Overview of Japanese Music

The earliest forms of music were drums and flute music accompanying the kagura shrine dances. From the 6th century on, music came from Korean and Chinese courts and monasteries and was performed at the Japanese court under the generic name gagaku (court music). The 8th-century court established a music bureau (gagakuryo) to be in charge of musical duties, both ritual and entertainment. The standard full-range gagaku ensemble has about 16 musicians on percussion, string, and reed instruments, the most distinctive being the free-reed mouth organ (sho), cyndrical oboe (hichiriki), the biwa lute, and the koto zither.

Meanwhile with the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the 6th century, Buddhist rites and liturgical chants gave rise to the development of a great variety of bells, gongs, wooden clappers, plaques, percussion tubes, and rattles, many of which found their way also into kabuki music of the Edo period (1600-1868).

As Japan changed from a court to a military-dominated culture in the 12th century, theatrical genres of music started to develop. From this time Buddhist evangelists and chanters reciting long historical tales (notably the Heike monogatari) went around the country singing or chanting, accompanying themselves on the biwa lute, while noh became the official entertainment of the new warrior class. Its music was provided by hayashi (an ensemble of drums and flutes) plus chanters.

From the 17th century, the shamisen (three-stringed plucked lute) came to the fore, providing the lively rhythm that dominated the sounds of the popular kabuki and bunraku theaters. In the bunraku puppet theater, a skilled chanter was accompanied by a shamisen, while in kabuki, shamisen solos or choruses were combined with flutes and drums and an eclectic assortment of folk and religious instruments.

Japanese musical instruments are dominated by plucked string, flute and percussion instruments. Among the string instruments, special mention must be made of the koto (13-stringed zither). Formerly part of the gagaku ensemble, the koto was developed as a solo instrument from the 17th century, having its repertoire considerably enhanced by the Ikuta school in the 17th century and the Yamada school in the 18th century. Their solo and chamber music are considered by most Japanese to be the "classical" music of Japan. In percussion, the taiko nailed drum has taken off in popularity in recent years. Concerts of drum music provide popular entertainment at festivals and events, and drum groups such as Kodo have achieved spectacular success overseas. The end-blown bamboo flute, the shakuhachi, is another noteworthy solo instrument. It first developed under the influence of Zen priests, with new schools of performance growing up from the 16th to 19th centuries.

In addition to religious and festival music, every region of Japan has its own folksongs - minyo - which, depending on daily activities of the traditional community, may be rice-planting songs, boatman's songs, sake-making songs, or grass-cutting songs, plus a variety of songs sung at parties. Among folk music styles, Okinawan music (from which the shamisen originally derived) is experiencing a strong revival. Enka, Japan's equivalent of American Country and Western music, commonly sung at karaoke bars, has some of its origins in older, traditional Japanese popular music.

Japanese Music