Rough Guide to the Music of Japan Vol. 2

The days of Japanese music being perceived at both ends of the scale as the worst excesses of idol pop or inaccessible traditional music are hopefully over. In truth, Japanese musicians have for years been skilfully adept at blending the traditional with the pop, absorbing foreign influences into their own music and coming up with some of the world’s craziest concoctions. A strict master to disciple learning system and preservation societies has meant traditions have been upheld, as well as updated by younger musicians on the outer fringes.

Today, Japanese musicians have discovered a new confidence in their own identity, leading not just Asia but increasingly the world in creating exciting directions in electronica, dance, jazz, avant-garde, improv, rock and other genres. That confidence of musicians as creators rather than copyists has translated itself into Japanese roots music too with shamisen (lute) players becoming household names. Since the 1930s and even before Japanese traditional melodies were combined with mambo, samba, other Latin rhythms, Hawaiian music and jazz. Gradually American and Western pop and rock influences took over leaving largely westernized music by the late 1960s, that apart from some notable exceptions continued through the 70s. During the first ‘world music’ boom from the end of the 1980s, Japanese musicians increasingly looked to what they had to offer. They found that local folk music or minyo had largely died out on the mainland, but down in the southern islands of Okinawa, the local music was still very much alive, uniquely in Japan, a part of everyday life. Japanese musicians started to incorporate Okinawan elements into their music, creating a new roots music scene.

Down in Okinawa, groups and artists who had been playing for years suddenly found themselves leading this trend. The effect of that first boom in Okinawan roots music had positive effects both in Okinawa, where still today local music is thriving, but throughout Japan. Eventually, musicians realized that in the not too distant past, perhaps from where they were born, there was good local music too and set about rediscovering the sounds that their parents might have grown up with. Being like an American was no longer cool, whereas being yourself was.

The search for homegrown roots music deepened through the 90s. Up in the north in Hokkaido, the Ainu (native Japanese) had been ignored for years to the extent many Ainu would rather hide their heritage. Today contemporary Ainu music is one of Japan’s most popular and hip styles of ‘world music’. While in the deep south, the tiny island of Amami situated half way between Japan proper and Okinawa, was thought of as a rather backward place that hadn’t kept pace with the rest of Japan. That image changed as Amami became a hotbed of local folk music. Even more than in Okinawa, music had survived and thrived, developing naturally among a growing band of singers and shamisen players in their teens, learning from elder musicians in their 70s.

This Rough Guide encompasses all these various styles of music from throughout the history of Japanese music and from throughout Japan. From ancient gagaku music that sounds almost as it would have done 1200 years ago to a recent shamisen bluegrass concoction that sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. Music from the current hotbeds of roots music from opposite ends of the islands, Ainu and Amami. The most quintessential Japanese music of all, enka, post war boogie-woogie that inspired a defeated nation, brilliant innovators of traditional instruments, Okinawan legends, music of the floating world inhabited by geishas a hundred years ago, culminating in a 20 piece free jazz orchestra who take as much inspiration from the futuristic Sun Ra Arkestra (some of who feature on the recording) as they do from ancient butoh dance. An album that defies categories, challenges stereotypes and highlights artists who are some of the most potent musical forces of the east.


Festivals (matsuri) take place throughout Japan throughout the year at temples and shrines of all sizes. From large cities to small villages, for New Year, spring, midsummer, autumn harvest or winter snow. Often loud, raucous events, music plays an integral part. Huge taiko drums might beat to the rhythm of the mikoshi (portable shrine) being carried around town, or rows of kimono clad ladies might dance in perfect sequence and sing in unison to the accompaniment of taiko and shamisen. Ushibuka Haiya Matsuri takes place every April on the coast in Amakusa in Kumamoto prefecture, Kyushu. The song and dance originated during the Edo period (1603-1868) when women would perform for the entertainment of the crews from the ships who had called at the port. These days some 3000 women dance to this song down the street, enjoyed by young and old. The song’s popularity spread to other parts of Japan, forming the basis for other local festival songs.


Chanchiki are committed to preserving and updating minyo, local Japanese folk music. Minyo used to form an integral part of daily life; celebrating weddings and other festivities, as work songs for planting rice or fishing, songs to dance to or as ballads telling of hardship. Until the 1960s, minyo songs and melodies pervaded the popular music scene while these days people have mostly lost any connection with minyo, perhaps hearing it performed only at local festivals. The leader of Chanchiki, Tsutom Tanaka, wanted to inject a fresh energy and impetus to minyo, restoring the balance between tradition and creation by seeking out almost forgotten repertoire and adding western instruments and elements of rock, Latin, African and other styles. He enlisted the help of like-minded young musicians such as female singer Makiko Ikeda, shamisen player Hajime Nishi and shakuhachi player Koushi Tsukuda. Adding to the line-up is bass player Tacoji and a horn section made up of members from Shibusashirazu.

The small island of Amami is the last drop of Kagoshima, the southernmost prefecture of Kyushu, the southern of the four main islands that comprise Japan. Amami lies geographically and musically half way between Japan and Okinawa, a unique hybrid of its two neighbours. As on Okinawa, the main instrument is the three stringed snake skinned banjo, the sanshin, although the Amami version has thinner strings, is tuned to a higher pitch and has a sharper tone. The music however is played in a minor scale as in the rest of Japan. Amami has one of the most vibrant local roots music scenes with a host of young musicians playing traditional music and updating it in ingenious ways. Born in 1983, Nami Makioka won three successive local folk competitions by the time she was sixteen. She made her first record in 2002, with this track taken from her latest album from 2007.


Born in Okinawa in 1952, as a teenager Takashi Hirayasu played guitar with blues and rock bands at bars and clubs catering for the American GIs taking part in the Vietnam war stationed at one of the numerous bases on the island. In his early 20s he became more interested in Okinawan shima-uta (island songs) and learnt the sanshin, the three stringed snakeskin banjo. He went on to join Shokichi Kina and Champloose as guitarist, helping to forge their seminal rock roots sound and took part in the classic Bloodline album in 1980 that featured Ry Cooder. After leaving Champloose he released his first solo album in 1998, produced by Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union, from which this track is taken, featuring ex-Nenes vocalist Misako Koja. Takashi went on to record two albums with Bob Brozman which gained international acclaim and has toured extensively around the world.


Somewhat ironically, Oki Dub Ainu Band have become one of Japan’s most successful exports in the world music scene. Ironic, because Oki himself doesn’t really consider himself to be Japanese at all, but in fact a proud Ainu, that is indigenous Japanese. Before Oki arrived plucking his tonkori, a brittle stringed instrument, the music of the Ainu had been virtually forgotten, reduced to being heard in one of the Ainu tourist villages in Hokkaido, home to most of the remaining Ainu living in Japan. Upon discovering his ancestry (he is half Ainu/Japanese) Oki felt it was his mission to bring the music of the Ainu into the modern age and give the young Ainu something to feel proud about it. He listened intently to ancient archive recordings of his Ainu elders which he combined with the music he had grown to love; dub, reggae and world styles. Oki Dub Ainu Band is the culmination of his original ideas.


The largest of the Ryukyu Islands in the deep south of Japan, Okinawa’s music scene encompasses minyo and shima uta (meaning ‘island songs’) together with an equally vibrant pop, indie rock and dance scene. Small, dark, cavernous clubs reverberate to the latest beats, contrasting with the white sand beaches, and natural beauty of the island. It’s from this creative atmosphere and confluence of cultures that the UK/US duo of Ryukyu Underground emerged. Keith Gordon and Jon Taylor desired to combine the traditional sounds around them with electronic production and other musical influences. Their first album in 2002 became an instant hit in Japan as did the follow up, Mo Ashibi, in 2003. Tracks from these two albums were then handed over to leading re-mixers and djs for the 2CD set ‘Ryukyu Remixed’ (2004) including this track, given a remix by Los Angeles producer/downtempo dj, Saru.

Jon Taylor and Keith Gordon of Ryukyu Underground

Jon Taylor and Keith Gordon of Ryukyu Underground


Seijin Noborikawa is probably Okinawa’s most loved and respected elder musician. However, he doesn’t fit easily into the ‘traditional’ musician category. He doesn’t usually dress in kimono, composes his own anti-war and other protest songs, developed a six-string sanshin, the ‘rokushin’, and is known as the Okinawan ‘Jimi Hendrix’ for his fast sanshin playing. Born in Hyogo Prefecture in Japan in 1930, he moved back to Okinawa as a child. A sanshin player from childhood, he was one of the founding members of a traditional music society and started recording from the 1950s. It was only after his starring role in the 1999 film Nabbie no Koi (Nabbie’s Love) and subsequent Hotel Hibiscus that his fame spread to the rest of Japan. Asadoya Yunta is one of Okinawa’s most famous traditional songs, this track taken from his album Spiritual Unity produced by Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union and featuring other members of the group.

Seijin Noborikawa pictured with Sadao China

Seijin Noborikawa pictured with Sadao China


Soul Flower Mononoke Summit is the acoustic version of Soul Flower Union, a rock group from Osaka. They were formed in the wake of the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 when the group took to the streets of Kobe to play for the victims. This track is taken from their third album Deracine Ching-Dong (2007) and is their usual blend of Okinawan sanshin, the characteristic chindon drum (also the name of the music, a kind of early form of street advertising) plus accordion, clarinet guitars, hayashi backing vocals and the rasping vocals of Takashi Nakagawa. It was written by Azenbo Soeda (1872-1944) in 1908, a legendary political street singer who was reduced to silence by the authorities after the 1920s. Mononoke Summit play mostly these soshi enka (political street songs) while others are from Okinawa, and buraku (former outcast) songs, a contentious issue in Japan but not one this politically motivated group are about to shy away from.


Kawachi is a suburb of Osaka. Formerly a farming district, people have long enjoyed dancing at their summer bon odori festival, when the souls of ancestors return from the world of the dead. Kawachi Ondo developed unlike other ondo (dance music), the lyrics describing current events, the music embracing influences from 70s soul to reggae, electric guitar to string sections and took to being performed not just outdoors in the summer but indoors throughout the year. The musicians perform on a raised stage around which the audience dance in their kimonos in a circular style. Various stars of Kawachi ondo emerged who became known throughout the country. Kawachi Ondo became a source of pride for the working classes of Osaka, whose migrant workers in Tokyo organized their own annual festival. Hajime Ikoma formed his own team, Ikoma Kai, in 1970 and made his first record the following year. Kawachi no Ryu is one of his best known hits.


The thirteen stringed zither, the koto is one of three important traditional instruments, the others being the shakuhachi and the shamisen. The person who did more than any other to bring the koto into the modern age was Tadao Sawai (1937-1997). His compositions are some of the most performed and well known of the last fifty years, and his influence on a new generation of players is immense. His thoroughly inventive approach changed the rules of koto composition. Both left and right hands worked independently yet interdependently building layer upon layer of shifting rhythms creating a multitude of subtle textures. Dramatic hitting of the strings could be followed by serene passages of grace. Sawai performed around the world before his untimely death but left behind a legacy of over seventy compositions. This track, played by Sawai himself, is based on the theme of one of Japan’s best known melodies Sakura Sakura.


Kunaichi Gakubu, is the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency. They comprise about 30 members and perform gagaku for official occasions at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and elsewhere. Gagaku is an ancient form of Japanese classical music and has been performed at the Imperial court for about 1200 years. One of the main types of repertory is togaku, a body of pieces brought to Japan by musicians who visited China during the Tang period (618-907). When performed without dance these are called kangen, the most famous piece of which is Entenraku. Netori are short pieces played prior to Entenraku in a free rhythm to establish the mode, in this case Hyojo. A gagaku ensemble uses a number of unique instruments such as hichiriki. a small bamboo pipe with a large double reed, sho, a mouth organ with seventeen pipes, ryuteki, a transverse bamboo flute, gakuso, a thirteen stringed zither and percussion instruments kakko (small barrel drum), dadaiko (large barrel drum) and shoko (brass gong).


Shomyo is the Japanese version of Buddhist chants, the adding of melodic patterns to sacred Buddhist words in Sanskrit and other texts in different languages. Buddhist chanting originated in the birthplace of Buddhism in India, crossed into China where it developed and entered Japan in the 5th century. Tendai Shomyo is one of the main Buddhist sects, founded by Saichu and Ennin in the 9th century at Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei, having gained knowledge of rituals and chanting after returning from Tang Dynasty China. For 1,150 years it has been passed down from master to disciple. Usually largely unaccompanied, on this recording Tatsuya Koumazaki plays an acoustic guitar made from paulownia wood, as is the koto, the sound half way between the two instruments. This recording is a rare combination of different Japanese traditions and instrumentation.



The twang of the shamisen has been heard in Japan since at the least the beginning of the 17th century, although the earliest sources date back to 1562 in Osaka. The shamisen arrived in Japan via Okinawa, who first adapted the instrument from the Chinese sanxien into the sanshin. It is the instrument that has the greatest variety of uses in Japanese music, the backbone of kabuki music, folk music and the chosen instrument of geishas. This is one such piece performed by geisha in the pleasure quarters, known as kouta or short song, with often playful lyrics about love in various situations or about nature. Haru no Tatsu Tokya means something like ‘When You Get Angry’.


Takeharu Kunimoto first heard American bluegrass on the radio when he fourteen. The following year he went to see Bill Monroe play live and shook hands with him after the concert. This inspired him to take up the mandolin and he formed a Bill Monroe tribute band at school. By the time he was nineteen he started learning the shamisen and had become fascinated with rokyoku, (traditional style storytelling). A man with a keen sense of humour, over the years he developed his own wacky style of rokyoku, playing rock ‘n’ roll on the shamisen and telling hilarious stories at the same, and dropping in the occasional bluegrass tune as well. In 2003 he went to East Tennessee State University to study American traditional cultures and bluegrass for a year. He joined a bluegrass group and then formed his own band, The Last Frontier. Appalachian Shamisen is the ultimate melding of his two great musical passions.


During the second world war popular music was somewhat hijacked by the government for patriotic purposes. In post war Japan, the positive tone of the 1930s returned as Japanese elements were mixed with American music and other styles in one of the most creative periods in popular music. The greatest songwriter during this period and a legend of Japanese music was Ryoichi Hattori (1907-1993) whose vast body of work laid the foundation for post war enka. Tokyo Boogie-Woogie was one of Hattori’s biggest hits, recorded in 1948 by Shizuko Kasagi one of the most popular stars of the day. She also appeared in films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel. This song, along with others helped revive the spirit of the Japanese people and symbolized a new optimism. Kasagi was a graduate of the Shochiku Revue and was known as the queen of boogie.


Enka is in many ways the most quintessential of Japanese music, sometimes compared to French chanson or Italian canzone. The term enka has only been around for about 30 years, although similar songs were previously classified as simply popular music. Enka connects individuals with their dreams and heartaches through music. Nothing comes easily to the subject of an enka song, the struggle being all important. Hibari Misora (1937-1989) was Japan’s greatest ever enka singer, but perhaps Harumi Miyako could lay claim to the present crown. Born in 1948 in Kyoto, her mother taught her various singing techniques including her unari, singing an important phrase of a song with a growling voice. She made her first record in 1964 and for the next twenty years was one of the most popular singers in Japan. In 1984 she unexpectedly decided to quit, citing exhaustion, a desire to lead a normal life and look after her ailing father. She came out of retirement in 1990 singing songs in a more pop style with a personal touch to the lyrics.


Born in 1948 in Hokkaido, Mortio Agata was one of the ‘gentle generation’ of singer/songwriters of the early 1970s, influenced by US folk/rock and hippy culture. Agata’s music evoked the spirit of 1920 and 30s Japanese popular music, mixing Japanese style melodies with western instrumentation. By 1987 he’d become fascinated with world music and formed the influential group Raizo at the beginning of the 1990s. Coming from similar backgrounds, Agata and producer Makoto Kubota have been working together for years. Kubota was one of the driving forces and taste makers of the burgeoning world music scene in Japan in the late 80s. In recent years he’s gained worldwide acclaim for his Blue Asia project. Tokyo Bushi was a popular song in 1920s Japan, with lyrics set to the tune of Marching Through Georgia which had arrived with the opening up of Japan to the Western world to which Kubota has added Brazilian Nordeste rhythms.


‘There is no other band on the planet like us’ say Shibusashirazu. Little to argue with there, for once this is a group for which the word ‘unique’ can be applied correctly. Shibusashirazu (roughly meaning Never Be Cool) is a loose collective of around twenty musicians. Founded by bass player Daisuke Fuwa in 1989, the band comprises some of Japan’s top free and improvised jazz musicians combining experimental and avant- garde jazz with elements of rock, punk, Japanese pop, enka and traditional music, to name but a few of their eclectic influences. In concert they also feature butoh dancers, ‘groovedance’ girls and stage props that turns the stage itself into a piece of art. They’ve forged a considerable live reputation in Japan and in Europe, where in 2002 they opened Glastonbury Festival on the Pyramid Stage. This track features several members of the Sun-Ra Arkestra, probably their nearest counterparts in the west.

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