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Hôgaku: Traditional Japanese Music
Kazumi Narabe (Journalist)
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
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
. Likewise, many children take lessons in piano but not in
. 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
of Yokoyama Katsuya and the
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
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
(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
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
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
(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
, 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
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.
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
, the branches of schools operated by disciples of the
, 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
, 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,
, 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
are attracting attention.