Traditional Music of Japan

Brief Overview of Japanese Traditional Music

Gagaku Japanese music

Japan Preserves Ancient Asian Music
Around the world, the koto and shakuhachi are known as typical Japanese instruments. And the theatrical forms of classical Noh, Kabuki and the Bunraku puppet theater, all forms where music plays a very important part, have international fame as well. Ancient court music or Gagaku came to Japan from the Asian continent along with religion and a system of government with the establishment of a state centered on the imperial house. It is still preserved in Japan long after it has disappeared in the countries of its origin.

Japanese Original Music Flourished in the Samurai Period
In the middle ages, Noh emerged as a masked drama with recitations of dense poetic texts accompanied by a very spare percussion and flute ensemble. Then, in the early modern period, a vibrant commoner culture seething with energy underneath the dominant warrior class found its expression in the exuberant Kabuki theater and the intense, sophisticated drama of the puppet theater. For contemporary Japanese, even though all of these traditional forms of music are overshadowed by more popular western style, they continue to be performed and appreciated as a living bond to Japan's past.

Traditional Japanese Music Gagaku playing in the Imperial Palace
Traditional Japanese Music "Gagaku" playing in the Imperial Palace
Traditional Japanese Music Gagaku playing in the Imperial Palace
Traditional Japanese Music "Gagaku" playing in the Imperial Palace
Traditional Japanese Music Kagura playing in the shrine
Traditional Japanese Music "Kagura" playing in the shrine
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History of Japanese Traditional Music

Yayoi Architectures

Ancient Japanese Music
Almost nothing is known about music in Japan's prehistory, through the Jomon and Yayoi periods, but there are ritual figures of musicians, suggesting the early importance of music. The late Yayoi period is marked by the building of immense tombs, and there were probably many powerful clans that gradually culminated in the dominance of the Yamato clan. The state that they built used language, religion and legal systems from the Asian continent and resulted in the high development of the imperial court as a political and cultural center in the Nara (645 - 710) and Heian (794 - 1185) periods. Even when the political power of the imperial court declined after this time, the court retained its cultural traditions, many which continue to this day.

The little that remains from the prehistoric period seems to be some songs, legends and rituals recorded in the "Kojiki" and "Nihon Shoki," the first chronicles of the new state. When the "Kojiki" was compiled during the reign of Emperor Temmu (reigned around 673 - 686), these songs were already part of the tradition of the imperial court.

From the earliest stages of Japanese history, poetry and song have been very important and the distinction between the two is not clear. The word "uta" can mean either "song" or "poem." What is clear is that poetry is almost always imagined as being recited aloud. The Nara and Heian periods set the standards for poetry with the imperial anthologies Manyoshu and Kokinshu. The forms of verse and use of poetic images developed at this time lives through almost all of Japanese music to the present.

Poetry and music are also central to the prose works of the time. Genji Monogatari is the story of a great lover in the imperial court and much of the dialogue is in the form of exchanges of poetry. The dances of Gagaku, flute, koto and biwa lute music runs through the background of this classical novel.

Much of Japan's official culture was in Chinese, but the Chinese and Japanese languages are very different. Chinese is monosyllabic and has tones, while Japanese has long polysyllabic words and does not have tones. Chinese was used both in the original pronunciation and with various techniques for reading it with Japanese words, but pure Japanese literature in the Heian period and especially Japanese poetry, tried to avoid words of Chinese origin as much as possible.

The Importation of Foreign Forms of Music
GagakuAlthough Japan had a distinctive culture, the imperial state used Chinese language and imported culture in many of its entertainments and ceremonies. In the early period, the masked drama called Gigaku entered Japan, but now only exists in the form of masks preserved in the Shosoin. The Nara period and Heian period are dominated by Gagaku imperial court dance and Shomyo Buddhist chanting. In addition, preserved within the current repertory of Gagaku there are other native forms of song like Saibara and Roei and there is also the popular song form called Imayo.

Gagaku consists primarily of music by wind and string instruments accompanied by percussion. Some of the instruments like koto and biwa and the drums are related to instruments used in other genres, but others, like the nasal hichiriki and the harmonica-like sho are only used in Gagaku and are a part of its distinctive sound. Many of the pieces include dance and when the dance is emphasized, it is called Bugaku, ("Bu" meaning, "dance"). The pieces of Gagaku are divided into two groups, To-gaku or pieces from Tang China and Rimpa-gaku or pieces from the region that is now the southern part of the Vietnam peninsula are called "pieces of the left". And pieces from the three ancient countries of Korea and Pohai-gaku are called "pieces of the right". The instrumentation and forms of these two groups of pieces are also different and originally they were performed by different groups of musicians that also enter the stage from different directions.

By the end of the ancient period at the end of the Heian period, the instrumental music was reformed to be simpler and there were new pieces composed in imitation of the imported pieces. But there are also distinctively Japanese styles that are preserved as a part of Gagaku. These include Kagura, Azuma Asobi, Fuzoku and Saibara. There are many kinds of Kagura, but in this case it refers to the Mi-Kagura preserved in the Imperial Court, while Azuma Asobi refers to folk songs from the eastern part of ancient Japan that have been preserved in the Imperial Court. Fuzoku refers to other ancient folk songs from the provinces. Saibara is a distinctive genre, but probably had its origins in some form of folk music as well. All of these forms came to be sung in the Imperial Court and were refined and polished and then passed on for centuries. All of these are pure sung forms, but along with the form called Roei, which is accompanied by the Gagaku orchestra, these genres are preserved within Gagaku. Although there doesn’t seem to be that much influence of Gagaku on later Japanese music, one of its most important legacies is the aesthetic concept of "Jo-Ha-Kyu." This means to begin slowly, increase speed and variety in the middle and then go very fast in the concluding section, slowing down once more at the end. This principle governs every dance movement as well as the overall structure. It is most famous in its articulation by Zeami, who compared it to the flow of a river: beginning slowly, then reaching rapids and white water and finally ending as a waterfall splashing into a pool of water.


Shomyo (Buddhist Chant)
Buddhism in the Nara and Heian periods was mostly for the state and for the elite. There was a strong emphasis on elaborate ritual and chanting that was so elaborate only highly trained professionals could perform it was an important part of the types of Buddhism dominant in this period.

One form of Buddhist music is called "Shomyo." This is a style that entered Japan in the Nara period and early Heian period and consists of reciting sutras by adding a melody. There are three styles, one called "Bonsan" which uses Sanskrit (ancient Indian language), one called "Kansan" which uses Chinese, and one called "Wasan" which uses Japanese. There are two main streams of Shomyo based in different branches of Buddhism. These are Tendai Shomyo and Shingon Shomyo. The strong influence of Shomyo on Heike Biwa and Noh is obvious by just listening and comparing the different genres. In turn, Heike Biwa and Noh strongly influenced Joruri, and so, the indirect influence of Shomyo can be seen there as well.

ImayoIn the mid-Heian period, forms of music like Saibara and Roei, which were popular until then, gradually declined. The form called Imayo appeared and became popular in the late e Heian period. The word "imayo" means "modern" and seems to have begun with shortened forms of the Wasan shomyo using Japanese. Eventually the form stabilized as four lines, each with units of seven plus five syllables. Since this was a popular form that originated with the common people, there were many famous performers of Imayo who were courtesans or Shirabyoshi dancers. Then, toward the end of the Heian period, Imayo was taken up by imperial court aristocrats and became very popular. Incidentally, the original music for Imayo soon disappeared, but in the early Kamakura period, a method of singing the texts of Imayo to the melody of the famous Gagaku piece "Etenraku" was developed, which has left traces in Japanese folk song even today.

Music of the Medieval Period
The medieval period covers the time from the Kamakura period (1185 - 1392), Muromachi period (1392 - 1568), Momoyama period (1568 - 1600) and the early Edo period to around the beginning of the 18th century. Although the imperial court continued to be the source of legitimacy and the arbiter of classical culture, gradually real power moved to a series of military leaders. In the late Heian period, the power of the imperial court declined and warriors began to be dominant. Eventually the Heike clan, under the leadership of Taira no Kiyomori (1118 - 1181), came to rule Japan, but they were soon deposed by the rival Genji clan. Its leader Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147 - 1199) set up a military government in Kamakura, far from the intrigues of the imperial court. The Kamakura period is known for its sobriety, and instead of the elaborate rituals of Heian period Buddhism, the emphasis started to move toward salvation of the masses with simple prayers and the meditation of Zen. The distinctive literature of the Kamakura period mixes Japanese and Chinese language as can be seen in Heike Monogatari (The Tales of the Heike), a long epic telling the stories of the battles between the Heike and Genji clans. These stories and characters are taken up time and time again in Noh plays and then later in Kabuki and Bunraku.


In the Muromachi Period, a new shogunate emerged, and this time, it set up court in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. This was a time when many things that are considered distinctively Japanese developed, including the tea ceremony, rooms with tatami mats and the Noh theater. Until this time, the military class was considered distinctly inferior, but art forms like Noh provided a cultural space where dominant warriors and members of the imperial court could meet on intermediate ground. The political balance of the Muromachi shogunate soon disappeared and there were decades of civil war between powerful military clans until Japan was unified by Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu in the late 16th century. This is also a time when foreign culture entered with guns, wine, Christianity and exotic Portuguese clothing, helping to create the florid excess of the culture dominated by Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. Finally, with Tokugawa Ieyasu, a shogunate was established in Edo (the old name for Tokyo) and eventually Japan was shut off from the West. But the energy of Hideyoshi's time continued through the 17th century as we can see in the earliest stage of Kabuki theater as Kabuki Odori or "Kabuki Dance."

Heike Biwa (Heikyoku)
NouThe biwa is used in Gagaku and there are many old pieces imported from China of a legendary sensitivity, but such pieces have not been transmitted and can only be imagined. However, in the Kamakura Period, a new form of narrative music appeared, played by blind musicians in the guise of priests.

It is said that the origin of Heikyoku or Heike Biwa is in blind biwa playing priests who sprung from Tendai shomyo. The instrument used in Gagaku is called the "gaku biwa," but the biwas used by blind priests are somewhat different from gaku biwa. Also, even though they are called "blind priests," in other words, blind men who dress and act as Buddhist priests, they probably had no direct connection to Buddhism and were treated as a group of outcasts, with the appropriate organization and jurisdiction. These blind musicians recited the Tales of the Heike to the accompaniment of the biwa and traveled all through the country in the days when memories of the wars between the Genji and Heike clans had not yet faded. The author of The Tales of the Heike is said to be Shinano-no-Zenshi Yukinaga. There is an interesting story about Yukinaga in the Tsurezuregusa ("Essays in Idleness"), a memoir and collection of essays from the beginning of the 14th century. In the age of the retired emperor Go-Toba, Yukinaga was supposed to perform a dance with seven parts, but forgot two of them and was called the man of the five dances. He was so humiliated that he renounced the world and became a priest. This Yukinaga wrote The Tales of the Heike and had blind priests recite it as they were thought of as "living Buddhas." This was the origin of Heike Biwa. This anecdote is a very suggestive image of the relationship of the decline of Gagaku and the rise of new art forms in the medieval period.


Heike Biwa was preserved until the end of the Edo period by blind musicians who were under the jurisdiction of the Todoza, an organization for the supervision of various groups of outcasts. However, with the Meiji Restoration, the Todoza was disbanded and Heike Biwa rapidly fell into decline. Today it is supported by a very few musicians and has barely escaped extinction. The influence of the stories and historical characters in the Tales of the Heike is very strong in Noh and kabuki and in Joruri and Nagauta, there are musical patterns called "Heike-gakari" which are supposed to be reminiscent of Heike Biwa.

Modern biwa music mostly originates in the late Edo period in Kyushu with efforts to create a biwa style to support the samurai spirit. Although the themes are often taken from the Tales of the Heike, the instrumental music is much more elaborate.

Traditional Japanese Music Playing in Autumn Kyoto
Traditional Japanese Music Playing in Autumn Kyoto
Traditional Kagura playing in shrine
Traditional Kagura playing in shinto shrine


Gagaku live at Temple

The World's Oldest Extant Style of Traditional Music played in a Large-scale Ensemble
Gagaku is one of the traditional forms of music in Japan. The Japanese Gagaku (an important intangible cultural heritage) passed down in the Gakubu Section, Shikibu-shoku Department, of the Imperial Household Agency. The Gakubu Section, Shikibu-shoku Department of the Imperial Household Agency, defines it as the numbers played by the Gakubu Section, Shikibu-shoku Department of the Imperial Household Agency (except for Western music). Most consist of instrumental music that has been inherited as court music. It is the world's oldest extant style of traditional music played in a large-scale ensemble. The features of pronunciation of the Japanese language before the sixteenth century are passed on without change: the line of Ha is pronounced as fa, fi, fu, fe, fo, when singing the musical score of the Hichiriki instrument written in katakana as Shoga, for example by chanting the letters of the musical note to recite the melody, which implies that the whole style can be quite faithfully recreated. The musical score written in Chinese characters, such as that of the Gakubiwa instrument, has many similarities to a biwa musical score discovered in Dun Huang, China, and several older forms introduced from the Asian continent have been inherited. As the most important historical data, "Taigen-sho," written by TOYOHARA no Muneaki (1450-1512), which expresses concern about the dissipation of the records of Gagaku and others due to the turmoil of the Onin War, can be cited. This is a valuable record of Gagaku in the old days, in which Muneaki from a Raku family of Sho flute compiled the records of Gagaku, mainly about the Sho flute and Bugaku (gagaku piece with dance).

History of Gagaku
It is based on the ceremonial music introduced from China and South Asia prior to the tenth century. In China, Gagaku meant the music played in ceremonies. Togaku music, however, which is said to have been introduced from China and is presently played as Japanese Gagaku, is believed to be based on the music played in the Tang period at a party called the Engaku. Its relationship to the Vietnamese Gagaku (nhã nhạc), which assimilated Chinese traditional music as Japan did, as well as the national traditional music in South Korea, is equivalent to a brotherly relationship. As for the categories of numbers, international names including Togaku, Komagaku and Rinyugaku (music of Champa) have been brought over, and the elements of Japanese ancient music before the introduction of the music from the continent were included. Before the modern age, the Tennoji gakuso Theater in Shitenno-ji Temple (Osaka City) with the oldest style, the Ouchi gakuso Theater in the Imperial Court (Kyoto) and the Nanto gakuso Theater in Kasugataisha Shrine (Nara City) were called Sanpo gakuso theaters. These gakuso theater companies were called to Tokyo during the modern age and became the basis for the current Gakubu section of the Imperial Household Agency, but the tradition of each gakuso theater company has continued in each place. Moreover, it has mutually affected Minyo and Shomyo, and the Japanese original style has been created. Presently, about 100 numbers are inherited in the Gakubu section, Shikibu-shoku Department, of the Imperial Household Agency.

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Kagura at Shirine

Historical Music of Shinto Ritual
Kagura is a chanting and dancing performance and music dedicated to gods in Shinto rituals. Kagura may be observed at shrine festivals, and rarely at some temples. The word 'kagura' is commonly believed to have been transferred from 'kamukura' (a seat for gods). Kamukura means 'a place for gods to stay' where Shinto gods shall descend and enjoy together with the people a feast of chanting and dancing, which became called kagura, while miko (shrine maidens) purify uncleanness of gathered people and become mediumistic to transfer the gods' will to the people and the people's wish to the gods. According to Kojiki (the Record of Ancient Matters) and Nihonshoki (the Chronicle of Japan), kagura had its origin in a Japanese ancient myth of the oracular Amenouzume (goddess of the dawn and revelry) who had performed a dance in a chapter of Ama no iwato (Cave of heaven). Since Sarumenokimi, who was regarded as a descendant of Amenouzume, was engaged in rituals for the repose of souls, the original form of kagura may be considered to have been an entertainment of the gods accompanying formal rituals for repose and the shaking of souls. Kagura can be classified into two kinds, mikagura and satokagura, the former being performed in the imperial court and the latter among ordinary people. There are also some kagura created in the modern age and performed currently in many shrines.

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Dengaku performance at night

Strong Music for Japanese Rice Harvest
Dengaku is a traditional Japanese performance art and music. It is a combination of music and dance. It began in the middle of the Heian Period. There are various theories about its origins, including that it developed from a 'ta-asobi' ritual to pray for a good harvest before planting rice or that it was introduced from overseas, but there are still many uncertainties as to its origins. In 1096, people in Kyoto became enthusiastic about Dengaku and the aristocracy arranged performances for the Emperor. This is referred to as the 1096 Dai-dengaku (in the 'Rakuyo Dengaku Ki' (Record of Rakuyo Dengaku) authored by OE no Masafusa). In the latter stage of the Heian Period Dengaku troupes were formed under the protection of temples and shrines. Priests who specialized in dancing Dengaku were called Dengaku Hoshi (Dengaku Priest). There was also a period when Dengaku was more popular than Sarugaku, another Japanese dance. It is written in the 'Taiheiki' (The Record of the Great Peace) that Takatoki HOJO, a regent in the Kamakura bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun), was addicted to Dengaku and the Shogun Yoshimochi ASHIKAGA in the Muromachi bakufu liked the performances of a dancer named Zoami. The popularity of Dengaku declined as Yamato Sarugaku (Japanese dance) boomed.

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