of Traditional Japanese Music
Traditional Japanese music, or hogaku, literally means the music of one’s
homeland. Most music dictionaries define hogaku as a general term for
Japanese music that includes gagaku, which can be described as imperial court
music, and shomyo, which covers liturgical chants in Buddhist music and
folk songs. However, hogaku does not in most cases include Ainu and Okinawa
music. Today in Japan, we are exposed daily to music from different countries
and cultures, and hogaku accounts for only a small fraction.
A Japanese music scholar was quoted as saying, "Japanese music was first
impaired when Western music was imported to Japan during the move toward civilization
and enlightenment in the Meiji period, and then by American culture that exploited
the country after Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War." As the quote
indicates, music education in Japan since the Meiji period was based on European
and Western classical music. This music was taught as the only "real"
music; vocalization of Belcanto was considered beautiful, while the husky or thick
vocals of gidayu and rokyoku were said to be distasteful. Such
beliefs, which continued for 100 years, stripped homeland music from people’s
It comes as no surprise to find that many people of the Beatles generation who
have tried playing the guitar at some point in their lives, but you would find
hardly anyone trying the shamisen; likewise, many children take piano lessons
but not koto lessons. Many Japanese associate traditional music with the background
music played on TV or at department stores during the New Year holidays.
However, there was a period during which traditional music returned to the spotlight.
After World War II, a new style of music emerged. It was a cross between traditional
and Western classical music, and was referred to as "contemporary traditional
music." This genre experienced a boom from around 1964. "November Steps,"
composed by TAKEMITSU Toru, incorporated the shakuhachi by YOKOYAMA Katsuya
and the biwa by TSURUTA Kinshi with the sounds of a classical orchestra. Shakuhachi
master YAMAMOTO Hozan in Ginkai (Silver World) also tried playing jazz with his
shakuhachi. Both of these events created a new form of music that went beyond
the framework of East and West, capturing the hearts of the young generation.
Many hogaku musicians then in their 40s and 50s decided on their profession
after being shocked by this new movement toward contemporary traditional music.
Contemporary traditional music trends since the 1990s
In the 1990s, people started to show renewed interest in hogaku thanks
to its new form. This was after the international music trend of young musicians
forming bands that used the instrumental techniques applied to pop music. At the
time, the media reported on the popularity of these bands, and some even went
on TV but that fad passed quickly.
Meanwhile, talented young musicians were also seeking ways to attract listeners
from their generation. For those people who experienced equal temperament scale
and music from the West during compulsory education, there does not seem to be
much difference between Western and traditional music. They find both worth listening
to and consider them both as modes of expression.
For example, Tsugaru shamisen player KINOSHITA Shinichi hangs a shamisen on his
shoulder with a strap instead of sitting with his legs folded under him and strums
it like a guitar. He has been doing this since his days as a member of a backing
band to ITO Takio, known as the wayward son of the min'yo (folk song)
world. Kinoshita also participated in a rock band composed of shamisen, Japanese
drums, guitar and conventional drums.
rokyoku actors usually perform
a scene about human feelings and moral obligations, accompanied by shamisen music.
But KUNIMOTO Takeharu wears jeans and sunglasses on the stage and plays an electric
shamisen. This so-called "shamisen rock" attracted new listeners to
a traditional art that was on the verge of extinction. The Den-no-Kai nagauta-shamisen
musical group and the Noh musician ISSO Yukihiro are among the active performers
of such classical stage arts as kabuki and Noh who have also attracted a wide
variety of fans, both male and female and young and old, through their own unique
The movement brought about by the hogaku new wave preceded an unprecedented
shift that was to come at the end of the 1990s. This is when big stars appeared,
attracting people to hogaku for the first time in their lives.
TOGI Hideki, a forerunner in the movement, is a hichiriki (Japanese flageolet)
player for gagaku. He studied gagaku as one of the musicians of the Imperial Household
Agency, and after his retirement, he started a career as a soloist. At the time,
the popularity of therapeutic music helped him capture the attention of many women
listeners. His noble-looking features contributed to his successful career, he
appeared on TV dramas and had a collection of his photographs published, reaching
unprecedented popularity in the world of hogaku. People in the hogaku
world were taken by surprise when the Yoshida brothers, a Tsugaru shamisen playing
duo, became popular. They appeared in traditional formal black kimono and had
their hair dyed brown, a radical step in the world of traditional art.
The brothers were very good at promoting themselves, and this contributed to their
success. Many hogaku musicians handle their own promotional activities,
but Togi and the Yoshida brothers both have agencies and record companies that
are aggressively involved in their promotion. These two successes proved that
hogaku could become popular. Seeing the potential for this market, the
music industry began scouting new talent.
Results started to show in 2000. Young, good-looking musicians like shakuhachi
player FUJIWARA Dozan and Tsugaru shamisen player AGATSUMA Hiromitsu became widely
recognized through appearances on TV. The concerts by these musicians were continuously
packed. Soon after a documentary program on Tsugaru shamisen player KINOSHITA
Shinichi was aired, a photo-journal put together an article on AGATSUMA Hiromitsu.
One musician even appeared in the gossip column of a sports newspaper.
Critics say this popularity is based on the way performers look rather than the
way they play. But it is also true that Tsugaru shamisen players tend to improvise
much as jazz musicians do, and the unmatched techniques of Agatsuma and Kinoshita
are tied closely to them looking good. In fact, they are making significant contributions
by increasing the number of young people who actually want to become musicians
This transition is helping to create a climate for rediscovering Japanese culture.
This is largely due to the declining influence of Western music as international
music has been attracting more followers. People who began listening to various
types of ethnic music found freshness in Japanese traditional music in the same
manner that they did in Bulgarian voices and the Indonesian gamelan.