Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out



•   One of the characteristic features of Japanese culture is the way in which
    the cultural elements of a variety of lands exist side by side in harmony,
    exerting a constant influence on the existing culture and thus producing a
    new culture as a result. Music is no exception. The music listened to or
    played by the Japanese as part of their daily lives is extremely diverse.
    They enjoy various kinds of traditional Japanese music, Japanese popular
    songs, American pops, Western classics, and so on, although there are
    limits to each type's popularity. While music was once confined primarily
    to live performances in concert, the introduction of radio and later
    television brought it into homes of the masses. The explosive popularity of
    electronic reproducing systems in recent years has made music an almost
    indispensable element in the daily lives of most Japanese.
     Traditional Japanese Music
•   There are two types in traditional Japanese music: art music and folk
    music. Art music has several different styles, each of which was
    established separately in different periods of Japanese history. The
    Japanese have maintained those time-honored styles, modifying them as
    time has passed. In general, vocal music plays a more important role than
    instrumental music in the history of Japanese music. Besides, traditional
    Japanese music often developed as a part of drama such as Noh, Kabukl,
    and Bunraku.
    Gagaku-Ancient Court Music
•   The first significant development in the history of Japanese music took
    place in the Heian Period (794-1192 A.D), While Japanese music which
    had been popular among common people was being sophisticated, all
    kinds of music from various Asian countries In the previous two centuries
    were being assimilated and modified, acquiring distinct Japanese
    characteristics. Gagaku is the music which was performed mainly at
    Court among the powerful nobility and upper classes.
•   Gagaku is classified into three categories: original foreign music, pure
    Japanese music, and music composed in Japan using influences from
    other countries. The representative genre of Gagaku has its origin in
    China, Korea, and other countries in Southeast Asia or South Asia, and is
    divided into two types such as To-gaku or music of Chinese origin, and
    Komagaku or music of Korean origin. It is orchestral music without any
    vocal part. The music is known as Kangen and when accompanied by
    dancing is called Bugaku.
    Gagaku-Ancient Court Music
•   Pure Japanese music, called Kokufu kabu or Japanese Song Dance, is
    vocal music with instrumental accompaniment. It is based on very ancient
    music performed at shrine rites as well as Court ceremonies. The last
    category includes Saibara with its origin in folk songs and Roei for
    chanting Chinese poems. They are accompanied with instrumental music.
•   Instruments used in Gagaku are mouth organs, flageolite-type
    instruments, flutes, drums, and zither. Arrangements of these instruments
    differ depending on the genre of music. Gagaku is performed at Court,
    shrines, and some temples. Recently it has attracted young people's
    attention and is sometimes used in contemporary music. (For additional
    information, refer to Facts about Japan: GAGAKU).
•   In addition to Gagaku, another important music style, Shomyo, was
    formed during the Heian Period. It is vocal music used in Buddhist
    services and became a very significant source of Japanese vocal music
    which developed later.
•   During the Kamakura Period (1192 1333 A.D), through the Muromachi
    Period (1338-1573 A.D.), there was a steady growth of folk theatrical arts
    from shrine ritual plays and peasant rice-planting dances. By the end of
    the 14th century, there had developed the artistic Noh drama with its own
    music called Nohgaku, and dancing known as Shimai. Noh is highly
    stylized and symbolic drama, and is usually performed by a few male
    actors and musicians. A main character often wears a mask which fits its
•   Nohgaku has two elements in it: vocal and instrumental. The vocal
    part called Utai is performed by both actors and a chorus of eight
    male singers and tells the story. This vocal part which is derived
    from Shomyo (Buddhist chanting) includes singing and speech
    stylized m a definite pattern of intonation. Singing is not always
    accompanied with instruments. The instrumental part known as
    Hayashi consists of a bamboo flute, or nohkan, and three drums,
    ko-tsuzumi, o-tsuzumi, and taiko. Taiko is not used in all pieces of
    the Noh. The flute, the only melodic instrument, produces several
    short melody patterns. The ko-tsuzumi and o-tsuzumi are played
    mostly by bare hands while the taiko is played by two drumsticks.
    Short and sharp shouts by drum performers known as kakegoe
    also play important musical roles enhancing the tension of the
•   Nohgaku had been patronized by the higher military class which
    was the most powerful social level in Japan. After the Meiji
    Restoration when the old hierarchy was discarded, it tried to win
    new patrons and succeeded in attracting the nobility and wealthy
    people. Nowadays, it is gaining support from among the general
    public, too.
                 Shakuhachi, Koto
                   and Shamisen
•   The Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573 1603 A.D.), is important in the
    historical development of several instruments. The primitive recorder was
    modified to become the artistic shakuhachi, while the old court zither
    became the more sonorous koto. The shamisen (a three-stringed
    balalaika-type guitar) also took on its present shape. All these instruments
    achieved great popularity in the Edo Period (1603-1868) by various
•   Shakuhachi was originally played as a part of a Zen service or practice
    and was the favorite instrument among wandering Buddhist priests.
    Although the shakuhachi became a purely musical instrument performed
    by musicians, solo pieces with strong religious significance are still
    regarded as the most important form of shakuhachi music. It also started
    to be used with the shamisen and koto as pure music without emphasizing
    its religious background.
                 Shakuhachi, Koto
                   and Shamisen
•   The music for koto is called Sokyoku. Sokyoku had been composed,
    played, and transmitted solely by the blind while women and girls in the
    higher military and wealthy merchant classes learned it as part of their
    cultural education. Two major schools of Sokyoku, the Ikuta school and
    the Yamada school, were founded in the Edo Period. Most of the pieces
    performed by the Ikuta school have their sources in Jiuta which is a genre
    of vocal music accompanied by the shamisen. They often accompany
    singing together with the shamisen. However, the primary characteristic
    of this school is its emphasis on instrumental technique unlike other
    traditional art music. Even a vocal piece has an independent instrumental
    part which has beauty as absolute music. On the other hand, the Yamada
    school puts its stress on the vocal elements rather than the instrumental
    elements. It is characterized by its narrative singing. Both the Ikuta and
    the Yamada schools include in their repertoires some selections which do
    not have vocal parts.
                 Shakuhachi, Koto
                   and Shamisen
•   The shamisen is used for accompaniment of two types of vocal music:
    melodious singing and narrative singing. The former type of shamisen
    music developed in two different directions, Jiuta and Nagauta; Jiuta has
    been enjoyed as pure music, following an independent existence as music
    itself; Nagauta was formed as accompaniment for dancing in traditional
    Kabuki dramas. Later Nagauta has come to be played by itself without
    dancing in much the same way as the original was played as an
    accompaniment for dancing. Several styles of shamisen music have been
    derived from these two major types.
•   Narrative singing has also several styles of music such as Gidayu-bushi,
    Kiyomoto, 70ki~axu, and Shin'nai. Gidayu-bushi is mainly used for telling
    the story in the Bunraku puppet theater. Kiyomoto and Tokiwaxu are
    often used as accompaniment for dancing in Kabuki. But they are also
    performed as independent music as is Shin'nai. During the Edo Period,
    the shamisen be came the favorite instrument in the entertainment district
    of larger cities. Shakuhachi, koto, and shamisen are often used in trio as
                          Folk Songs
•   A great number of folk songs exist in different provinces in Japan. Most
    of these songs were originally associated with religious events or daily
    labor, such as farming, fishing, working in the mountains, and packhorse
    driving. However, now that the lifestyles which generated those songs
    have drastically changed, they have lost their relationship to the original
    functions and are generally sung for recreational purposes except in the
    Okinawa region where folk songs are still alive in daily life. At the same
    time, the regionality of each song has almost been lost due to the
    development of the mass media. The great majority of folk songs sung
    today were formed in the Edo Period and after. Although the origin of
    folk songs is essentially anonymous, talented poets and composers in the
    1920's undertook to compose folk songs based on the traditional style.
    There are roughly two major musical styles in folk songs: one with free
    rhythm and the other with metric rhythm. The former types are sung by
    one singer and were originally sung when one was packhorse driving. This
    type of song is sometimes accompanied with the shakuhachi. The other
    type is now often accompanied by drums or shamisen. Folk songs are
    popular mainly among the older generations.
                     Popular Music
•   The Japanese also enjoy various types of popular music. Beside Japanese
    popular music which is supported by the largest number of fans,
    American jazz and pops, French chansons, Latin music from South
    America, and canzone from Italy have always attracted many enthusiasts.
    In recent times, moreover, rock, soul, and folk music from the U.S. have
    won widespread popularity, especially among the younger generations.
    Hit numbers and songs are broadcast on radio and television, while
    foreign TV shows of pop music have been introduced into Japan.
    Moreover, pop music is constantly performed live and is available on
    records or tapes, or by cable broadcasts in restaurants and coffee shops,
    extensively permeating the people'.s daily life.
•   Popular music numbers and songs, which have become hits in Europe and
    the U.S., are almost immediately introduced and played in Japan, and
    recordings are promptly put on sale. A wide range of foreign performers
    are constantly--and very successfully--appearing in concert in Japan.
    Those songs are also sung by Japanese popular singers either in the
                     Popular Music
•   The music that receives the broadest sup port from the public in general is
    Japan's own original popular music called kayo kyoku. People enjoy not
    only listening to kayo-kyoku songs in live concerts and on radio and
    television, but also singing them to taped orchestral accompaniment in
    bars or at home.
•   The basic styles of kayo-kyoku were established in the late 1910's through
    the early 1920's. They were from the musical style of songs originally
    composed for school education. The scales used in school music and kayo-
    kyoku are a blending of Western and Japanese scales. Melodies based on
    those pentatonic scales are often characterized by trills and grace notes
    which are commonly seen in traditional folk songs and the shamisen
    music of earlier times. While keeping such basic styles as a major element
    of kayo-kyoku, its form has been widened under the influence of Western
    popular songs. In those selections of the new style, melodies are more
    sophisticated and rhythm is more articulated with a strong beat.
                     Popular Music
•   In the 1960's, the English rock group, the Beatles, and American folk
    singers such as Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Brothers Four, and Joan Baez
    exerted a great influence on the youth of that day, fostering ideas of
    harmony and deep concern for the nuances of rhythm that had not
    originally been a part of the Japanese approach to music. Exposed to the
    method of expressing one's own assertions or feelings in the form of a
    song, the younger generation started to compose their own tunes and
    lyrics, and to play them by themselves. Many amateur groups were
    formed, and various rock and folk bands began to hold concerts in all
    parts of Japan, winning many followers but also refining their own music
    and eventually be coming able to attract a wide range of sup porters.
    Pieces composed by those people after the "Beatles" generation are
    musically more Westernized than ever before.
       Japanese Children’s Songs
•   Japanese children's songs can be divided into the traditional and the
    modern. While the former have been sung by the Japanese over many
    centuries, the latter started to appear around 1918 after the end of World
    War I when a movement was begun to create new songs for Japanese
    children. There are different types of traditional songs for children in
    Japan, including lullabies, play songs, and festival songs. Songs for
    smaller children since older times are about rope-skipping, kite-flying,
    cat's cradle, battledore and shuttlecock, and hide-and-seek.
•   The movement for new children's songs which started at the end of
    World War I produced many songs reflecting the joys of childhood days.
    Celebrated writers and poets composed many excellent songs at that time.
    The writers' reminiscences of their childhood used to be favorite themes
    in these modern children's songs. Today, poets and composers are
    creating songs for children more directly expressing the children's own
    feelings and aspirations.
                    Western Music
•   The Meiji Restoration of 1868 in Japan opened a new era in which Japan
    emerged from feudal isolation into the world community of nations.
•   In those days, Western music was extensively introduced, especially in
    public education, as part of a concerted effort to modernize the nation.
    For the purpose of promoting musical education, a music re search
    institute (the Ongaku-torishirabe sho) was established in 1880 and
    musical textbooks, which combined Western and Japanese styles of music,
    were published for the first time. Instrumental music from the West
    permeated the general public through performances by the military bands
    of the Army and the Navy, organized with the cooperation of foreign
    countries such as Britain, France and Germany.
                     Western Music
•   As for the education of professional musicians, the Tokyo Music
    School (which succeeded the Ongaku-torishirabe-sho and became
    the Music Department of the Tokyo National University of Fine
    Arts and Music in 1949) was established in 1887. In the second
    decade of the 20th century, private music schools, the predecessors
    of the present private universities of music, were founded in major
    cities such as Tokyo or Osaka. Professional musical education has
    its roots in the widespread musical education of children at home,
    and there are many private classes, large and small, for helping
    such home education. Conspicuous among them are such large-
    scale musical education systems as Suzuk Shin'ichi's Talent
    Education Research Institute and the Toho Musical Class.
•   Every conceivable form of Western music is performed, composed,
    and enjoyed in Japan today. At the apex of musical performance
    groups is the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) Symphony
    Orchestra in Tokyo with a sixty-year history. Tokyo and other large
    cities have a fairly large number of professional orchestras and
    even a number of amateur ones.
                    Western Music
•   There are also many performing groups for chamber music, which also
    has a large following. Participation in choruses and brass bands is also
    very popular. It is estimated that several hundreds of thousands of people
    are singing as members of choruses at lower and upper secondary schools
    and universities and other amateur chorus groups throughout the
•   Concerts, recitals, and performances of opera and ballet draw large
    audiences with programs of works by composers ranging from Bach to
    the most modern experimentalists.
•   There are many opera lovers in Japan, but presenting opera is not easy
    since Japanese theaters as a rule do not have the facilities required for
    such an undertaking. However, in recent years more and more fine
    singers are appearing. In addition to the numerous performances of opera
    from abroad, Japanese companies give increasingly fine performances,
    and there is now a plan to establish a Second National Theater for opera.
                    Western Music
•   Many composers are also active in Japan's musical world, the best-known
    of them being Takemitsu Toru.
•   Every year, besides the performances by Japanese musicians there is a
    steady flow of celebrated foreign musicians and organizations coming to
    perform in Japan.
•   Japanese musicians themselves are per forming overseas frequently and
    are achieving a growing international reputation. Individual conductors
    are also drawing attention abroad, such as Ozawa Seiji, now music
    director of the Boston Symphony in the United States, and Wakasugi
    Hiroshi, who has conducted many European orchestras.
•   Other internationally known musicians include conductors Iwaki
    Hiroyuki and Akiyama Kazuyoshi; pianists Sonoda Takahiro and Uchida
    Mitsuko; violinists Eto Toshiya and Ushioda Masuko; and vocalists
    Okamura Takao and Azuma Atsuko.
             New Japanese Music
•   The preservation as well as development of Japanese music in its classical
    forms is not being neglected and many composers including Miki Minoru
    and Ishii are actively working on modern compositions in the traditional
    styles. Especially in the fields of koto music and more recently of
    shakuhachi music as well, many excellent composers are trying to
    combine Japanese traditional forms and the Western style. One group
    dedicated to cultivating new Japanese music within its classical tradition
    is the Ensemble Nipponica, formed in 1964 and consisting of distinguished
    soloists and composers. While a chamber orchestra complete with
    Japanese wind, string, and percussion instruments, it has a broad
    repertoire using all or some of the instruments, or at times a single
    instrument in solo performance, in forms approaching the Western style
    of composition. Yonin-no-kai Tokyo is also making active efforts in this
    field both in Japan and abroad.

To top