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Japanese Music

throat games, Southeast Asian music, Kwaidan, Toru Takemitsu, shakuhachi

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Japanese Music, traditional music of Japan, performed by small ensembles of instruments and voices. Compositions often follow a three-part form called jo-ha-kyu, which consists of an introduction, a scattering effect in the central section, and a rushing effect near the end of the piece. This form has permeated much of Japanese music and applies to individual musical phrases as well as to entire compositions. Western-style harmony is not usually present in Japanese music, which emphasizes melody and rhythm.

The Modern Period

Western music became a strong influence in Japan after the Meiji emperor took power in 1867, and new forms based on Western models were developed by both traditional and Western-trained composers. Western music dominated Japanese music education. Many excellent orchestras, opera companies, and music schools appeared while traditional music (hogaku) survived independently. In 1946 Suzuki Shin’ichi combined Japanese and Western teaching methods and business acumen to create an internationally famous music lesson industry. At the same time, modernized traditional drum ensembles and shamisen performers entered the world market.

Among modern Japanese composers, Toru Takemitsu is best known for using Japanese instruments in a Western manner. His November Steps (1967) is a double concerto for biwa, shakuhachi, and orchestra. The electronic piece Vocalism AI (1956) evokes the textures of no drama, while the film music for Kwaidan (1964) abstracts the sounds of a biwa-playing narrator.

Folk Music

Japanese folk music shares with the world the need for religious festivals, work, dance, love, and regional songs. Japan is especially rich in folk theatricals that reflect the history of ancient rituals and dramas. The Ainu, an indigenous tribe based in northern Japan, maintain traditions like throat games (rekkukara) that relate to cultures of Siberia and Alaska, while Okinawan music to the south contains elements of Chinese and Southeast Asian music. By the 1920s radio had increased the knowledge of regional folk music in Japan and generated not only “stars” but also folk song preservation societies (hozonkai) whose goals are to sing the “perfect” version of a given song, even competing with other clubs from around the country. The rise of karaoke in Japan created new competitions for singing all kinds of music. The constant interplay of new and old Japanese music never stops.


Malm, William P., B.M., M.M., Ph.D.

Emeritus Professor of Music, the University of Michigan. Author of "Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments".

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