Music of Japan

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For many outsiders, Japanese music is associated entirely with cheap, disposable bubblegum pop, of which there is plenty. However, many distinct styles and innovative artists play folk and classical music, much of it very intense, and others play distinct forms of rock, electronic music, hip hop, punk rock and country music.


Classical music

There are two types of classical music in Japan. Shomyo, or Buddhist chanting, and gagaku, or orchestral court music.

Missing image

Geisha with her shamisen, 1904
Gagaku is a type of classical music that has been performed at the Imperial court for several centuries.

Related to gagaku is court theater, which developed in parallel. Noh was developed in the 14th century, and soon evolved into bunraku and, eventually, the lively and popular kabuki; kabuki, in turn, helped invent the popular nagauta style of playing the shamisen.

Biwa hoshi

The biwa, a form of short-necked lute, was played by a group of intinerant performers (biwa hoshi) who used it to accompany stories. The most famous of these stories is The Tale of the Heike, a 13th century history of the triumph of the Minamoto clan over the Taira.


Taiko music is played by large drum ensembles called kumi-daiko. Its origins are uncertain, but can be sketched out as far back as the 6th and 7th centuries, when a clay figure of a drummer indicates its existence. Chinese and Korean influences followed, but the instrument and its music remained uniquely Japanese. Taiko drums during this period were used during battle to intimidate the enemy and to communicate commands. Taiko drums also gained religious use, in Buddhism and Shintoism. Players were entirely holy men, who played only at special occasions and in small groups.

Modern ensemble taiko is said to have been invented by Daihachi Oguchi in 1951. A jazz drummer, Oguchi incorporated his musical background into large ensembles, which he had also designed. His energetic style made his group popular throughout Japan, and made the Hokuriku region a center for taiko music. Musicians to arise from this wave of popular included Sukeroku Daiko and his bandmate Seido Kobayashi. 1969 saw a group called Za Ondekoza founded by Tagayasu Den; Za Ondekoza gathered together young performers who innovated a new roots revival version of taiko, which was used as a way of life in communal lifestyles. During the 1970s, the Japanese government allocated funds to preserve Japanese culture, and many community taiko groups were formed. Later in the century, taiko groups spread across the world, especially to the United States. There is now a video game, called Taiko Drum Master, about taiko.


Among the minority Ainu of the north, yukar (mimicry) is a form of epic poetry. The stories typically involve Kamui, the god of nature, and Pojaumpe, an orphan-warrior.

Min'yō: Folk Music

There are four main kinds of Japanese folk songs (min'yō): work songs, religious songs (such as sato kagura, a form of Shintoist music), songs used for gatherings such as weddings, funerals, and festivals (matsuri, especially Obon), and children's songs (warabe uta).

In min'yō, singers are typically accompanied by the 3 stringed lute known as the shamisen, taiko drums, and a bamboo flute called shakuhachi. Other instruments that could accompany are a transverse flute known as the shinobue, a bell known as kane, a hand drum called the tsuzumi, and/or a 13 stringed zither known as the koto. In Okinawa, the main instrument is the sanshin. These are traditional Japanese instruments, but modern instrumentation, such as electric guitars and synthesizers is, also used this day in age, when enka singers cover traditional min'yō songs (Enka being a Japanese music genre all its own...).

Terms often heard when speaking about min'yō are ondo, bushi, bon uta, and komori uta. An ondo generally describes any folk song with a distinctive swung 2/2 time rhythm. The typical folk song heard at Obon festival dances will most likely be an ondo. A bushi is a song with a distinctive rhythm. In fact, its very name means "rhythm" or "time," and describes the ostinato pattern played throught the song. Bon uta, as the name describes, are songs for Obon, the lantern festival of the dead. Komori uta are children's lullabies.

Many of these songs include extra stress on certain syllables, as well as pitched shouts (kakegoe). Kakegoe are generally shouts of cheer, but in min'yō they are often included as parts of choruses. There are many kakegoe, though they vary from region to region. In Okinawa Min'yō, for example, one will hear the common "ha iya sasa!" In mainland Japan, however, one will be more likely to hear "a yoisho!," "sate!," or "a sore!" Others are "a donto koi!," and "dokoisho!"

A guild-based system exists for min'yō; it is called iemoto. Education is passed on in a family, and long apprenticeships are common.

See also Ainu music of north Japan.

Okinawan folk music

Main article: Music of Okinawa

Okinawa has been under the control of Japan since 1609, except for a brief period of US domination during and after World War II. Umui, religious songs, shima uta, dance songs, and, especially katcharsee, lively celebratory music, were all popular.

Okinawan folk music varies from mainland Japanese folk music in several ways.

First, instrumentation. Okinawan folk music is accompanied by the sanshin; in mainland Japan, the shamisen accompanies instead. Other Okinawan instruments include the Sanba (which produce a clicking sound similar to that of castanets) and a sharp bird whistle.

Second, tonality. In Japan, the common pentatonic scale Do, Re, Mi, So, La (scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6) major and minor is often heard in Min'you. Okinawan Min'you, however, is known for its leading tone (scale degree 7) and half steps Mi-Fa (3-4) and Ti-Do (7-1), which are rare in mainland music. A common Okinawan pentatonic scale — Do, Mi, Fa, So, Ti (scale degrees 1, 3, 4, 5, 7) — includes them both. A second less common variation of the same scale begins at Fa (scale degree 4): Fa, So, Ti, Do, Mi (4, 5, 7, 1, 3).

The arrival of Western music

After the Meiji Restoration introduced Western musical instruction, a bureaucrat named Izawa Shuji compiled songs like "Auld Lang Syne" and commissioned songs using a pentatonic melody. Western music, especially military marches, soon became popular in Japan. Two major forms of music that developed during this period were shoka, which was composed to bring western music to schools, and gunka, which are military marches with some Japanese elements.

As Japan moved towards representative democracy in the late 19th century, leaders hired singers to sell copies of songs that aired their messages, since the leaders themselves were usually prohibited from speaking in public. This developed into a form of ballad called enka, which became quite popular in the 20th century, though its popularity has waned since the 1970s and enjoys little favour with contemporary youth. Famous enka singers include Misora Hibari and Ikuzo Yoshi. Also at the end of the 19th century, an Osakan form of streetcorner singing became popular; this was called ryukoka. This included the first two Japanese stars, Yoshida Naramura and Tochuken Kumoemon.

Westernized pop music is called kayokyoku, which is said to have begun with "Kachusha no uta" (1914; see 1914 in music). This song was composed by Nakayama Shimpei and first appeared in a dramatization of Resurrection by Tolstoy, sung by Matsui Samako. The song became a hit among enka singers, and was one of the first major best-selling records in Japan. Kayokyoku became a major industry, especially after the arrival of superstar Misora Hibari.

Later, in the 1950s, tango and other kinds of Latin music, especially Cuban music, became very popular in Japan. A distinctively Japanese form of tango called dodompa also developed. Kayokyoku became associated entirely with traditional Japanese structures, while more Western-style music was called Japanese pops. In the 1960s, Japanese bands imitated The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, along with other Appalachian folk music, psychedelic rock, mod and similar genres; this was called Group Sounds.

Since then, bubblegum pop and J-Pop have become some of the best-selling forms of music, and are often used in films and television, especially in Japanese animation. The rise of disposable pop has been linked with the popularity of karaoke, leading to much criticism that both trends are consumerist and shallow. For example, Kazafumi Miyazawa of The Boom, claims "I hate that buy, listen and throw away and sing at a karoake bar mentality".

Japanese rock

Main article: J-Rock

Homegrown Japanese rock had developed by the late 1960s. Artists like Happy End are considered to have virtually developed the genre. During the 1970s, it grew more popular. The Okinawan band Champloose, along with Carol, RC Succession and Harada Shinji were especially famous and helped define the genre's sound. In the 1980s, the Southern All Stars became the biggest band in Japanese rock's history, and inspired alternative rock bands like Shonen Knife & the Boredoms and Tama & Little Creatures. Most influentially, the 1980s spawned Yellow Magic Orchestra, which was inspired by developing electronic music, led by Hosono Haruomi.

In 1980, Huruoma and Ry Cooder, an American musician, collaborated on a rock album with Shoukichi Kina, driving force behind the aforementioned Okinawan band Champloose. They were followed by Sandii & the Sunsetz, who further mixed Japanese and Okinawan influences. At the same time, singer-songwriters like Yuming became extremely popular. Other forms of music, from Indonesia, Jamaica and elsewhere, were assimilated. Soukous and Latin music was popular as was Jamaican reggae and ska, exemplified by Rankin' Taxi and Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra.

Roots music

In the late 1980s, roots bands like Shang Shang Typhoon and The Boom became popular. Okinawan roots bands like Nenes and Kina were also commercially and critically successful. This led to the second wave of Okinawan music, led by the sudden success of Rinkenband. A new wave of bands followed, including the comebacks of Champluse and Kina, as well as new acts like Soul Flower Union. An updated form of Okinawan folk called kawachi ondo became popular, led by Kikusuimaru Kawachiya; very similar to kawachi ondo is Tademaru Sakuragawa's goshu ondo.

Western classical music

Western classical music has a strong presence in Japan and the country is one of the most important markets for classical music. A number of Japanese composers have written in the western classical music tradition, with Toru Takemitsu (famous as well for his avant-garde works and movie scoring) being the best known. Also famous is the conductor Seiji Ozawa.

Game music

When the first electronic games were sold, they only had rudimentary sound chips with which to produce music. As the technology advanced, the quality of sound and music these game machines could produce increased dramatically. The first game to take credit for its music was Zebius, also noteworthy for its deeply (at that time) constructed stories. Though many games have had beautiful music to accompany their gameplay, the most important game in the history of the video game music is Dragon Quest III. Koichi Sugiyama, a composer whose name was largely unknown at that time, got involved in the project out of the pure curiosity and proved that games can have serious soundtracks. Until his involvement, music and sounds were often neglected in the development of video games and programmers with little musical knowledge were forced to write the soundtracks as well. Undaunted by technological limits, Sugiyama worked with only 8 part polyphony to create a soundtrack that would not tire the player despite hours and hours of gameplay.

Today, game soundtracks are sold on CD. Famous singers like Utada Hikaru sometimes sing songs for games as well, and this is also seen as a way for unknown singers to make their names for themselves.

List of some Japanese popular artists (including J-Pop)

Traditional instruments

See also


  • Clewley, John. "The Culture Blender". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 143-159. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

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