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Performing Arts Network Japan
Kojun Arai
Kojun Arai
Born in Saitama Pref. in 1944, Arai completed the graduate course in literature at Koyasan University with a major in ancient Indian religion. He studied Busan Shomyo of the Shingon sect under Grand Priest Yuko Aoki and since has performed traditional and contemporary words of shomyo, gagaku and music at the National Theater, Tokyo, and widely, including foreign tours.
He has performed in the 1973 “Japanese Tradition and Avant-garde Music” world tour, the 1986 Berlin Invention Festival and France’s Autumn Arts Festival, the 1990 Donaueschinger Musiktage Contemporary Music Festival and the Sydney shomyo performance of the 2006 Japan-Australia Exchange Year program. In 1997 he joined with Tendai sect shomyo performing priests in establishing the “Shomyo-no-kai – Voice of a Thousand Years” (successor to the Shomyo Yonin no Kai) group and worked actively to preserve and promote the spread the performance and appreciation of the ancient works and of shomyo while also working actively to encourage the production of new shomyo works. As a researcher of the Ueno Gakuin Japan Music Document Research Institute, he also researches shomyo scores. He is a guest lecturer at the National Music University. He is also a member of the Kalavinka shomyo research group. He is head priest of Hogyokuin temple in Tokorozawa city, Saitama Pref.

The Buddhist Monks’ Choir “Shomyo Yonin no Kai”
Founded in 1997 at the suggestion of National Theater Director Hiromi Tamura and the Kaibunsha producer Junko Hanamitsu, this group was launched as a ecumenical gathering of shomyo performing priest led by Kojun Arai and Yusho Kojima of the Shingon sect and Koshin Ebihara and Jiko Kyoko of the Tendai sect. The group works to introduce classic works from the shomyo repertoire while also encouraging the production and performance of new works of shomyo through its regular “Spiral Shomyo Concert Series. In 2003 the group name was changed to “Shomyo-no-Kai – Voice of a Thousand Years.”
view clip
The Voice of A Thousand Years “A UN”
March 31, 1999 at the Spiral Garden, Tokyo
an overview
*1 Shichi Bongo no San
A verse of scripture praising the wisdom and virtue of Buddha, transcribed from the Sanskrit into Chinese characters, chanted in original verse with original phrases. Shichi Kango no San is the one which is transcribed into Chinese and arranged in Chinese style.

*2 Shari San Dan
A verse of scripture in adulation of the Buddhist relics (bone fragments of the Buddha, Sakyamuni) as blessed remnants. It was composed by Ennin, the priest who brought Tendai shomyo to Japan from China and is the oldest shomyo chant in Japanese that has been handed down through the Tendai sect. It is chanted in the “Jorakue” (Nehan) ceremony commemorating the Buddha’s attainment of Nirvana, which is a ceremony where priests and lay people worship the Buddha together and therefore uses many Japanese shomyo such as Shiza Koshiki or Shiza Kowa San that can be understood by the listeners.

*3 Shiza Koshiki
A chant created by the priest Myoe Jonin in the Kamakura period (13th century).It is composed of four formulas, a Nehan Koshiki celebrating the Buddha’s attainment of Nirvana, a Rakan Koshiki celebrating arhat, an Iseki Koshiki and a Shari Koshiki celebrating the relics. The koshiki are scriptures in Japanese and are the roots of Japanese recitation story telling.

Hakase of Tendai Shomyo
Hakase of Tendai Shomyo
Hakase of Shingon Shomyo
Hakase of Shingon Shomyo
Hakase of Shingon Shomyo
Oldest Hakase
Oldest hakase
Artist Interviewアーティストインタビュー
Interview with Kojun Arai -- Bringing the music of the thousand-year-old shomyo chant tradition to concert hall audiences
Among the religious music traditions of the world that have been handed down over the centuries, the Japanese Buddhist chant form known as shomyo has a 1200-year history, which ranks it along with the West’s Gregorian chant as one of the oldest living forms.
Until recently, shomyo was only heard in temples, as monks chanted the Buddhist scriptures in chorus as a form of meditation, but now there is a group of priests who have undertaken the challenge of bringing performances of shomyo to the concert hall and enlisting the talents of contemporary music composers to create new works for the shomyo repertoire. We spoke with Kojun Arai, Head Priest of Hogyokuin temple of the Buzan branch of the Shingon sect and a leading member of this performance group called “Shomyo-no-Kai – Voice of a Thousand Years” to learn about the past and present of shomyo.

(Interview by Junko Hanamitsu on April 27, 2007 at Hogyokuin temple, Tokorozawa city)

All Japanese are familiar with the chanting of Buddhist scripture, but the term “shomyo” is not commonly known. What is the difference between shomyo and the more familiar forms of scripture chanting?
Shomyo is Buddhist scripture that is set to melodic phrasing and chanted at Buddhist ceremonies in temples by a chorus of male monks or priests. You might call it a form of Buddhist canticle which admires Buddha and teachings of Buddhism. It was born in India with the development of Buddhism and was subsequently transmitted to China and the Korean Peninsula before coming to Japan. Buddhism was first brought to Japan in the 6th century, but historical records trace the first appearance of shomyo in Japan to a ceremony for the consecration of the Great Buddha at Todaiji temple in 752 AD. It is written in this record that 10000 priests and monks from all over the nation gather for this ceremony and 420 of them chanted scripture together in the shomyo style.

Can you tell us more about the history of shomyo?
The origins of the word shomyo can be traced back to the name of an ancient Indian (Sanskrit) word for “sabda-vidya” as “the study of language.” In China and Korea, a term that we call bonbai in the Japanese reading, and that was mixed with the Sanskrit some time in our early Kamakura period (13th century) resulting in the term shomyo.
Early in the 9th century Kobo Daishi (Kukai) brought “Shingon Shomyo” to Japan from China, and in the mid-9th century Jikaku Daishi (Ennin) introduced “Tendai Shomyo,” and these traditions developed separately within the different Buddhist sects over the centuries. The most important period of shomyo development was from the Heian Period (9th to 12th centuries) into the Kamakura Period (13th century). It was during this era that the musicology of shomyo, the form of musical notation and the collections of the musical scores were compiled and the methods for teaching them were set down. In 1472 a collection of shomyo scores “Collection of Shomyo 1472 version” was printed at the temple complex of Koyasan, and this is said to be the oldest existing printed musical score in the world. The printing of this collection led to the spread of shomyo throughout the country. And, it is interesting to note that the oldest known printing of scores of Gregorian chant dates to 1473. So, we were just a year earlier (laughs). Talk about music history tends to bring to mind Western classical music, but as this proves, Japan has also made important contributions to the world history of music.

What kinds of music are there in the shomyo tradition?
There are three kinds of shomyo chants that have been handed down to us today. One is the Sanskrit chants from India, the second is the Chinese chants that composed independently in China later on, and the third is the Japanese-language chants composed in Japan. What we use in Buddhist ceremonies in Japan today is a well-arranged mix of the three.
The “Shichi Bongo no San” (*1) chant that is used often today in Buddhist ceremonies dates back to 7th century India. The oldest of the shomyo born in Japan is the “Shari San Dan” (*2) composed by Ennin in 860. Having seen and heard many ancient Korean (Silla Kingdom period) chants during his studies at a Korean temple in China, Ennin probably decided that in order to establish Buddhism in Japan and have it spread among the people, it would be necessary to have chants in Japanese that the people could understand.
If you were to ask how many chants there are in the shomyo repertoire, I would be hard put to answer. And it is hard to say what constitutes one chant, because they are not chanted separately. They exist as components that are put together in different ways for the different Buddhist ceremonies. Also, there are many cases where the same piece of shomyo scripture will be chanted with a completely different melody and rhythm by the different sects.

What are the differences between the shomyo of the two main sects, Shingon and Tendai?
If you listen to them, the difference is clear. Generally speaking, Shingon shomyo has a more masculine and dynamic sound, while Tendai shomyo is said to be more feminine and elegant. The major musical difference between the two is a decorative voice called “yuri,” which is like swinging sounds or tremolo. In the Shingon sect, the “yuri” we use has a rougher sound and we chant each line with breaks in between, and each word has its own intonation. In the Tendai style, each “yuri” is drawn out slowly, and it uses long breaths and therefore has a meditative aspect. Also, the way the scores are written is completely different, so we can’t read each other’s scores. And, there are some shomyo chants that only exist in the Shingon repertoire and vice versa. At the time of the consecration of the Great Buddha at Todaiji temple during the Heian period, the “Shika Hoyo” (4-part recitation consisting of a “Bai” a “Sange” a “Bonnon” and a “Shakujo”) was probably chanted together all the priests of all the sects, but after that, shomyo underwent different courses of development in each sect.

It is certainly an impressive thing to hear the reverberation of the voices of a large group of priests chanting shomyo together in a temple. Is it correct to think of shomyo as basically a form of choral music?
Yes, it is. There are some cases where a senior priest will recite a solo chant like a “Bai” at the beginning of a ceremony, but fundamentally shomyo is chanted in chorus. There is a head priest who leads the chant and he will begin the opening phrase and then all the other priests join in the chant.
In the chants created in India and China, it is simply a matter of stretching out the vowels and adding tonal variety there, but there is by no means any type of musical development that evokes emotional feelings like melancholy or joy. On the other hand, there are also narrative “Koshiki” shomyo chants like the Shiza Koshiki (*3), which is sad in tone because it tells of the death of the Buddha, so we change the pitch (1st, 2nd and 3rd levels) to achieve a more emotional effect. But one of the rules of early Japanese music is that you don’t give blatant expression of human emotions, and it seems that the common practice is to giving musical expression to the different scenes by setting a particular tonal range for each scene in the narrative. That is exactly what you find in the heikyoku recitations of the Tales of the Heike narratives (originating from the 13th century). It probably wasn’t until the Edo period (17th to 19th centuries) that strong expressions of human emotion were introduced.

What are the shomyo scores like?
The shomyo score is called hakase and it has the chant text and notations of the melodic patterns. The form of the sound, in other words the form of the melodic patterns, is learned as one unit, and each chant is made up of a certain combination of melodic patterns. Also, lines are used on the score to represent the cadence or intonation of the voice and the length of the notes in a visually readable system.
After the publication of the first printed scores in 1472 in Koyasan, an instruction book explaining how to interpret the scores was edited in 1496. This was basically the same as the hakase scores used today. However, currently when we teach the young people we use the practice scores which have been further visualized from the real hakase to make them easier to understand. A shomyo score from around the 10th century that was found at Dunhuang, China, and is kept in the British National Library has been called the world’s oldest, but just recently the oldest record is updated when so-called “Neuma” scores written in line form from around the 8th century were found. These scores had supposedly been brought back to Japan by monks who had been sent to study in Korean Silla Kingdom.

Shomyo is usually learned from a master priest by oral transmission, but is choral practice done as well?
There are shomyo classes for the young novice priests in every academy of all sects’ main temple, but basically they learn the choral part naturally by ear in the course of their daily morning routines and the religious ceremonies they participate in. The important thing is to be listening to the mutual resonance. Rather than practicing tonal harmony specifically, I believe that they all learn it naturally in the course of their daily lives in the temple. Of course, the more difficult chants are learned by going to the master priest to be taught, but the more basic chants are learned naturally by hearing them over and over. And what is fascinating is that in the course of that learning distinctly different “voices” have developed at the different temples, like the Koyasan voice and the Hiezan voice and our own Hasedera voice. In the hundreds of years of priests living communal lives at the respective “mountain” temples where novice priests are trained and chanting the scriptures together every morning has led to the development of distinctly different shomyo unique to each temple. I believe that the unique quality of the acoustical environment of the place where the prayer chanting is done is closely related to the quality of shomyo that has developed.
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