Music in Japan

As a country that is rich in history and culture, it is expected for Japan to also be a country rich in music. As usual, the Land of the Rising Sun does not disappoint. Japan is a country rich in as much musical variety as it is in seafood. Music here ranges in everything from traditional folk music played with reed flutes to the chugging guitars of speed metal. And if that weren’t enough, you have the sounds of jazz, pop, and dance music to fill in every space in between.

The western influence on Japanese music started somewhere in the late 1800’s. Where the western influence was just an influence at that time, by the early- to mid-1900’s, street performers were filling the air with the first sounds of what would become present-day J-pop. Today, it is Japanese music that is influencing the western world, with Japan becoming the 2nd largest music market in the world and J-pop finding itself as the theme music to anime that is being aired all over the world. As mentioned above, the western influence on Japan’s music is massive. Some people say that walking down a Tokyo street on a busy day is something like walking down a street in New York. There are street performers everywhere, playing night and day as the crowds walk the busy streets and train stops. Not only is there an eclectic musical mix in Japan, more and more groups are mixing styles to make the music their own and creating unique sounds. I recently heard a J-pop band singing a very rock-inspired song, when all of a sudden the music slowed down and changed from rock to latin jazz! The differences in music and the quality of the work that is being put out is truly something to admire.

I’ll take this moment to name just a few of my personal favorite artists and why they hold their place. Hopefully, you’ll venture out and listen to a few of their songs. First on the list, is a group by the name of いきものがかり. The musicians here are great, and the lead singer has a big, amazing voice for being such a small person. (^-^)  Wonderful musicians and musical arrangements abound in the group known as Tacica and the artist Motohiro Hata. Finally, we have one of my favorite composers of all time, known most for his work on the scores in the long-standing video game series known as Final Fantasy, Nobuo Uematsu. All of these artists are great at what they do, so please do yourself and your ears a favor and go listen to some of their music.

On the more traditional side, there is a plethora of musical genres that form the history of Japanese music history. The traditional folk music is where you hear all the flutes and random drums that don’t seem to make any sense musically, but create an absolutely beautiful atmosphere that makes you want to just close your eyes, breathe deep, and take it all in. The musical styles here include みんよう, which is played with a small type of 3-string guitar, たいこ, which is mainly percussive, and へいきょく, one of the earliest forms of Japanese music and story-telling.

There are different types of みんよう throughout the different islands that make up Japan. Each one of them has different songs and styles that separate it from the others. Furthermore, there are different songs that are sung for different events, such as for specific jobs, social events, and religious rituals. While originally sung unaccompanied, different instruments have been incorporated into the genre over the years. One such instrument referenced earlier is that of a special 3-string guitar known as a しゃみせん. Another instrument, of which the sound is almost instantly recognizable, is the しゃくはち. This is the flute that gives Japanese folk music the easily distinguishable sound known throughout the world. Lastly, we have the larger, 12-stringed cousin of the しゃみせん, called the こと. Whether played alone or in tandem, these instruments make performances of traditional Japanese folk music a truly special event.

As I mentioned above, たいこ is a percussive type of music that dates back to feudal Japan, where the たいこ, which literally means “drum”, were used in battle. Different beats would be played to advise the army to march onward, pursue an enemy, or call out other announcements on the battlefield. Modern たいこ takes the premise of having an entire ensemble of drummers, known as a くみだいこ , and putting on elaborate performances featuring lavish choreography and spectacular solos.

The last genre of traditional Japanese folk music that we’ll cover is known today as へいきょく. This style of music is truly one of the original art forms of Japan. During its years of origin, blind performers known as びわほし would dress as Buddhist priests and traveled the lands, performing narrated works, similar to what we know today as spoken word, to the accompaniment of びわ music. A びわ is, in essence, a short-necked, 4- or 5-stringed guitar, or lute. The びわほし would travel and recite their songs on everything including legends and mythologies, history and wars, poetry, spiritual rites, and even plague-prevention. They were dressed as priests, after all, and what good priest doesn’t know how to prevent a plague? Eventually, the びわほしwould include performers who were not blind, but the premise of the travelling, singing priests remained. One of the first, and considered by some to be the greatest, of Japanese epics, titled the Tale of the Heike, is thought to have originally been performed first by the びわほし. It was the title of this epic that became the basis for the name of the style of へいきょく. The Tale of the Heike is about two warring clans during the time of ancient Japan, and it details the losing clan’s epic annihilation. Although we don’t really see the travelling priests anymore, the concept of the びわほし is still alive and well, and びわ music is still performed throughout the country.

I believe that you really get the sense of who people are as a culture and society through two things: their food and music. Language can explain what a culture is like, but food and music lets you see, taste, and hear it. There are tons of videos on the Internet of all of these musical styles. It is absolutely worth it to expand your horizons and share in the history of Japan. I guarantee that you’ll find some amazing artists that will open your ears to a whole new world of music. Until next time, またね !


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