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The traditional music of Japan is played on instruments which, in many cases, are almost indentical to those used on the Asian mainland over 1,000 years ago. Many examples of the earliest forms of these instruments are still preserved in the Shosoin Imperial Repository in Nara. Their use has continued through the perpetuation of ancient music called gagaku, a refined entertainment originally introduced from China and Korea in the 7th century and preserved ever since under the patronage of the Imperial Court.
The instruments used in gagaku are as follows: shoko (gong), taiko (suspended drum), kakko (double-ended drum), tsuzumi (a drum played on the shoulder), shiragi koto (13-stringed zither), gaku biwa (4-stringed lute), wagon (6-stringed zither), hichiriki, oteki and fue (flutes and flageolets) and the sho, a free-reed mouth organ. Some or all of these instruments are used in gagaku pieces, also as musical accompaniment to dances of similar antiquity called bugaku.
Through the centuries, gagaku and bugaku instruments have been adapted for use in religious and secular music; the Heike biwa, Chikuzen biwa and Satsuma biwa of Buddhist monks, for example, and the koto (or so no koto)a popular instrument since ancient times, particularly among Japanese women. The koto has been successfully blended with Western instruments in modern compositions.
Another string instrument, the samisen, was introduced to Japan in the mid-16th century from the Ryukyu Islands. It is played as a solo instrument and in accompaniments to nagauta and joruri, kouta (short, poetic songs), minyo (folk music) and the songs and dances of geisha. The samisen, which has a long neck, square body and three strings, has three basic tunings: Hon-choshi, ni-agari, san-sagari. It is plucked either by the fingers or a plectrum and the neck is without frets. Shinnai nagashi is a refined development of samisen music played by geisha originating with Tsuruga Shinnai (1714-1774).
These pieces are among the earliest surviving examples of Japanese music. Kagura is rooted in ancient Shinto rituals which draw their inspiration from Japanese mythology, notably the dance which is said to have lured the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, from the cave where she retired after an argument with her brother, Susanowo. Surviving examples of kagura music and dance have two sources: kagura performed at the Imperial Court (mi-kagura) and rural kagura (sato kagura). The latter is strongly tinged with shamanism and other primitive folk beliefs. Musical accompaniment to kagura is provided by instruments used in bugaku (see above: A-4-1). The dancers, usually priests or shrine maidens, wear Chinese- influenced costumes of the Heian period. Dengaku is another ancient music and dance form. It was refined during the 14th and 15th centuries from rural dances related to the rice-planting ritual and, for a while, performances of dengaku were patronised by the military elite. Dengahu performers today dance while accompanying themselves on the binzasara (a percussion instrument made of slats of wood) and the shitetei (a circular hand-drum).
Furyu were popular songs and dances of the mediaeval period. Prior to the popularisation of faryu in the 16th century there was a clear distinction between the elegant dances of the court and the folk dances of the countryside. Fnryu represents a transitional phase preceding the development of buyo, the sophisticated secular dance of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Furyu are among the most graceful and rhythmic of all Japanese dances.
All these pieces are examples of music which survive today in the context of various celebrations and festivals. The term hayashi denotes a musical group; in this context it refers to festival music played by flutes(fue), shoulder drum (tsuzumi), samisen and a percussion instrument called sho – a metal dish which is struck rhythmically with a metal rod. Additional rhythmic accompaniment at festival time is provided by the taiko, the barrel-shaped drums played with great skill and enthusiasm by young Japanese men. Manzai music (see S-26-3-10) is represented by Sanbaso; this piece also appears, in embellished form, in the kabuki repertoire.
These songs accompany the bon odori (see S-26-1-10) of midsummer. As folk songs, they have never been consciously preserved and thus the very large number of bon odori uta sung today includes many of quite recent origin. Over the centuries, songs have been made up in celebration of local events – a song and dance was created in celebration of Expo '70 – and others have been so changed that the original form is lost. Some songs and dances, being famous nationwide, are performed beyond their district of origin; others are more or less confined to a specific region.
The lyrics to these songs and the movements of the dances are simple, so that they can be enjoyed by everyone. They relate to the immediate experiences of country people, their surroundings and their life-style. The accompanying instruments are usually confined to samisen, shakuhachi (vertical bamboo flute) and percussion. The vocal part is in a style unique to Japanese folk music, each verse ending in a strange, trailing phrase.
The expression minyo covers all the folk music of Japan: it is a very large field, including work songs, ritual songs, bon odori uta (see above), romantic songs and lullabies. In most of these categories, the minyo are subdivided into those that are sung and danced by the general population on festive occasions and those that were created for special performance by local amateur or professional dance groups. The latter dances are sophisticated, approaching classical dance in complexity. Throughout Japan, variations in industry, culture and climate have given rise to distinctive local styles of minyo, with differing levels of sophistication. Areas having a particularly rich tradition are Akita and Aomori Prefectures, Niigata Prefecture and Fukushima Prefecture.
Instruments used for the accompaniment of minyo are similar to those of bon odori uta with the occasional addition of the kokyu, an instrument entirely confined to minyo and the only Japanese instrument played with a bow. The dancers use many kinds of colourful accessories, including hats decorated with fiowers, umbrellas, fans, tenugui, work implements and small percussion instruments. Their costumes are usually the working costume of the area of origin. In mediaeval times, minyo was an important component in the development of classical secular dance and in recent years great efforts have been made to preserve this very rich folk heritage.
The Ainu people are of different racial stock from the Japanese. They are the aboriginals of Japan, having, according to some evidence, inhabited much of the Japanese mainland before the arrival of the Japanese race. They were certainly living in the southern part of Japan before the mid-7th century B.C., and many Japanese place names appear to have been derived from the Ainu language. Today, the Ainu people – about 17,000 in number – live in Hokkaido and on the island of Sakhalin (now Russian territory). Their music and songs are idiosyncratic and obscure in origin.
The Ainu have two musical instruments, the mukkuri and tonkori. The former is a kind of mouth-harp made up of a strip of bamboo about 13cm long. The pitch is regulated by the breath of the player and a piece of cord attached near to the fixed end of the vibrating "tongue." The other instrument, the tonkori, is a primitive stringed instrument with two, three or more strings. Originally the tonkori was played by the Karafuto Ainu of Sakhalin and the mukkuri by the Yezo Ainu of Hokkaido.
The Bear Festival is the greatest of the Ainu festivals, the hunting, raising and killing of bears being among the Ainus' most fervent rituals. At the time of the festival, a bear cub is ceremoniously killed and his spirit is "sent away" to the mountain paradise.
The contents of this site are excerpted from THE OFFICIAL RECORD OF TIME CAPSULE EXPO'70(March 1975). Please note that company and organization names may differ from those of the current ones.
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