The History of Japanese Music (1)

ballad […] [(O) Fr. ballad f. Prov. balada to dance] n. 1. A light, simple song; spec. (a) a song intended to accompany a dance; (b) a sentimental or romantic composition of two or more verses each sung to the same melody. […] A popular song, esp. one attacking persons or institutions. […] A popular narrative song in slow tempo. 2. A proverbial saying, usu. in the form of a couplet. […] 3. A lively poem in short stanzas, in which a popular narrative is graphically told […].

— The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Volume 1, A-M, (1993) pg. 173

Welcome to “the history of Japanese music”, a feature in my blog which will appear every once in a while documenting the several periods in Japanese music, beginning with the Nara Period (710-794) and ending with modern music.

Part One: The Nara and Heian Periods

Although Japan is an archipelago cut off completely from the Asian mainland, much of its musical influence began with the cultural waves of the Yamato Period (250-710) and the Nara Period (710-794), originating in the by then already well-established and long-lasted Chinese Empire and Korea. The Yamato Period, which saw the first national unison on the Japanese archipelago, and is the beginning of the Japanese Imperial Court, the longest lasting monarchy in the World, also saw the “importation” of Buddhism in the sixth century. Wanting to seem prestigious, rich and powerful, the Imperial Court decided to have temples, statues and works of literature made.

1. “Song”: The Beginning of Japanese Music

The word uta, although it can be written with many characters, always means song. It is a unique connection of two syllables, compared to the sound ji which can mean temple, hour, samurai, and many others. To begin this series of documentary blog articles about the history of Japanese music, we will analyze three of the many characters which can be used to write uta:

  • 唄 is formed of the kanji for “mouth” and “shell”. The kanji for “shell”, kai, is found in the kanji for “to buy”, as shells were an ancient for of currency. As such “mouth shell” can designate something which comes out of the mouth which is of a certain value.
  • 詩 is formed of the kanji for “to say” and “temple”. Songs were at first Buddhist chants, and as such were “words from the temple”.
  • 詠 is formed of the kanji for “to say” and “eternity”. Indeed, songs, or poems, as they were first known, were texts whose sayings usually had a global lesson: sayings of eternal truth.

From these three kanji, we can deduce that to the time when the first kanji were “imported” from China, the sense of uta was not song but poem, and has only in more recent times taken the meaning of song. Of course, this counts for other languages as well, since the poem is predecessor of the song, but kanji generally make it very easy to define Japanese culture and the manner of thought of ancient Japan.

2. Heijo-kyo, the “capital of the castle on plains” and Heian-kyo, the “capital of the peaceful plains”

In 710 AD, the Emperor of Japan moved the capital to Nara, then known as Heijo-kyo, as was customary to do after the death of an Emperor (this was a custom founded on the Buddhist belief that the place of death of a person is filthy). The capital would only be moved in 794 AD to Heian-kyo, later Kyoto, where it would stay until 1868. These two perids, the Nara Period and the Heian Period, mark the beginning of the creation a unique Japanese culture.

During the Yamato Period, the main focus of the Imperial Government was to adopt the culture of a country seen higher, and in turn grow to challenge it—eventually. But with a growing ego and self-confidence, it was almost inevitable that Japan attempt to develop a culture which would make it different from China. Arguably, they failed, the fundaments of Chinese culture still lying deep within Japanese culture, but there remains a massive divide between the Chinese and Japanese cultures.

Most of the important elements of Japanese culture were created during the Nara and Heian Periods, and writing was a field almost strictly reserved the Court Nobility, who controlled virtually all of “Wakoku”, Japan. The use of verses and stanzas, metaphors and other standards in poetry were set. The first novel written in Japanese, equally the oldest novel of the world, Genji Monogatari, the Tales of Genji, written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, arguably the most famous author in Japanese history, was written, much like Beowulf, partially in prose. These poems and tales then had influence on the earliest musical arts, notably Gagaku (“beautiful music”, orchestral court music), koto and biwa, as well as the dances which sometimes accompanied them.

Since Chinese characters, kanji, had come to be the official language used in legal documents, it was another challenge to get rid of this in order to help the unique Japanese culture further develop. As such, the writers of the Nara and even more of the Heian Period tried to avoid the use of Chinese as much as possible. They did not completely succeed, as these kanji, even though there are only 2000 compared to the several thousand Chinese characters that now exist, still compose the fundament of Japanese writing. 

Genji Monogatari, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu

3. Early Musical Theory

China is of a complicated culture, and part of separating oneself from it was simplifying this culture and building up those fundaments. The result was a very simple, elegant culture based on the Chinese culture yet visibly different. Nonetheless, music was, like in China, a “commodity” reserved almost strictly to the highest levels of the state.

One of the most important milestones in Japanese music is the concept of jo, ha, kyu: begin, break and hurry. This dictated the style in which music was to be written: a gentle opening, then an acceleration, and then ending with a very fast section followed by a gentle ending. This is present in modern music as verse, chorus and bridge.

A closing note: the most prominent styles of music during the Nara and Heian Period

  • Gagaku (“elegant music”) is orchestral court music. There are two types of Gagaku: Kangen (“wind instrument and chords”), instrumental music, and Bugaku (“dancing music”), Gagaku accompanied by a dance.
  • Kagurauta (“god’s music”), Azuma-Asobi (“eastern entertainment”), and Yamatouta (“Japanese music”) are indigenous song styles.
  • Togaku (“Tang music”) and Komagaku (“Korean music”) originate in music from the cultural waves of the Tang Dynasty in China.
  • Shomyo (“voice of enlightenment”), Buddhist chanting.

The second installment of “The History of Japanese Music” will appear in January and will focus on the development of music during the pre-Sengoku Feudal Period (1185-1476).


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