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A New Wave in Music Education

March 28, 2001
Students of Chidori Elementary School in Ota Ward, Tokyo, try their hands at playing the koto. (KANEKO Japanese Musical Instrument Shop)

In Japan, as in many other parts of the world, the instruments that children generally learn are the piano and the violin. Recently, however, attention is increasingly being paid to hogaku, or traditional Japanese music, in school education.

In accordance with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology's revised National Curriculum Standards for middle schools, instruction in at least one traditional Japanese instrument will be compulsory in all Japanese middle schools throughout the three years of middle school education, starting from April 2002. As a result, some 4.4 million middle school students nationwide will be learning to play a Japanese instrument. The sound of Japanese instruments is not entirely unfamiliar to children inasmuch as it is frequently heard in the accompaniment to children's songs. Children's interest in hogaku is resurging, and it looks as though traditional music will break out, having been in the doldrums for a while.

Hogaku Is Cool
With hogaku education about to become compulsory, there are already signs of revived popularity of traditional instruments among young people. The instrument called tsugaru shamisen (a version of the three-stringed shamisen lute originating in the Tsugaru area of Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan) and its music are attracting particular attention. Crowds of fans attend live performances by the very popular Yoshida brothers.

Both in their early twenties, Ryoichiro and his younger brother Ken'ichi sport an appearance that is unconventional for hogaku performers, with fair-dyed hair and dressed in the very formal montsuki kimono bearing a family crest and the wide, pleated trousers called hakama. With no written music and the performance largely improvised, tsugaru shamisen brings the performers' talent and personalities to the fore. The brothers are aiming for a new kind of hogaku that incorporates elements of the music of popular pop groups and foreign instrumental music. They are sometimes invited to give recitals at schools, and their music goes down well with the students. Their 1999 debut album sold 80,000 copies, overturning the belief that sales of hogaku records in the tens of thousands are unthinkable.

Apart from the shamisen, concerts by such musicians as the internationally renowned wadaiko (Japanese drum) group Kodo, with their pulsating sense of energy, are also very popular. Traditional Japanese instruments and their music are increasingly being looked at in a new light, especially by Japanese in their twenties and thirties.

Golden Opportunity
The world of traditional music is not letting the golden opportunity presented by compulsory hogaku instruction slip by: A whole series of events is being planned to familiarize people, particularly children, with this music. Shinto shrine music societies in the provinces are sending festival drummers and instrumental ensembles to elementary and middle schools, and even kindergartens, to perform their music. Actors and musicians of noh, Japan's traditional musical drama dating back over 600 years, are making teaching visits to schools so that the children can experience what it is like to study the art.

Meanwhile, even among the middle school teachers who will be teaching how to play these instruments, there are many who have little familiarity with traditional music. Courses by performers are therefore being held for these teachers.

Some schools have incorporated traditional instruments in their teaching even before the revision of the National Curriculum Standards. Fussa Second Junior High School in Fussa City, Tokyo Prefecture, has been teaching the koto, shakuhachi (an end-blown bamboo flute), and shamisen for the past nine years. The instruction has some out-of-the-ordinary features. For example, one of the fathers of the students plays tsugaru shamisen as a hobby and sometimes gives model performances with the students. The students soon get the knack of playing together, and excellent results are claimed for the method.

Major musical instrument makers have started promoting sales of traditional instruments in the expectation that demand will reach several tens of billions of yen per year once instruction in these instruments begins in middle schools. In addition to sales to schools, there will also be shop sales to people who have learned a traditional instrument at school and want to play it as a hobby. It is expected that the resulting increase in production of instruments will bring the prices of koto, shamisen, and tunable shime-daiko drums down from 100,000 yen (833 U.S. dollars at 120 yen to the dollar) and more to around the 40,000 to 50,000 yen (333 to 417 dollar) mark.

Will the koto and shamisen one day take the place of the piano and violin as the most popular instruments being learned by Japanese children?

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2001 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.