The Music of Japan
All Music Guide - Fall 2001
(Used by permission - © 2001 All Music Guide)

by Bruno Deschênes

The Japanese have this unusual quality of assimilating facets of other cultures, and developing them to the point of making them better. The two best examples are their integration of many facets of Chinese cultures - mainly between 1,500 and 800 years ago - and, from the second half of the last century onward, of Western technology and culture. Their contact with China brought the written characters, Buddhism, and many of the Chinese advancements of the time to Japan. But this influence has been especially felt in music and all of the arts.

The period during which China had the most important influence on Japanese music was the Tang Dynasty (608-907 AD). Japan was then sending monks, scholars and musicians to China. From the 7th to the 9th century, the Japanese court looked more like a Chinese court than anything else. In China, Japanese musicians were learning music from the East, South-East and Central Asia, all from Chinese and Korean masters. They brought back with them, various instruments as well as styles of music. In fact, most of today's Japanese traditional instruments are of Chinese origin. Interestingly, from this period of influence by Chinese music, there remains one type of music which is performed pretty much the same as it was a thousand years ago, and it is the Gagaku court music.

It is from the 11th century onward that Japanese music has evolved on its own, independently of Chinese or other Asian influences. You will find below, a short historical presentation of the most important instruments, a general overview of its forms and aesthetics, plus some comments on today's situation of Japanese traditional music.

Japanese Musical Instruments

All of today's Japanese traditional instruments did not come to Japan at the same time. For example, the biwa and the wogen (the first version of the koto), came to Japan during the Tang Dynasty, while the shamisen came to Japan through Okinawa around 1562. The characters used to write the names of the Japanese instruments are the same as in China; the pronunciations differ.

Biwa: A pear-shaped four-stringed lute made of wood, the biwa came to Japan at the beginning of the Nara Period (553-794 AD). By the end of that period, it enjoyed a wide popularity, up until the coming of the shamisen. The biwa has been mostly used to accompany singers who were singing important epic stories of important historical figures, battles and events, the most known being the Heike Monogatari (The Tale of Heike). Plucked with a single plectrum, it has been used more as a percussive instrument than a melodic one. These singers have been for a long time blind musicians. Although there are three main types of biwa, today only one is still commonly in use.

Shakuhachi: This is the well-known Japanese bamboo flute. It came to Japan during the Tang Dynasty as part of the new Gagaku court music, along with other flutes. It was then a short and narrow flute with six holes, which did not become popular at that time. The shakuhachi was somehow revived around the XIIth or XIIIth century, when it was also played by blind monks. It then started to be used by monks as a form of "blowing meditation" (suizen). It was in the XVIIth century that the use of the shakuhachi by the monks of the Fuke sect was institutionalized and was played by komuso monks, who begged in the streets while playing. Also at that time, the instrument went through major changes. It became the instrument of today, made of a thick bamboo, with 5 holes. Gradually the instrument started to be played by non-monks.

Shamisen: A three-stringed lute that is made of a wooden box covered on both side by skins (either cat or dog skins). The shamisen arrived in Japan in the XVIth century from China through Okinawa. At that time, it was covered by snake skin. The original Chinese version and the Okinawa version still use snake skin, while the mainland Japanese version has been changed. The shamisen quickly gained in popularity, replacing the biwa in the then growing merchant classes. It was a most preferred instrument to entertain the samurai. Many versions exist and many styles of playing and singing were created. It is still very popular today. There exist a bowed version of the shamisen, called the kokyû, which is rarely learned and played today.

Koto: The well-known 13-stringed table zither that is made - still today - of paulawnia, a wood found mainly in Siberia. The first zither in Japan was the wagon, which had seven strings, and probably came from the Chinese qin. The Japanese koto was developed from a 13-stringed Chinese form introduced with the Gagaku ensemble. Few versions were created in its history. Today's version comes from the Ikuta school which was created in 1695. However, it went through a few other changes in the late XVIIIth century with the creation of another important school, the Yamada school. In the XXth century, newer versions still, were created. In particular, a 17-stringed bass koto was created by Michio Miyagi and first played in 1921. He was an extremely popular koto player most of his life. In the second half of the XXth century, another player, Tadao Sawai, became extremely popular, by modernizing the style of playing of the instrument.

Other instruments: There are some other interesting instruments in Japan, in particular Japanese percussions, but this would necessitate an essay on its own. Other flutes or wind instruments are still used today. For example, in Gagaku music, a mouth organ, similar to the Chinese sheng, is still used today. Also notable is the hichiriki, a double-reed wind instrument. Among transverse flutes, the nohkan is used in Noh theater, and the shinobue is used in Gagaku and other festival and folk music.

Japanese Musical Forms and Aesthetics

I would like to say few words about the main musical genres in Japanese music known abroad, as well as few words about its aesthetics.

Gagaku music is the court music introduced in Japan during the Tang Dynasty period. It is played today almost exactly as it was played a thousand years ago. It is a very particular type of music, with its slow pace; yet it fills up the "air". It is a music which I find difficult to describe; one has to hear it truly understand what it is. It uses a number of percussion instruments, including a large drum apparently of Korean origin, the sho (mouth organ), the hichiriki (a double-reed type of oboe), the shinobue (a small transverse bamboo flute), the biwa and the koto.

As chamber music, there is what is called Jiuta-Mai. Created around the XVIIth century, the ensemble was originally composed of a koto, a kokyu and a shamisen, the ensemble being called sankyoku (meaning "music for 3 instruments"). It is traditionally the shamisen player who sings. The kokyû being an instrument difficult to keep in tune, was eventually changed to the shakuhachi. The repertoire of Jiuta-Mai were originally shamisen pieces that had been rearranged for the trio. The three instruments play pretty much the same musical lines, while the voice sings a melody of its own. Because it is heterophonic, the three instruments do not need to be continuously present to perform this music. The pieces can be heard in unison (i.e., koto, shamisen or shakuhachi - without singing), and/or in duet (koto and shakuhachi, the voice part being sung by the koto player, koto and shamisen, or shamisen and shakuhachi).

Honkyoku music is the repertoire for solo shakuhachi that was developed by the monks of the Fuke. They rearranged existing pieces and as well wrote new ones. The major changes the shakuhachi went through in the XVIIth century allowed for a major development of the music. The repertoire was further enlarged with the creation of different schools of playing. Although the repertoire became secularized through the schools, the character of the pieces remained somewhat meditative, in line with the buddhist character of the Japanese mind.

Each of the other major instruments, such as the biwa, the shamisen and the koto, developed solo forms of music which greatly influenced each other. The instrument which influenced other forms of stage arts the most is the shamisen; it has been and still is being used intensively in Noh drama, Kabuki theater, Bunraku puppet theater, in folk music.

The main principle in classical Japanese music is what is called "jo-ha-kyo", i.e. an introduction, an exposition and an ending or denouement. This principle, which comes originally from Gagaku music, shapes every aspect of Japanese music, from a single to an entire Noh, Kabuki or Bunraku play, for example. With a single note, the music builds with a crescendo, to a high point / climax, and then declines with a gradual decay. Musical phrases, segments, sections and entire pieces are built on this principle.

Today's Situation

Although Japanese are very good guardians of traditions, their modernization and Westernization has undoubtedly brought dramatic changes in how musical and art traditions are maintained. There has been a major decline in traditional music in the XXth century, and especially following World War II. The percentage of Japanese learning these traditional instruments is very small, although there appears to have been a small comeback since the end of the 1980s. Among the Japanese presently learning the instruments, many are modernizing their uses. In particular, the shakuhachi, the shamisen, the biwa and the koto (with the koto, in particular with Tadao Sawai) are facing a current modernization of their playing styles and associated music.

Moreover, a growing number of Westerners are learning Japanese instruments, in particular the shakuhachi (see my article on the shakuhachi on the All Music Guide). Interestingly, when Westerners learn these instruments, they tend to follow the original traditions, methods, and musical styles at times more closely than the Japanese themselves.

Suggested List of CDs of Traditional Japanese Music

Katsuya Yokoyama, Japon, L'art du Shakuhachi (Ocora, 1997)

Yoshio Kurahashi, Kyoto Spirit. Sparkling (Beatnick Records, 1999)

Kôhachiro Miyata, Japan, Shakuhachi - The Japanese Flute (Elektra Nonesuch)

Yukio Tanaka, Mari Uehara, Shisui Enomoto, Kôgo Tateyama, BIWA, Japanese Traditional Music (KING Record, 1990)

Senzan Tani & Yoko Tanaka, Evening Snow (Oasis, 1988)

Tadao Sawai, Koto Music: Tadao Sawai plays Michio Miyagi (PlayaSounds, 1996)

Toshiko Yonekawa, Koto, Twin Deluxe (Denon, 1997)

Hôzan Yamamoto, Fascination of the Shakuhachi (King Records, 1998)

The Yamato Ensemble, ^The Art of the Japanese Koto, Shakuhachi and hamisen (ARC Music, 1996)

Hirokazu Sugiura & Gosaburo Kineya, Japan: Splendour of the Shamisen (Playasound, 1994)

Junko Ueda, Japan: The Epic of the Heike (VDE, 1990)


For those who would like to enlarge in more details their knowledge of Japanese are invited to read the following books.

Akira Tamba (1988). La théorie et l'esthétique musicale japonaises du 8e au 19e siècle. Paris: Publications orientalistes de France.

William P. Malm (1959/1990). Japanese Music & Musical Instruments. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company

Hugh de Ferranti (2000). Images of Asia: Japanese Musical instruments. Oxford university Press.



© 2002-2004 Bruno Deschênes. Tous droits réservés.
Design de Kwok Minh Tran.
Gravures japonaises de Shizuko Matsunaga.
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