Music is one of the areas where you can clearly see the uniqueness of Japanese culture. See – because Japanese music is not only a harmony of sounds but a careful stage performance, where costumes and the theatrical presentation of the artists play a prominent role. Learn the history of Japan’s traditional music and how much of it is left in the works of contemporary Japanese artists.

Gagaku – traditional Japanese music

The traces of musical fascinations of the Japanese can be found even in the ancient times. Their interest in the world of sounds is visible in the sculptures of musicians coming from the Jōmon period (12,000 – 300 BC) and the Yayoi period (300 BC – 300 AD). Just as in many other areas of life, the appearance of the Chinese at the imperial court in the 6th century AD was the turning point in the development of Japanese music. Among the foreign guests, there were also musicians, whose performances became an inspiration for the artists plying gagaku– Japanese court music. It was performed using traditional wind instruments, such as the Japanese flute, oboe or mouth organ, as well as lute, kettledrum and gong. The principles of composing taken from the Chinese were deeply rooted in the cosmology and philosophy of the East. Every work had to consist of five basic tones, symbolising the 5 elements the world is build of – earth, metal, wood, fire and water. Individual sounds were to correspond to specific seasons, plants, animals etc. As one of the oldest known forms of harmonica music, gagaku was entered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.


Music in a Japanese nō theatre

Japanese music has been connected with poetry, religious rites and performances that celebrated specific holidays and festivals since the very beginning. However, the emergence of the classic nō theatre was a true breakthrough in the history of the spectacular dimension of music. Nō is an incredible combination of theatre, literature, music and dance, which complement one another to create an inseparable whole. One of the major principles governing the music of traditional Japanese theatre is jo-ha-kyū. A work created in line with its assumptions is characterised by a slow start, the pace increasing further in the work, and a peaceful ending. This principle can also be found in the works of contemporary Japanese composers, not necessarily ones connected with theatre.


What do the Japanese listen to?

The influence of theatre is still visible not only in classical music. Even though traditional art is merely an element of folklore nowadays, the affinity of the Japanese for theatre performances has clearly influenced the contemporary picture of Japanese popular music. Just take a look at the stylised Japanese stars, whose exaggerated, often tacky images attract crowds of fascinated fans. Perhaps it is this fascination that makes the Japanese most inclined to listen simply to… what is Japanese. A similar level of stylist abstraction is hard to find among Western artists. So no wonder that local varieties of the basic music genres have developed in Japan: j-rock, j-jazz or the famous j-pop.

Japanese pop

The top spots of Japanese charts and bestseller lists are occupied by typical representatives of j-pop, that is Japanese boybands from the famous record label Johnny’s Entertainment, and girlbands consisting of even dozens of singers (AKB48 is one of the most popular example, consisting – as the name implies – of 48 girls). Japanese bands attract attention with simple, ear-catching melodies, original choreography and… attractive looks. Their works combine dance, soul and r&b, usually with a high dose of Japanese kitsch, clearly visible in the sugary video clips and stylised outfits. Pop artists are very often also actors, which translates into their stage movements and awareness of their own body. J-pop stars occupy the covers of magazines, appear on TV shows, in commercials and TV series. Unfortunately, their popularity can turn dangerous at times. Especially girls whose fame is based on a provocative image are at a risk of being attacked by fans, obsessively interested in the life of their idols.


J-rock and Japanese rock bands

J-rock – a Japanese version of rock – is an Oriental mixture of Western rock, soft rock, punk, metal, symphonic metal and even electronic music. This genre became popular in the 1970s, with such artists as Champlose or RC Succession. The 1980s marked the beginnings of the famous visual kei, inspired by the fierce sounds of glam rock. The colourful costumes and the shocking make-up of the representatives of that trend reconfirmed the Japanese love for theatralisation and “visualisation” of music. The most famous representatives of visual kei include X Japan, Luna Sea or Buck-Tick. Contemporary j-rock bands that need to be mentioned are: L’Arc~en~Ciel – one of the most expensive teams of that genre, Mr. Children or Boom Boom Satelites.



Jazz is yet another genre loved by the Japanese. Its Japanese version started to develop as early as in the 1920s, with the inspiration brought to the Country of Cherry Blossoms by bands from the United States or the Philippines. Due to its roots, jazz was officially banned during World War II as “the music of the enemy.” But it was so popular that the attempts to eliminate it from popular circulation completely turned out futile. J-jazz thrived again in the 1950s, and its artists, primarily Yosuke Yamashita, started to gain international popularity. Contemporary representatives of Japanese jazz, such as the renowned pianist Hiromi Uehara, are recognised all over the world for their incredible technique, stage energy and originality.

Japanese film music

Although Japanese chart hits rarely reach Western recipients, Japanese films are a frequent medium for Oriental sounds. The scores for popular anime or Asian horrors are also an important element of Eastern cinematography, and they are often composed by renowned and recognised artists. Internationally famous tracks include music for the Ghost in the Shell or Cowboy Bebop TV series, created by a Japanese composer Yoko Kanno.

Yamaha and Chopin in Japan

Japan’s modern music is represented not only by popular genres but also by thriving classical music, especial piano music. After all, it is the country of origin of the famous Yamaha and Kawai organs. Contemporary young composers and pianists are inspired by Western classics worshipped by the Japanese, including… Chopin. The great Pole is discussed during music classes in Japanese schools, and his mementoes can be found in many Japanese cities, for instance Hamamatsu, which has a copy of the Warsaw monument of Chopin designed by Wacław Szymanowski. There is another Polish composer who is highly recognised by the Japanese: – Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska, the author of A Maiden’s Prayer – a piece learnt by young students of Japanese music schools. The famous melody can be heard from the speakers on Japanese trains and even… on dustcarts.

Japanese melodies

Connected with poetry and theatre from the very beginning, Japanese music never ceases to amaze the listeners with its originality – both in terms of content and the stage forms, enjoyed so much by the Japanese. The

‘j-’ prefix added to the names of most genres popular in Japan denotes not only the Oriental origin of Japanese art but mostly its otherness, which simply requires special terminology. Due to its originality, Japanese music is an excellent medium of Japan’s tradition and culture. So if you want a true insight into the uniqueness of the Country of Cherry Blossoms, try not only the savoury sushi but also the taste of traditional gagaku or the sugary kitsch of j-pop.

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