Early History of Japanese Music

For an average American, Japanese traditional music is a long way from home, and knowledge of it is not necessary for the appreciation of modern Japanese music. Regardless, this history is still valuable. The history of traditional Japanese music reflects on the Japanese themselves by showing them to have been at times disciplined, respectful, insightful, and adaptable. Modern Japanese music seen in the context of its history gains a new dimension. Granted that not all Japanese music is good, an understanding of its history will help to explain the musician's motivations in making the music, giving it more meaning.

Japanese music that was free of the influence of Western nations was known as zokuyo (Fisher). Even this music probably had some extra-national influences, but they were from the other direction. Influences on Japanese music from China and Korea existed in Japan since the third century AD (Fisher). Most music at this time would have been minyo, the folk songs that were only popular in their own specific region of Japan (Fisher). They would be sung non-professionally, as a part of life. The songs would often be about work or love or they would be such that they could be sung in accompaniment to work or games (Fujie 202). The songs could have been about farming rice, drawing fish nets, or they could have just been lullabies (Fisher). Minyo was the music most closely involved with the common people.

Over time, minyo has changed with the introduction of new instruments, the appearance of larger cities, and the Meiji revolution of the mid-nineteenth century. Once the sanshin, qin, and shikyoshi (a lute, zither, and end-blown flute, respectively) were introduced into Japan from China, they were gradually incorporated into minyo along with drums and bamboo flutes. Eventually, the instruments would be modified and become known as Japanese instruments (Fisher). Minyo would adapt to the available instruments, even if the only instrument was a human voice (Fujie 202). During the Nara period (710-794), minyo continued to develop through dance and local festivals (Fisher). The songs would spread with the people, so they would naturally be found at ports and stations ("Japanese"). After people moved away from their respective regions, being able to hear minyo from where they grew up would induce a feeling of nostalgia (Fujie 202). Also, song could be spread from town to countryside to become associated with the rural area even as the townsfolk move on to new music ("Japanese"). The music was closely tied to the lives of the people, so it had to change with them.

For as long as the Japanese have been keeping written records, there has been evidence of a musical tradition in the Imperial Court (Galliano 6). These records predate the Nara period (710-794) (Fisher). They come from the court of the dominant clan of that time, the Yamato clan ("Japanese"). Concurrently, China's culture was growing under the well-established Tang Dynasty (618-907) (Galliano 5). The Chinese music culture was strong enough to reach the Japanese Imperial Court near the beginning of the seventh century (Fujie 201), and the Court adopted it (Galliano 6). At first, Chinese musicians played this new music on Chinese instruments (Fisher). Similar music came from the nations of the Korean peninsula and another country from the area where Vietnam is now. Afterward, for a time, Japan was secluded from influences of the world outside. During this time, the Japanese learned to play gagaku, the orchestral music of the Imperial Court. During the ninth century, the music from China and the Vietnam region became known as "pieces of the left" and music of the Korean peninsula became known as "pieces of the right." Distinctions between the two included different instruments and other more subtle differences such as entering the stage from different sides ("Japanese"). Time apart from outside influences during the Heian period (794-1184) also allowed the Japanese to modify and experiment with this new music. After that, the music was considered Japanese, but, even so, it was remembered that the music was originally foreign (Galliano 6).

During the Nara period, Buddhist ritual songs and chants became known among the Buddhist priests (Fisher). Buddhism itself had existed in Japan since the mid sixth century ("Japanese"). However, it wasn't until the eleventh and twelfth centuries that Buddhism gained enough of a following among the high class for its music to be entered into Japanese culture so much that its chanting was developed formally. By this time, Japan was entering the Kamakura period (1185-1333) (Fisher). This Buddhist chant would be known as shomyo (Fujie 201). The chant would be used to recite religious texts. There were three types depending on what language the chant was in: Bonsan for Sanskrit, Kansan for Chinese, and Wasan for Japanese ("Japanese"). In the Kamakura period, gagaku became less popular and shomyo gained a place in Japanese culture. Overall, the most popular songs of this time were sung dramatic narratives (Fisher). During this time, there were not any major stylistic changes in any kind of music ("Japanese"). This leads directly to the Muromachi period (1333-1568) (Fisher).

The Noh theater known widely today was developed at the beginning of the Muromachi period ("Japanese"). Before then, it was known as sarugaku, a popular form of comic acting; "saru" means "monkey," in this case ("Japanese"). Kan'ami Kiyotsugu and Ze'ami Motokiyo, a father and son that both perform ed sarugaku, added a shortened form of shomyo, called imayo, and a type of dance of professional female dancers, called kusemai, to sarugaku. This new form was known as sarugaku noh, and is currently known as just noh. It flourished under the support of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, but in the Edo period, new shoguns believed the noh drama to be overly simple and dramatic. Then, it was adopted by the samurai as their entertainment because many plays involved the samurai code of ethics ("Japanese").

Noh itself is a masked drama ("What is"). The hayashi is the ensemble that makes the music for noh. It generally consists of the nohkan (a flute), kotsuzumi (a handheld drum), taiko (mounted drum), and ji (chorus). The musical style of noh theater is known as yokyoku, and shomyo strongly influenced its vocal style (Fujie 201). In general, noh uses eight beat patterns without equal divisions (Fujie 200). The percussionists may also make theatrical yells, called kakegoe, to signal emotion and theme in the story and to control the rhythm, helping other musicians to keep their places (Emmert).

For a time, Japan existed in a state of civil war, but the efforts of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu brought Japan together under one government ("Japanese"). The different classes of citizen were then strictly defined and members of each class could only interact with its own members (Galliano 16). Because of that, each class upheld its own music and its own customs. Commoners could hold on to their minyo, and they might entertain themselves with puppet theater, known as bunraku. Merchants had kabuki, a very unique and extraordinary dramatic performance. Noh, as it was already noted, was the music of the samurai and military aristocracy. The highest class kept the tradition of gagaku music. The two forms of entertainment that were still developing were bunraku and kabuki, both of which rely on joruri, the style used when voice is used to tell a story ("Japanese"). Therefore, they both rely somewhat on the musical principles established by noh, rakugo (a way of voicing comedy), and kodan (a way of voicing history).

Works Cited
Emmert, Richard. "Noh Preview: Kakegoe Drum Calls." Mainichi Daily News 22 Apr. 1986. 21 Feb. 2006 <http://www.bte.org/noh/extras/kakegoe.htm>.
Fisher, Paul. “The Music of Japan.” Far Side Music. Jan. 2005. 18 Feb. 2006 <http://www.farsidemusic.com/lasmusicas1762.html>.
Fujie, Linda. "Popular Music." Handbook of Japanese Popular Culture. Ed. Richard G. Powers and Hidetoshi Kato. New York: Greenwood P, 1989. 197-220.
Galliano, Luciana. Yōgaku : Japanese Music in the Twentieth Century. Trans. Martin Mayes. Lanham: Scarecrow P, 2002.
“Japanese Traditional Music.” 2002. Columbia Music Entertainment. 20 Feb. 2006 <http://jtrad.columbia.jp/>.
"What is Noh & Kyogen." Noh & Kyogen : An Introduction to Noh & Kyogen. 2004. Japan Arts Council. 28 Feb. 2006 <http://www2.ntj.jac.go.jp/unesco/noh/en/nohgaku.html>.
last update: May 1 2006
by Dan Stanton