‘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).


Anderson, Benedict. 1991 [1983]. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edn. London: Verso.

Baumann, Max Peter, ed. 1991. Music in the Dialogue of Cultures: Traditional Music and Cultural Policy. Wilhelmshaven: Florian Noetzel Verlag.

Befu, Harumi, ed. 1993. Cultural Nationalism in East Asia: Representation and Identity. Berkeley: Institute of East Asia Studies, University of California.

Berger, Donald P. 1991. ‘Shoka and Doyo: Songs of an Educational Policy and a Children’s Song Movement of Japan, 1910–1926’. PhD dissertation, Kent State University.

Blasdel, Christopher Y. 2000a. ‘Hogaku Today: Education—In Whose Music?’ The Japan Times (online), April 15. http://www.japantimes.co.jp.

——2000b. ‘Koto Reclaims Place of Honor in Japanese Cultural Parlor’. The Japan Times (online), October 21. http://www.japantimes.co.jp.

Coaldrake, Kimi. 2004. ‘Traditional Japanese Music Instruments in the Concert Hall: The Non-Neutrality of the Performance Space’. In Musicology and Globalization: Proceedings of the International Congress in Shizuoka 2002, ed. Musicological Society of Japan, 256–60. To?kyo?: Musicological Society of Japan.

Creighton, Millie. 1997. ‘Consuming Rural Japan: The Marketing of Tradition and Nostalgia in the Japanese Travel Industry’. Ethnology 36.3: 239–54.

Curriculum Council, The. 1998. ‘Synopsis of the Report “National Curriculum Standards Reform for Kindergarten, Elementary School, Lower and Upper Secondary School and Schools for the Visually Disabled, the Hearing Impaired and the Otherwise Disabled” ’. July 29. To?kyo?: The Curriculum Council. http://www.mext.go.jp/english/ news/1998/07/980712.htm

Dawe, Kevin. 2001. ‘People, Objects, Meaning: Recent Work on the Study and Collection of Musical Instruments’. The Galpin Society Journal 54: 219–32.

——2003. ‘The Cultural Study of Musical Instruments’. In The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, ed. Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert and Richard Middleton, 274–83. New York: Routledge.

de Ferranti, Hugh. 2000. Japanese Musical Instruments. New York: Oxford University Press.

Doi, Takeo. 1971. Amae no Ko?zo? (Structure of Dependence). To?kyo?: Ko?bundo?. Translated as The Anatomy of Dependence by John Bester. To?kyo?: Kodansha International, 1973.

Eppstein, Ury. 1994. The Beginnings of Western Music in Meiji Era Japan. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Falconer, Elizabeth. 1993. ‘Sawai Kazue, Avant-garde Kotoist’. Japan Quarterly 40.1: 86–91.

——1995. ‘Koto Lives: Continuity and Conflict in a Japanese Koto School’. PhD dissertation, University of Iowa.

Galliano, Luciana. 2002. Yo?gaku: Japanese Music in the Twentieth Century. London: Scarecrow Press.

Garfias, Robert. 1975. Music of a Thousand Autumns: The To?gaku Style of Japanese Court Music. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gellner, Ernest. 1983. Nations and Nationalism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Groemer, Gerald. 1999. The Spirit of Tsugaru: Blind Musicians, Tsugaru-jamisen, and the Folk Music of Northern Japan. With the autobiography of Takahashi Chikuzan. Warren, MI: Harmonie Park Press.

Hannerz, Ulf. 1992. Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning. New York: Columbia University Press.

Harich-Schneider, Eta. 1973. A History of Japanese Music. London: Oxford University Press.

Herd, Judith Ann. 1987. ‘Change and Continuity in Contemporary Japanese Music: A Search for a National Identity’. PhD dissertation, Brown University.

——1989. ‘The Neonationalist Movement: Origins of Japanese Contemporary Music’. Perspectives of New Music 27.2: 118–63.

——2004. ‘The Cultural Politics of Japan’s Modern Music: Nostalgia, Nationalism, and Identity in the Interwar Years’. In Locating East Asia in Western Art Music, ed. Yayoi Uno Everett and Frederick Lau, 40–84. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger, eds. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ho?gaku Ja?naru, ed. 2001. ‘Shin Wagakki Daishu?go?!’ Ho?gaku Ja?naru 175: 52–54. Ho?gaku Nyu?ue?bu. 2003. To?kyo?: Victor VICL – 61101.

Hsu, Francis L. K. 1975. Iemoto: The Heart of Japan. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Huffman, James L., ed. 1998. Modern Japan: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Nationalism. New York: Garland Publishing.

Hughes, David W. 2008. Traditional Folk Song in Modern Japan: Sources, Sentiment and Society. Folkestone: Global Oriental.

IHT/Asahi. 2002. ‘Traditional Music Stages a Comeback’. The Asahi Shimbun, August 17. http://www.asahi.com.

Iida, Yumiko. 2002. Rethinking Identity in Modern Japan: Nationalism as Aesthetics. New York: Routledge.

Ishii, Yuri, Mari Shiobara and Hiromi Ishii. 2005. ‘Globalisation and National Identity: A Reflection on the Japanese Music Curriculum’. Globalisation, Societies and Education 3.1: 67–82.

Itoh, Mayumi. 2001. ‘Japan’s Neo-Nationalism: The Role of the Hinomaru and Kimigayo Legislation’. JPRI Working Paper 79. Japan Policy Research Institute. http://www.jpri. org/publications/workingpapers/wp79.html

Iyomasa, Kyo?suke. 2005. Chu?gakko? Ongakuka: Shishitsu no Uryoku o Sodateru Jubyo? Kenkyu?: Jugyo? ni Ikiru Hyo?ka. To?kyo?: Meiji Tosho Shuppan.

Japan Now. 2001. ‘A Traditional Music Revival’. Japan Now 4.5: 8.

Japan Times, The. 2001. ‘Remaking Old Instruments: Traditional Music Industry Looks to Schools’. The Japan Times (online), September 4. http://www.japantimes.co.jp.

Johnson, Henry. 1995. ‘An Ethnomusicology of Musical Instruments: Form, Function, and Meaning’. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 26.3: 257–69.

——1996. ‘A Survey of Present-Day Japanese Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments’. Musicology Australia 19: 16–39.

——2003. ‘Traditions Old and New: Continuity, Change, and Innovation in Japanese KotoRelated Zithers’. Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society 29: 181–229.

——2004a. ‘Introduction’. Special Issue on ‘Musical Instruments, Material Culture, and Meaning: Toward an Ethno-Organology’. Journal of Chinese Ritual, Theater and Folklore 144: 7–37.

——2004b. The Koto: A Traditional Instrument in Contemporary Japan. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing.

——2004c. ‘The Koto, Traditional Music, and an Idealized Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Music Performance and Education’. In Japanese Cultural Nationalism: At Home and Abroad, ed. Roy Starrs, 132–64. Folkestone: Global Oriental.

——2006. ‘Tsugaru Shamisen: From Region to Nation (and Beyond) and Back Again’. Asian Music 37.1: 75–100.

Journal of Chinese Ritual, Theatre and Folklore. 2003. Special issue, vol. 141.

Katsumura, Jinko. 1986. ‘Some Innovations in Musical Instruments of Japan During the 1920’s’. Yearbook for Traditional Music 18: 157–72.

Kinoshita, Shin’ichi. 2003. Tsugaru Shamisen Sutairu Bukku. To?kyo?: Shinko? Myu?jikku.

Kishibe, Shigeo. 1971. ‘Means of Preservation and Diffusion of Traditional Music in Japan’. Asian Music 2.1: 8–13.

——1982. The Traditional Music of Japan. 2nd edn. Tokyo: The Japan Foundation.

Klykov, Maxim. 2008. ‘Gendai nihon no gakko? kyo?iku ni okeru wagakki jitsugi kyo?iku no kano?sei: Koto o chu?shin ni’. PhD dissertation, To?kyo? University of Fine Arts and Music.

Kumakura, Isao. 1981. ‘The Iemoto System in Japanese Society’. Japan Foundation Newsletter 9.4: 1–7.

Lancashire, Terence. 2003. ‘World Music or Japanese: The Gagaku of To?gi Hideki’. Popular Music 22.1: 21–39.

Lande, Liv. 2007. ‘Innovating Musical Tradition in Japan: Negotiating Transmission, Identity, and Creativity in the Sawai Koto School’. PhD dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.

Leininger-Ogawa, Marika. 2004. ‘Waon Orchestra: Japanese Traditional Music and the Live Club Scene in Tokyo’. In Musicology and Globalization: Proceedings of the International Congress in Shizuoka 2002, ed. Musicological Society of Japan, 261–64. To?kyo?: Musicological Society of Japan.

Mackay-Smith IV, Alexander. 2001. ‘Nurturing the Next Generation of Traditional Musicians’. The Japan Times (online), April 22. http://www.japantimes.co.jp.

Madrid-González, Alejandro L. 2008. Sounds of the Modern Nation: Music, Culture, and Ideas in Post-Revolutionary Mexico. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Malm, William P. 1971. ‘The Modern Music of Meiji Japan’. In Tradition and Modernization in Japanese Culture, ed. Donald H. Shively, 257–300. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mathews, Gordon. 2000. Global Culture/Individual Identity: Searching for Home in the Cultural Supermarket. London: Routledge. http://dx.doi.org/10.4324/9780203459348

May, Elizabeth. 1963. The Influence of the Meiji Period on Japanese Children’s Music. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McClure, Steve. 1998. Nippon Pop. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.

McVeigh, Brian J. 2004. Nationalisms of Japan: Managing and Mystifying Identity. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Miller, Richard C. 2004. ‘Music and Musicology in the Engineering of National Identity in Meiji Japan: Modernization Strategies of the Music Investigation Committee, 1870–1900’. PhD dissertation, University of Wisonsin–Madison.

Mitsui, Toru. 1997. ‘Interactions of Imported and Indigenous Musics in Japan: A Historical Overview of the Music Industry’. In Whose Master’s Voice? The Development of Popular Music in Thirteen Cultures, ed. Alison J. Ewbank and Fouli T. Papageorgion, 152–74. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press.

——1998. ‘Domestic Exoticism: A Recent Trend in Japanese Popular Music’. Perfect Beat 4.3: 1–12.

Monbusho?. 2002. Monbusho? Kokuji 176. To?kyo?: Monbusho?.

Murao, Tadahiro, and Bernadette Wilkins. 2001. ‘Japan’. In Musical Development and Learning: The International Perspective, ed. David J. Hargreaves and Adria C. North, 87–101. London: Continuum.

Nakamura, Ryoko Maria. 2002. ‘Hideki Togi out to Gagaku Your World’. The Japan Times (online), 29 December. http://www.japantimes.co.jp.

Nakane, Chie. 1984. Japanese Society. Tokyo: Charles E Tuttle.

Nakao, Hidehiro. 2001 ‘The Sun Also Rises? What the New Governor of Tokyo Symbolizes’. In Asian Nationalism in an Age of Globalization, ed. Roy Starrs, 168–77. London: Curzon Press.

Nelson, John K. 2000. Enduring Identities: The Guise of Shinto in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Nishiyama, Matsunosuke. 1997. Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, trans. and ed. Gerald Groemer. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Okano, Hitoshi. 2002. ‘Shin Fukuyama Goto no Tokucho?’. In Ho?gaku Koto Hajime: Kyo? Kara no Jugyo? no tame ni, ed. Yamaguchi Osamu and Tanaka Kenji. To?kyo?: Kawai.

Okano, Hitoshi et al. 2001. ‘Case Study on Support for Traditional Local Industry: Development of Shin-Fukuyama Koto’. Hiroshima Kenritsu To?bu Ko?gyo? Gijutsu Senta? Kenkyu? Ho?koku 14. http://sciencelinks.jp/j-east/article/200204/000020020402A0125280.php.

O’Neill, Patrick G. 1984. ‘Organization and Authority in the Traditional Arts’. Modern Asian Studies 18.4: 631–45.

Ortolani, Benito. 1969. ‘Iemoto’. Japan Quarterly 16.3: 297–306.

Parmenter, Lynne. 1999. ‘Constructing National Identity in a Changing World: Perspectives in Japanese Education Source’. British Journal of Sociology of Education 20.4: 453–63.

Pecore, Joanna T. 2000. ‘Bridging Contexts, Transforming Music: The Case of Elementary School Teacher Chihara Yoshio’. Ethnomusicology 44.1: 120–36.

Pekkilä, Erkki. 1994. ‘Nationalism, Regionalism, Leftism, and Individualism’. Ethnomusicology 38.3: 405–408.

Peluse, Michael S. 2002. ‘Folk Revival or Pop Sensation? The Latest Tsugaru Shamisen Boom’. MA dissertation, Wesleyan University.

Qureshi, Regula Burckhart. 1997. ‘The Indian Sarangi: Sound of Affect, Site of Contest’. Yearbook for Traditional Music 29: 1–38.

——2000. ‘How Does Music Mean? Embodied Memories and the Politics of Affect in the Indian Sarangi’. American Ethnologist 27.4: 805–38.

Ramnarine, Tin K. 2003. Ilmatar’s Inspirations: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Changing Soundscape of Finnish Folk Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Read, Cathleen B. 1975. ‘A Study of Yamada-ryu? So?kyoku and its Repertoire’. PhD dissertation, Wesleyan University.

Read, Cathleen B., and David L. Locke. 1983. ‘An Analysis of the Yamada-ryu Sokyoku Iemoto System’. Hogaku 1.1: 20–52.

Reuters. 2007. ‘Japanese School Kids Urged to Learn Martial Arts’. September 5. http:// www.reuters.com/article/2007/09/05/us-japan-martial-idUST33848020070905

Rose, Andrea M. 1996. ‘A Place for Indigenous Music in Formal Music Education’. International Journal of Music Education 26: 39–54.

Sanga, Imani. 2008. ‘Music and Nationalism in Tanzania: Dynamics of National Sapce in Muziki wa Injili in Dar es Salaam’. Ethnomusicology 52.1: 52–84.

Schultz, Anna. 2008. ‘The Collision of Genres and Collusion of Participants: Marathi Ra?s?triya K??rtan and the Communication of Hindu Nationalism’. Ethnomusicology 52.1: 31–51.

Shadan Ho?jin Ongaku Bunka So?zo?. 2002. Gakko? Kyo?iku ni okeru Wagakki no Jitsugi Shido?: Genjo? Kadai Tenbo? Zenkoku Anke?to Cho?sa Ho?kokusho. To?kyo?: Shadan Ho?jin Ongaku Bunka So?zo?.

Smith, Anne W. 2003. ‘Kotos, Choruses, or Cellos: Comparing Music Education Management in the United States and Japan’. Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society 33.1: 52–64.

Starrs, Roy, ed. 2001a. Asian Nationalism in an Age of Globalization. London: Curzon Press.

——2001b. ‘Introduction’. In Asian Nationalism in an Age of Globalization, ed. Roy Starrs. London: Curzon Press.

——, ed. 2002. Nations Under Siege: Globalization and Nationalism in Asia. New York: Palgrave.

——, ed. 2004. ed., Japanese Cultural Nationalism at Home and in the Asia Pacific. Folkestone: Global Oriental.

Suda, Naoyuki, Daijo? Kazuo and Anthony Rausch. 1998. ‘The Birth of Tsugaru Shamisen Music: The Origin and Development of a Japanese Folk Performing Art’. Aomori: Aomori University Press.

Sugimoto, Yoshio. 1997. An Introduction to Japanese Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Suzuki. 2003. 2004 Musical Instruments Catalogue. Hamamatsu: Suzuki.

Takasu, Hajime, and Kanamoto Masatake. 2005. Sho?gakko? Ongakuka no Jugyo?zukuri: Ko?gakunenhen. To?kyo?: Meiji Tosho Shuppan.

Terada, Yoshitaka, ed. 2007. ‘Authenticity and Cultural Identity: Performing Arts in Southeast Asia’. Senri Ethnological Reports 65. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology.

Terauchi, Naoko. 2003. ‘Western Impact on Traditional Music: “Reform” and “Universalization” in the Modern Period of Japan’. Journal of Chinese Ritual, Theatre and Folklore 141: 13–52.

——2008. ‘Beyond the Court: A Challenge to the Gagaku Tradition in the “Reconstruction Project” of the National Theatre’. In Performing Japan: Contemporary Expressions of Cultural Identity, ed. Henry Johnson and Jerry Jaffe. Folkestone: Global Oriental.

Thornbury, Barbara E. 1997. The Folk Performing Arts: Traditional Culture in Contemporary Japan. New York: State University of New York Press.

Tokumaru, Yosihiko [Yoshihiko]. 1991. ‘Preface’. In Tradition and its Future in Music: Report of SIMS 1990 o?saka (the Fourth Symposium of the International Musicological Society), ed. Tokumaru Yosihiko et al. Tokyo: Mita Press.

——1997. ‘Putting on Traditional Japanese Music Concerts’. Acta Asiatica 73: 84–95.

Tomooka, Kuniyuki, Sachiko Kanno and Mari Kobayashi. 2002. ‘Building National Prestige: Japanese Cultural Policy and the Influence of Western Institutions’. In Global Culture: Media, Arts, Policy, and Globalization, ed. Diana Crane, Nobuko Kawashima and Ken’ichi Kawasaki. New York: Routledge.

Trends in Japan. 1999. ‘Reclaiming Musical Roots: Schools to Begin Teaching Traditional Instruments in 2002’. Trends in Japan, March 5. http://web-japan.org/trends00/honbun/ tj990305.html.

——2001. ‘The Japanese Instrument Revival: A New Wave in Music Education Trends in Japan’. Trends in Japan, March 28. http://web-japan.org/trends00/honbun/tj010328. html.

Tsuge, Gen’ichi. 1983. ‘Raiment of Traditional Japanese Musicians: Its Social and Musical Significance’. The World of Music 25.1: 55–67.

Vlastos, Stephen, ed. 1998. Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wade, Bonnie C. 2005. Music in Japan: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weintraub, Andrew N. 2001. ‘Instruments of Power: Sundanese “Multi Lara” Gamelan in New Order Indonesia’. Ethnomusicology 45.2: 197–227.

Yamaguchi Osamu, and Tanaka Kenji, eds. 2002. Ho?gaku Koto Hajime: Kyo? Kara no Jugyo? no tame ni. To?kyo?: Kawai.

Yano, Christine R. 1992. ‘The Iemoto System: Convergence of Achievement and Ascription’. Transactions of the International Conference of Orientalists in Japan 37: 72–84.

Yonekawa Hiroe, ed. 2002. ‘Gakufu’. In Ho?gaku Koto Hajime: Kyo? Kara no Jugyo? no tame ni, ed. Yamaguchi Osamu and Tanaka Kenji. To?kyo?: Kawai.

Yoshino, Kosaku. 1992. Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan: A Sociological Enquiry. London: Routledge.

——2002. ‘Globalisation as “Internationalisation”: Perspectives on Nationalism in Japan’. In Sights of Contestation: Localism, Globalism and Cultural Production in Asia and the Pacific, ed. Kwok-kan Tam, Wimal Dissanayake and Terry Siu-han Yip. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.

Yuasa, Aya. 2003. ‘Teaching and Learning Music in Japan’. PhD dissertation, University of Reading.

Ziolkowski, Gloria J. C. 1981. ‘Modifications of Traditional Japanese Music Teaching Methodologies: Koto and Shamisen Instruction Outside of Japan’. Master of Music dissertation, Florida State University.






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