Huge Salaries in Japan Are Being Earned by ‘Parrot’ Singers,” Sydney Morning Herald, 1 May 1955.
  74. Rockabilly music may have even owed some of its popularity in Japan to a woman named Misa Watanabe, also known as “Madame Rockabilly.” Watanabe acted as manager to Masaaki Hirao, “the Japanese Elvis.” See Peter Robinson, “Honourable Rock Rocks Japan,” Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1958.
  75. Quoted in Bourdaghs, J-Pop, 56.
  76. “Japan’s ‘Lark of the Beautiful Sky,” New York Times, 9 June 1957. See also Bourdaghs, J-Pop, 51.
  77. John Annarino in Hume, Babysan: A Private Look at the Japanese Occupation, 10.
  78. See http://www.tomifujiyama.com (accessed 12 September 2012).
  79. “Huge Salaries in Japan Are Being Earned by ‘Parrot’ Singers,” Sydney Morning Herald, 1 May 1955.
  80. Bourdaghs, J-Pop, 87.
  81. “Huge Salaries in Japan Are Being Earned by ‘Parrot’ Singers,” Sydney Morning Herald, 1 May 1955.
  82. Translation by Motoaki Kashino.
  83. Dower, Embracing Defeat, 110–11.
  84. See “Japan’s Razmatazz Singer,” Life, 24 March 1961.
  85. Dower, Embracing Defeat, 135. Emphasis in original.
  86. See also Eiji, The Allied Occupation, 69.
  87. Ducille, “Blue Notes on Black Sexuality,” 428.
  88. Deveaux, “Feminism and Empowerment,” 227.