The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
An Overview
Latest Trends by Genre: Hôgaku: Traditional Japanese Music
Latest Trends by Genre: Hôgaku: Traditional Japanese Music
Hôgaku in Compulsory Education

Education has always gone through changes to keep up with the times. In 1998, the Ministry of Education (the present Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) revised its curriculum guidelines, making it compulsory, as of 2002, to teach traditional Japanese musical instruments in junior high school music classes. The ministry also included in its primary school guidelines a strong recommendation to use traditional instruments in music classes.

It is now mandatory for college students studying to be music teachers to take courses in traditional Japanese songs and instruments. With this “big bang” in music education—130 years after the previous reformation—teachers and schools that have been studying and teaching Western classical music are making a concerted attempt to change their focus.

The first to react to this shift was the music industry. Leading companies, including Yamaha Corporation, were all eager to develop new instruments. Traditional instruments are very expensive and made from natural materials that are difficult to repair. In addition, these instruments are made by small-scale enterprises that cannot produce the quantity required for schools. The educational changes developed a market for inexpensive, easy-to-manage, mass-produced instruments, and a new range of traditional instruments was created to meet this demand.

In order to reduce costs, drums were made by joining a hollowed out wood log and coating the body in plastic, instead of hollowing out a tree trunk and stretching animal skin over the head—a process that costs several million yen. The koto was shortened to two-thirds its original length for easier handling, and manufacturers used high-density plywood for the body instead of expensive paulownia wood. The cheaper production methods were meant to give people easier access to the instruments and to win more advocates of Hôgaku, including those who were interested but had second thoughts because of the cost. Meanwhile, there was development of instruments to satisfy the desire of musicians seeking a more sonorous sound. This was represented by the electric shamisen, “Mugen 21,” developed in 1990. The emergence of this instrument allowed the shamisen to be played with high-volume drums and synthesizers, and this has further broadened the field for young musicians.

Fewer Barriers Between Music Schools

Hôgaku had for a long time passed on its artistic tradition through ryûha, the branches of schools operated by disciples of the iemoto, the founding family of a school. This system effectively handed down intangible culture in a consistent fashion. At the same time, however, even with the same instrument being used, different schools employ their own methods for music notation and there are constraints on playing with musicians from other schools. Although Japanese classical music is a single category, there is music that certain schools are prohibited from playing because of iemoto rules. This was a factor blocking the musical development of Hôgaku.

However, the rise of young musicians created a spurt of activity that crossed traditional boundaries. Shortly into the new millennium, there was an incident in the shakuhachi world that symbolized this trend. There was a certain shakuhachi solo piece, or honkyoku, that was only passed down to students of the Kinkoryû school at Komusôdera. Students of other schools were not allowed to play it. It was the sort of piece, however, that any shakuhachi player would want to play during the course of a career. In fact, many of them started to learn shakuhachi playing it, and their fascination with it led to great demand to learn it. A group from another school, Tozanryû, finally succeeded in inviting a Kinkoryû player to hold a workshop to teach the piece.

For a while, musicians of the younger generation were opening live-music houses dedicated to Hôgaku, and music competitions featuring traditional instruments and vocals were held at the National Theatre of Japan. As you can see just from these examples, the 1990s saw a transition in the world of Hôgaku that can be described as a period of storm-and-stress. The situation finally settled down around 2005. The live-music houses have closed and the competitions at the National Theater are no longer held. In the wake of the Hôgaku boom, however, the fence separating Japanese and Western music has been lowered, and both are considered music on equal terms. Yet the interest of the media and the public has not reached the real world of classical Japanese music. The growing interest is still in a phase at which people are drawn to novelties like The Beatles songs and other rock pieces played with the koto and shakuhachi. Meanwhile, both koto and shakuhachi advocates are falling in number and fewer people are playing. “Classics are the cream,” says shakuhachi player Yamamoto Hôzan, but there are players emerging who are good in contemporary music but unable to play the classics. The fact is that the new shift is toward a mixture of Japanese and Western music, and current musical expression based on the traditions of Hôgaku has significant room to mature.

Lastly, a brief note on Japanese drums, wadaiko, which have also become very popular overseas. Their popularity comes from the easy-to-learn technique and the wide age range of the drummers. The towns in some regions are taking the initiative in forming drum groups to revitalize the tradition. These steps have resulted in so many professional and amateur groups being formed that the actual figure is unknown. Since World War II, creative drumming developed from regional entertainment like festivals. This is referred to as “contemporary folk art,” although a majority of the performances are fairly standard and there are few professionals who have actually developed the music into something worthy of admiration. In terms of developing the art of wadaiko, Hayashi Eitetsu is an outstanding asset and a trailblazer among soloists. He pursues both artistic quality and refined stage direction. Kodô, a group of which Hayashi was once a member, is notable as a drum group. Among the generation following Hayashi, the works of Hidano Shûichi, Leonard Etô, and Tokyo Dagekidan are attracting attention.
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