Japanese music, the highly eclectic musical culture of the Japanese islands. Over the years, Japan has borrowed musical instruments, scales, and styles from many neighboring areas.
The indigenous music present before A.D. 453 consisted of chanted poems ( reyei and imayo ), traditional war and social songs ( kume-uta and saibara ), and the kagura, solemn Shinto temple music. All were recitations on a few notes. The importation of foreign music, particularly from China, began in the 5th cent. and continued into the 12th cent. The ancient ceremonial music imported from China, which the Japanese called gagaku, no longer exists in China but has been preserved almost intact since the 5th cent. by a continuing tradition of performance in the imperial court of Japan. It is orchestral music using the sho (a mouth organ, the Chinese sheng ), the shakuhachi (a long flute), and the hichiriki (a small oboe).
The cantillations of the Buddhist religion came to Japan by way of Korea in the 6th cent. and were followed in the 7th cent. by the bugaku, a ceremonial dance with music that is of Indian origin. In the 9th and 10th cent. many instruments, including the biwa (a four-stringed bass lute used for accompaniment) and the koto (a long zither with 13 silk strings, used both as a solo instrument and in ensemble), were introduced from China.
Midway between sacred and secular is the music of the No drama, dating from the 14th cent. (see Asian drama). It is restrained vocal recitative, utai, using very small intervals, Asian ornamentation (e.g., sliding, tremolo, vibrato), and accompaniment by flute and drums. Popular secular music in Japan began in the 16th cent. with the introduction from China of the samisen, a three-stringed, plucked instrument resembling a guitar, used for accompanying songs. Later, secular music also included operalike creations and many varieties of kumi (chamber music for ensemble, voice, and koto) and koto solo (often sets of melodic variations on a short theme, or damono ). Hogaku is the name for folk and popular music heard at open-air festivals.
The Japanese use two basic types of scale, both pentatonic. The first, used in sacred music and common to all of East Asia, has two modes— ryo, the male mode, and ritsu, the female mode. The more frequently used scale, found also in Indonesia and S India, emphasizes semitones and exists in three modes, all used freely within the same composition— hirajoshi, the most important, roughly represented on the piano by the series ABCEFA; kumoijoshi, second in importance, approximated by EFABCE; and iwato, approximated by BCEFAB.
Japanese music is of uneven phrase length, and the fourth is a particularly important interval. Ornamentation depends on the type and purpose of the piece. The rhythm is almost invariably in duple meter, with ternary or irregular passages occurring rarely. However, the independent drum rhythms, when these are present, tend to obscure the basic beat to Western ears. The music is primarily monophonic, although heterophony occurs in orchestral music and in pieces for voice and koto.
The Meiji restoration saw the importation of Western music to Japan, beginning with the brass band. In the 1880s, Western music was introduced into the schools, and in 1887 the Academy of Music was established in Tokyo. Later, symphony orchestras were formed, and Western music became an integral part of the cultural life of Japan. Notable contemporary Japanese composers include Yasushi Akutagawa, Kan Ishii, and Akira Miyoshi. Seiji Ozawa, a conductor of international reputation, was born in Japan.
See W. P. Malm, Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (1959); H. Tanabe, Japanese Music (rev. ed. 1959); S. Kishibe, The Traditional Music of Japan (1966); E. Harich-Schneider, A History of Japanese Music (1973).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.