In the West, the popular image of music in Japan has tended to range between two extremes: on the one hand, an austere and inaccessible classical tradition, and on the other, enthusiastic imitation of every Western genre imaginable. Times have changed, however. These days, Japanese musicians have a new confidence in their own identity, leading not just Asia but increasingly the world in using their own and other cultures to create exciting new directions in popular, jazz, avant-garde and roots-based styles.
The many musical styles found in Japan have their roots in its particular historical circumstances – China, Korea, Central and Southeast Asia all exerted considerable influence. There is evidence of music from around the third century BC, but the key events were the arrival of eighty Korean musicians in AD 453 and the introduction of Buddhism in the seventh century. Gagaku, court music and religious music survive from this period, and Buddhist chanting (shomyo) can still be heard in temples today.
Between 1500 and 1868, Japanese rulers imposed a period of near-total isolation. The repertoire of traditional instruments like the koto and shakuhachi continued to develop, but outside influences were minimized. However, it was the three-stringed plucked lute, the shamisen – which came from China – that came to represent new styles, reflecting the development of a sophisticated pre-modern urban culture.
Japan’s min’yo (folk) tradition is long and rich. Distinctive vocals are accompanied by shamisen, shakuhachi and drums. Each region has its own style, perhaps the most famous being the instrumental shamisen style from Tsugaru.
As far as tsugaru shamisen is concerned, the future has never been brighter. The brothers Yoshida Kyodai were the first of the recent players to gain international recognition, followed by a host of other hopefuls including Agatsuma and Masahiro Nitta.
Traditional drumming from the island of Sado, where the percussion-based Earth Festival is held annually, has now become internationally famous. Ondekoza, the original group of drummers, and its offshoot Kodo are capable of playing very powerful, rootsy gigs with just various drums (taiko), from the massive ?daiko to small hand-drums.
At the turn of the twentieth century, an immensely popular song form was ryukoka, which developed from street entertainers in the Osaka region, and was set to a shamisen backing. With Western culture flooding Japan, local musicians started to catch on, and started to play jazz, tango, foxtrot, rumba, Tin Pan Alley, blues and Hawaiian.
The resultant style became known as kayokyoku, a catch-all term for Japanese popular songs that originated in the 1930s but only came into use after World War II. In 1949, Hibari Misora, the greatest popular singer of the modern era, made her debut at the tender age of twelve.
In the 1950s, Latin music flourished, and many Cuban-style bands like the Tokyo Cuban Boys were formed. The tradition has been maintained, first with the success of the now defunct Orquesta de la Luz, followed by a host of other musicians, including bossa nova player Lisa Ono and the Nettai Tropical Jazz Big Band.
Many 1960s Japanese pop bands sang in English, but towards the end of the decade, some underground rock bands turned to their native language. The pioneering folk-rock band Happy End experimented with Japanese lyrics about love and politics, inspiring an entire generation of rockers.
Japan is also the home of some of the world’s most compelling underground music. Avant-garde rockers include Boredoms and Rovo. The latter feature some members from Dub Squad, dub being another genre that has become something of a Japanese speciality, with artists including Audio Active and Little Tempo.
While commercial idoru kashus (“idol singers”) and singer-songwriters seemed to dominate the 1980s, new sounds did begin to emerge. Many world-music acts arrived in the mid-1980s, exposing the Japanese to non-Western sounds. Each summer that followed would produce the trend of the year, be it Latin, reggae, ska or Indonesian.
At the end of the 1980s, roots bands like Shang Shang Typhoon, and Okinawan artists and bands, such as the Rinken Band broke onto the scene.
The Okinawans’ practice of taking their local traditions and updating them with other forms of music has been reflected in a wave of new bands. The rock group Soul Flower Union took to the streets following the earthquake that struck the Kobe region in 1995, and played for the victims. Forced to go “unplugged” they played Okinawan sanshin and later released the now-classic single “Mangetsu no Yube” (A Full Moon Evening).
Nagauta, kouta or hauta singing styles, most closely associated with geisha, have also been revamped in recent years. Umekichi is a young singer and shamisen player who incorporates Western instruments into a joyful, upbeat sound.
If you want some musical magic in Japan, head for the deep, deep south and Okinawa’s balmy heat. It might be a min’yo performance in a small club or the massed troupes of the annual Ei-sa festival, but you’ll find graceful dancing, haunting vocals, all kinds of drumming and stunning playing on the sanshin, the three-string Okinawan banjo. The performers, dressed in spectacular costumes, may be anything from a solo sanshin player to a hundred-strong street band complete with conch shells, sanshin and ranks of synchronized hand-drummers.
For more than four hundred years, Okinawans have developed folk and court styles of music that are unique in Asia. Each region has its own music and the folk tradition is very much alive. In some villages, umui (religious songs) are still sung at festivals to honour ancestors. Popular entertainment is known by the general term, zatsu odori (common dance), though everyone calls these songs shima uta (island songs). The best-known style, and one no wedding would be complete without, is called kacharsee.
Okinawa’s early post-war music was dominated by local folk recordings, led by the legendary singer/sanshin player Shouei Kina. While Shouei he was singing, his son Shokichi Kina was absorbing both his father’s folk music and the local rock played around the US bases. His own band called Champloose combined Okinawan min’yo and rock. Kina’s music attracted attention from Western musicians like Ry Cooder and Henry Kaiser, and his song called “Hana”, is an Asian favourite.
Ex-Champloose guitarist Takashi Hirayasu turned solo and released probably the top-selling Okinawan CD outside of Japan, Jin Jin/Firefly. Recorded together with American guitarist Bob Brozman, the album was simple, acoustic, recorded in a traditional house on a small island and seemed to capture the atmosphere of Okinawa – classic children’s songs, some charming and jaunty, others tragic and beautiful. This collaborative album takes traditional Okinawan music into new and exciting territories, with elements of blues and Hawaiian music added to Hirayasu's arrangements of traditional nursery rhymes, which incorporate influences from China, Indonesia and Polynesia
Here is a clip of the duo playing live with African artist Djeli Moussa Diawara.