The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
An Overview
Jun. 9, 2010
Latest Trends by Genre: Hôgaku: Traditional Japanese Music  
Latest Trends by Genre: Hôgaku: Traditional Japanese Music  
History of Traditional Japanese Music

Hôgaku means literally the music of one’s homeland. Most music dictionaries define Hôgaku as a general term for Japanese music that includes Gagaku, which can be described as imperial court music, and Shômyô, which covers liturgical chants in Buddhist music and folk songs. However, Hôgaku does not generally include Ainu or Okinawan music. Today in Japan, we are exposed daily to music from different countries and cultures, and Hôgaku accounts for only a small fraction of this.

A Japanese music scholar has been quoted as saying, “Japanese music was first impaired when Western music was imported to Japan during the drive for civilization and enlightenment in the Meiji period (1868–1912), and then by American culture that exploited the country after Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War.” As this quote indicates, music education in Japan since the Meiji period has been based on European and Western classical music. Taught as the only “real” music, vocalization of bel canto was considered beautiful, while the husky or thick vocals of gidayû and rôkyoku were said to be distasteful. Such beliefs, which continued for one hundred years, stripped traditional music from the lives of the general public.

It comes as no surprise to find that many members of the Beatles generation have played the guitar at some point in their lives, but very few have tried the shamisen. Likewise, many children take lessons in piano but not in koto. Many Japanese associate traditional music with the background music played on TV or at department stores during the New Year holidays.

There was, however, one period during which traditional music returned to the spotlight. After World War II, a new style of music emerged that was a cross between traditional Japanese 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 Tôru, incorporated the shakuhachi of Yokoyama Katsuya and the biwa of Tsuruta Kinshi with the sounds of a classical orchestra. Shakuhachi master Yamamoto Hôzan, in his album “Ginkai” (Silver World), also attempted jazz on 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 Hôgaku musicians then in their 40s and 50s chose their profession influenced by this new movement toward contemporary traditional music.

Trends Since the 1990s

In the 1990s, people started to show a renewed interest in Hôgaku thanks to its new form. This was after the “international music” trend during which young musicians formed bands that used the traditional instrumental techniques to play pop music. At the time, the media reported on the popularity of these bands, and some even went on TV, but the fad passed quickly.

Meanwhile, talented young musicians were also seeking ways to attract listeners from their generation. For those people who experienced the equal temperament scale and music from the West as part of their compulsory education, there did not seem to be much difference between Western and traditional music. They found both worth listening to and considered them both as modes of expression.

For example, Tsugaru-shamisen player Kinoshita Shin’ichi hangs a shamisen on his shoulder with a strap and strums it like a guitar instead of sitting with his legs folded under him. He has been doing this since his days as a member of a back-up band for Itô Takio, known as the wayward son of the min’yô (folk song) world. Kinoshita also participated in a rock band composed of shamisen, Japanese drums, guitar, and traditional drums.

Rôkyoku actors usually perform plays about human feelings and moral obligations accompanied by shamisen music. But Kunimoto Takeharu wore jeans and sunglasses on the stage and played 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 Nô musician Issô Yukihiro are among the active performers of such classical performing arts as Kabuki and Nô who also have attracted a wide variety of fans, both young and old, through their own unique live performances.

The movement brought about by the Hôgaku new wave preceded an unprecedented shift that came at the end of the 1990s. This is when big stars appeared, drawing people to Hôgaku for the first time in their lives.

Tôgi Hideki, a forerunner of the movement, was 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 female listeners. His noble features contributed to his successful career, as he appeared in TV dramas and had a collection of his photographs published, reaching unprecedented popularity in the world of Hôgaku. People in the Hôgaku 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 Hôgaku musicians handle their own promotional activities, but Tôgi and the Yoshida brothers both had agencies and record companies that aggressively promoted them. These two successes proved that Hôgaku 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 such as Tsugaru-shamisen player Agatsuma Hiromitsu and shakuhachi player Fujiwara Dôzan became widely recognized through appearances on TV. The concerts by these musicians were always well-attended. Soon after a documentary program on Tsugaru-shamisen player Kinoshita Shin’ichi was aired, a photo-journal put together an article on Agatsuma Hiromitsu. Some musicians even appeared in the gossip column of a sports newspaper.

Critics said this popularity was based on the way performers looked rather than the way they played. 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 their attractive appearances. In fact, they make significant contributions by increasing the number of young people who actually want to become traditional musicians.

This transition is an element that grew out of a climate for rediscovering Japanese culture. The influence of Western music as the true international music while declined, while traditional music has attracted more followers. People who began listening to various types of ethnic music found freshness in Japanese traditional music in the same manner they once did in Bulgarian voices or the Indonesian gamelan.
| 1 | 2 |