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Facts of Japan - Music

Updated on February 5, 2018

Traditional Music

The traditional music of Japan actually started in Nara and Heian Periods. They existed in the form of Buddhist chanting, Shomyo and Gagaku which was the orchestral court music.

Gagaku is, in fact, Japanese classical music that has been performed in the Imperial courts of the Heian period. Yamatouta and Kagurauta Azumaasobi are more or less indigenous repertories only. Then Komagaku and Togaku were having origins in China’s Tang Dynasty and spread through Korean peninsula. Above all, Gagaku is actually divided into two categories called Kangen which is pure instrumental music and Bugaku which is dance accompanied with Kangen.

Komuso plays on bamboo flute called Shakuhachi.
Komuso plays on bamboo flute called Shakuhachi.

Bunraku puppet show.

The existence of Honkyoku can be traced back to 13th century. These are solo Shakuhachi pieces. They were played by the mendicant Fuke sect priests of the Zen Buddhism. The priests were called as Komuso which means empty monks. They chanted these pieces for enlightenment and for alms. Though these priests and their sect have disappeared in due course, their written and verbal pieces are still practiced in a performance or concert setting. The samurai were the popular ones who listened and also performed in these musical activities. They trusted that these musical pieces enriched their lives and the worldly understanding.

Musical theater also developed in Japan from the 14th Century and they emerged as a greatly refined and aesthetic art and consummated by Kanami and Zeami. Out of these two, Zeami was the one who provided the core essence of the Noh repertory. He also authored many such treatises exploring the secrets of the Noh tradition.

At the same time the puppet theater also developed. It was called as Bunraku. This theater flourished during the Chonin of the Edo period. It consisted of various styles of recitation accompanied by the music which was called Shamisen. In this period only many actors performed in lively Kabuki theater. Kabuki actually featured anything from historical to dance plays. It was accompanied by the Shamisen performance and nagauta style of singing.


Folk Music

The traditional instrument Biwa, a kind of short necked lute was initially played by a group of people called Biwa Hoshi. They used this Biwa to tell stories. The Tale of The Heike was the most popular one from this period. It was all about the triumph of the Minamoto over Tiara clan. During the 13th century these Biwa Hoshi actually formed an association for the visually impaired men. They controlled a big portion of the musical culture then.

At the same time many smaller groups of blind musicians formed other associations and toured the neighbourhood and performed religious texts to purify households. They were called as Moso. They played a smaller Biwa than Heike Biwa.

Interestingly, blind women also formed associations and toured the places during the medieval era. They were called as Goze. They mainly used lap drum for their songs. They mostly played the Koto or sometimes Shamisen.

A giant taiko drum, with a length of 240cm, 240cm in diameter and weighing 3 tons. Made from a single piece of wood harvested from the 1200-year old tree.
A giant taiko drum, with a length of 240cm, 240cm in diameter and weighing 3 tons. Made from a single piece of wood harvested from the 1200-year old tree.


Taikois typically Japanese instrument which was used to play many varieties of musical genres in Japan. The instrument comes in various sizes as well. In recent years, it has become the central instrument of percussion ensembles. The reason is that this ensemble was based on festival and folk music of the primitive era. The origin is actually unknown but a 7th century reference forecasts its existence in that period. Though Chinese influence interfered, the music and instruments stayed as uniquely Japanese only. This instrument continued to be used in Shinto and Buddhist music. Even women played taiko in Bon dances at that time.

The modern Taiko was invented by Daihachi Oguchi in 1951. In 1969, the Roots Revival version of Taiko was innovated. Taiko spread to other countries gradually and made its presence felt strongly everywhere.

Modern taiko band - Kyodo Taiko

Minyo Folk Music

Japanese folk songs were broad in nature. They were known as Minyo. But they can be classified into four major categories. They are Work Songs, Children’s Songs such as Warabe Uta, Songs for gatherings such as funerals, weddings and festivals called Matsuri especially Obon and Religious Songs which is a form of Shintoist music called Sato Kaguro.

These Minyo singers used Taiko drums, a three-stringed lute that was known as Shamisen and a bamboo flute called as Shakhachi. There were other musical instruments used as well. They were Shinobue which was a transverse flute, Tsuzumi which was a hand drum, Kane which was a bell and Koto which was a 13-stringed zither. Sanshin was the main musical instrument in Okinawa. Of course, these instruments are traditional Japanese instruments. But in the modern day, synthesizers and electric guitars are being used by the Enka singers when they cover these Minyo songs.

Ondo, Bushi, Bon Uta and Komori Uta are usually the terms being used in Minyo. A folk song with a basically distinctive swing is called Ondo. This swing can be heard 2/4 time rhythm. The Obon festivals feature these Ondo songs. Then a Fushi is actually a song with such distinctive melody. This Fushi can be pronounced as Bushi as well. Bon Uta are usually the songs for Obon. Obon is the lantern festival for the dead. Chindren’s lullabies are essentially Komori Uta.

The other distinctive element of Minyo is that it uses Kakegoe which were actually shouts of cheering. In Minyo they are being used for Chorus. Lately, Iemoto, a guild based system, is being applied in few forms of Minyo.

Okinawan Folk Music

In Okinawan folk music, many forms are popular. They are Umui, Shima Uta, Religious Songs, Celebratory Music and dance songs especially Kachashi were so well known forms.

The mainland Japanese folk music and Okinawan folk music differ in many ways. In fact, Sanshin accompanies the Okinawan Folk Music. But Shamisen accompanies the mainland music. In the accompanying instruments, Sanba and Yubi-bue are used. Sanba produces the clicking sound which resembles the sound of Castanets. Yubi-bue is a sharpest finger whistling sound.

Then there is a big difference in the tonality of these two musical forms. In Minyo, a pentatonic scale is heard. Here the leading and the sub-dominant tone are omitted. The result is a musical scale without half steps between each note. But in Okinawan, the half steps are included and it is a characteristic of the Okinawan as well.


The traditional Japanese instruments are so many. The following lists the major instruments.

Biwa is a short necked fretted lute.

Fue is also a flute.

Hichiriki is a double reed Japanese flute.

Hocchiku is an end-blown flute.

Hyoshigi is a simple musical instrument to announce the beginning of a performance.

Kane is a type of bell.

Kakko is a double headed drum.

Kokyu is a string instrument.

Koto is a stringed musical instrument.

Niko is a bowed musical instrument.

Okawa is the hourglass-shaped Japanese drum.

Ryuteki is a Japanese transverse flute.

Sanshin is a three stringed musical instrument.

Shakuhachi is an end blown dlute.

Shamisen is a three stringed musical instrument.

Shime-daiko is a small Japanese drum.

Shinobue is also a transverse flute.

Sho is a free reed musical instrument.

Suikinkutsu is a garden ornament and musical instrument.

Taiko is a Japanese drum. This taiko is also known as Wadaiko.

Tsuzumi is a Japanese drum only. But is essentially has the Chinese/Indian origin. It is also called as Kotsuzumi.

There are many variations with each instrument as well. Now the modern music of Japan uses all these instruments and techniques with the modern instruments and styles.

Shamisen, fue, percussion: taiko (large drum) kotsuzumi (small drum kept at the right shoulder) and okawa (small drum held on the knees )
Shamisen, fue, percussion: taiko (large drum) kotsuzumi (small drum kept at the right shoulder) and okawa (small drum held on the knees )

The Arrival of Western Music in Japan

After the Meiji restoration, the Western music actually arrived and started its influence in Japan. Izawa Shuji, a bureaucratic, compiled songs called ‘Auld Lang Syne’ using the western musical instruments. He commissioned the song using Pentatonic Melody. Gradually western music caught up with the public. The military marches first became popular with these instruments. Two major forms of music emerged in this period. One is called Shoka, which was composed with a purpose of bringing the western music to Japanese schools. The other was called Gunka, which were pure military marches combined with Japanese elements.

When Japan was moving towards the democracy, the leaders hired singers to air their ideas, messages, and views because the leaders were restricted to speak in public. The street corner singers were called Enka-shi. Bu the end of 19th century, the street corner singing became popular. It had a form called Osakan and the singing was called Rokyoku.

The pop music was also westernized and called as Kayokyoku. Resurrection by Tolstoy was the first of its kind. The song Kachusha no Uta became a hit in 1914 among the Enka-shi. It was surely the first every major selling records in Japan as well. During the pre-war period, Ryukoka became very popular which used western classical music. During the world war period war songs became very popular too.

During the 1950s, Tango, Latin, and Cuba songs also became familiar in Japan.

In this period a Japanese form of tango called Dodompa also emerged. Enka music also had its stint and eventually vanished from the musical scene.

Western Classical music influenced Japanese so much and in fact, Japan became a big market for such music. Many classical musicians became so famous in the late 19th century period. Though the influence was more of western style, the Japanese eagerly learned classical music and formed their own style soon.

Ayumi Hamasaki


Jazz had a very strong presence in Japan since 1930. It was not favored during the world war. Many Japanese are well known in this form both in and out of Japan. Club-Jazz or Nu-Jazz was so popular with the younger generations in Japan. Many DJs brought new notions of Jazz to Japan. The latest bands in Japan are Sakerock and Ego-Wrappin’.

Popular Music

In the1990s, J-pop (abbreviation for Japanese pop) entered into the mainstream music of Japan. The origin of this music emerged from music during 1960s. The Beatles had its effect in Japan.

Rock Music

When the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan were performing, the Japanese bands imitated them during the 1960s. John Lennon from Beatles was truly a greatest western musician in Japan in those days. The imitated groups in Japan were called Group Sounds and it got popular in Japan during 1960s. The Tiger was also the popular band in Japan in that era.

Only by late 1960s the native grown Japanese rock developed. During 1970s it consummated. During the 1990s Boowy influenced the alternate rock bands in Japan.

Punk Rocks/Alternative

Since 1980 to early 2000 the rocks and alternative rocks and Ska-punk bands emerged successfully all over Japan. Few feature films also feathered these musical bands.

Heavy Metal

Japan is naturally very successful with the metal bands and live albums. The two popular bands of Japan are the Power metal and Neo-classical metal. They peaked in success during 1980s.

Western Inspired Folk Music

The group Sounds were the base for the growth of this genre. Many writers wrote memorable lyrics in Japanese using the western folk music. They became so successful in Japan.

Electro-pop and Club Music

Electro-pop was the most successful music in Japan. The musicians were as loose as those in the western countries and they spared none in creating new and innovative music.

Dance and Disco Music

It was in 1984 that Michael Jackson’s hit album thriller became a craze in Japan. This style is the base for the Japanese dance music even now.

Apart from these, many other forms of music occupied Japan quickly and Japanese have learned to produce and create their own style of music and albums during the course of time. Today, they have such musical talent and they conduct the biggest music festival and award functions as well.

Music is flowing through Japanese blood all the time.


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    • loonyBG profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Big thanks apStumbo :)

    • apStumbo profile image


      7 years ago

      Wow, this is a wealth of information! Voted up and useful!


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