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Spiritual African-American Music Takes Hold in Japan

April 12, 1999

A group of singers in Tokyo getting the spirit. (Yamano Music Salon Yurakucho)

Gospel is a music form most commonly sung in Baptist churches across the United States. It has long been a mainstay of African-American culture, but recently it has been attracting a growing following in Japan as well, especially among young women. Most received their first taste of gospel through movies or at church, and many develop an urge to sing themselves. In response, music schools across Japan have started adding gospel singing classes to their curriculums. The music's popularity stems from its inspirational message, and from the sense of comradery it instills in those who sing it.

Singing Out Loud
Gospel, an African-American religious music form from which jazz and blues are partly derived, has been sung in churches for over 100 years. Deep emotional expression and intense rhythms characterize its style. In recent years a more danceable, pop-based version of the music has come to the fore, increasing its mass appeal even more.

Gospel's popularity in Japan can be traced to the Sister Act movie series, released in Japan in 1993 and 1994. According to one advertising agent from a film distribution company, "a lot of people became interested in gospel after watching these movies. Afterward, the number of Japanese who began attending gospel services in the United States also escalated."

The popularity of gospel has since taken root in Japan. Live concerts held throughout the country have performed to sellout audiences, and many who listen to the music become inspired to sing themselves.

A number of these form groups and perform at local churches and events. Last year at a Christmas concert held in the city of Kobe, six different amateur gospel acts opened the event on alternate days. Organizers were surprised when some 50 groups signed up to participate, and auditions were held to select the six winners.

A Source of Inspiration
As further proof of the music's popularity, gospel singing classes are sprouting up in music schools throughout Japan. In the Tokyo metropolitan area in 1998 alone over 20 classes were offered by various music school chains and culture centers. "This wasn't any ingenious marketing scheme on our part, but rather a response to the stream of requests for gospel courses we received from music teachers and students from other music classes, and even those with no background in music," says a representative of a music school chain.

Most of the class participants are young women in their twenties. One female instructor comments: "Since fall of last year the number of women looking to gospel as a way to make friends outside the workplace or find release from stress has skyrocketed. 'Gospel fever,' you might call it."

So what is behind Japan's gospel boom? One editor of a music magazine suggests that singing the inspirational music together with friends fosters courage and provides a boost to the spirit. For many of these young women, gospel music is the perfect antidote for Japan's recession blues.

Trends in JapanEdited 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.