‘Sounding Japan’

traditional musical instruments, cultural nationalism and educational reform


  • Henry Johnson University of Otago




Japan, tradition, cultural nationalism, education


Focusing on the political milieu of Japanese cultural nationalism, particularly the closing years of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, this article discusses the transformation of tradition with regard to traditional Japanese musical instruments and their place within discourses of cultural nationalism. Instruments have many meanings and associations within different social and cultural spheres, but radical changes to national cultural policy can quickly transform the ways they are perceived. The starting point for this paper is the Meiji era (1868-1912), which witnessed monumental changes to and influences on Japan. It is from this period that the concept of tradition took on a whole new meaning, and a time that serves as a point on which changes in contemporary Japan are often based. Bringing the observations to the current Heisei era (1989-), traditional Japanese instruments have, especially since the late 1990s, been foregrounded within a wave of cultural nationalism that has been perpetrated simultaneously by a distinct shift in state education policy and an increased popularity and consumption of traditional and more specifically new traditional music.

Author Biography

Henry Johnson, University of Otago

Henry Johnson is Professor in the Department of Music, University of Otago, New Zealand. His teaching and research interests are in the field of ethnomusicology, particularly the creative and performing arts of Asia and its diasporas. His recent books include The Shamisen (Brill, 2010) and Performing Japan (Global Oriental, 2008; co-edited).


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How to Cite

Johnson, H. (2011). ‘Sounding Japan’: traditional musical instruments, cultural nationalism and educational reform. Perfect Beat, 12(1), 11–32. https://doi.org/10.1558/prbt.v12i1.11