Japan Table of Contents

Traditional music, song, and dance have been performed by women, notably the geisha of Tokyo and Kyoto. Theatrical performances by Kyoto geisha can be seen in the spring and autumn Miyako Odori dance performances. A nagauta (lyric music) singing group has a full orchestral ensemble, consisting of drums, flutes, samisen, and koto. The traditional musical notation is based on a five-tone scale, with semitones often ending on a rising note. Famous performers may play the samisen or koto only, or they may play together with a singer or dancer. The dances come from No, Kabuki, and folk sources, featuring large ensemble dances as highlights of these brilliant spectacles.

Folk music and dance deriving from regional festivals and ceremonies began to become well-known in Japan through radio, television, and recordings. Folk festivals, concerts, contests, and taverns specializing in folk singing contributed to the rising popularity of these ancient forms, revitalized by the growing desire of the young in the 1980s to learn traditional agrarian songs and dances, while the Japan Folkloric Dance Ensemble performed them internationally. Some thirty outstanding performers from all the traditional performing arts were designated as mukei bunkazai at the end of the 1980s.

Classical Western music has become a fundamental part of Japanese musical education since its introduction in the nineteenth century. The Toho School of Music in Tokyo has produced many outstanding international performers on the piano and stringed instruments. Children commonly studied piano or violin, and the famous Suzuki violin method of training children from the age of two had produced a generation of virtuosos; some, such as Midori, enjoyed an international reputation.

Symphony orchestras played in Tokyo and most major cities, also making international tours. Japanese musicians and conductors gained international recognition, some performing regularly with top foreign orchestras overseas and on tour in Japan. Contemporary Japanese composers have experimented widely with instruments: using Japanese and Western instruments together, using only Asian instruments, and capturing traditional sounds with electronic synthesizers and Western instruments. The Ensemble Nipponica, Music Today, and Sound Space Ark were among the major groups promoting modern Japanese music.

Classical Western opera enjoyed a boom, with many foreign companies performing, and even local companies rose to new heights with the development of leading operatic singers. Further evidence of interest in Japanese themes was shown by a major competition to write a new opera about Chikamatsu, with music composed by Hara Kazuko, a Doshisha University professor.

Popular music was enjoyed in many forms. Musical comedies and revues were standard urban entertainment. Broadway and London hits were quickly adapted by Tokyo theater troupes, often using foreign directors for notable productions and sometimes featuring Western actors who spoke their lines in Japanese. Japanese youth everywhere enjoyed popular music: highly international jazz, rock, heavy metal, folk, new music, pop, synthesized music, instrumental music, and Japanese folk songs. Springing from popular music were the works of experimental composers like Hosono Haruomi and Sakamoto Ryuichi, who blended Middle Eastern or Chinese sounds for the huge recording industry and film sound tracks. In 1988 Sakamoto was Japan's first Oscar-winning musician for his score for The Last Emperor.

Live jazz in concert halls, open air, and hundreds of disco coffee shops and pianobars was enthusiastically embraced. While American jazz greats were acclaimed, veteran Japanese instrumentalists Watanabe Sadao and Hino Teramasu also commanded major audiences at jazz festivals. Kitaro was the leading composer in synthesized sounds, providing sometimes exotic, but generally soothing, music dear to the frazzled urbanite. While percussionist Tsuchitori Toshi recreated the Mahabharata and other ethnic works, an indigenous kind of jazz poured from the Sado Island Kodo drummers, whose prodigious athletic performances mesmerized all and made their home a new music festival center. Singing and dancing at amateur open nights (karaoke) at a growing number of pubs was an activity in which everyone could shine by singing along with prerecorded tapes. In the late 1980s, the kawaiko-chan, the new girl singers, also were popular. Records, tapes, and compact discs made every type of music available nationwide and provided common experience for music appreciation.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress