The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist aAn Ovewview.
Contemporary Rendition of Traditional Styles of Japanese Music (Hogaku) Kazumi Narabe (Journalist)  
Contemporary Rendition of Traditional Styles of Japanese Music (Hogaku) Kazumi Narabe (Journalist)  
History 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 lives.
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 live performances.
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 like them.
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.
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