The Japanese word for music is “ongaku,” which combines the kanji “on” (sound) with the kanji “gaku” (fun, comfort). Let’s explore the many kinds of Japanese fun-sound with the help of YouTube. We’ll start with the oldest forms of Japanese court music — which, with its improvised and seemingly disparate sounds, is sometimes unintelligible to those used to Western music — and go up to Japanese noise music (Japanoise!) which, with its improvised and seemingly disparate sounds, is definitely sound, generally fun, pretty much always unintelligible to everyone.


Japanese Buddhist chanting may be the most ancient form of Japanese ongaku, but orchestral court music, known as gagaku, is well over a thousand years old. Gagaku
can be just instrumental, but it often accompanies a spiritual Shinto/buddhist dance (bugaku). Comparatively, Japanese classical theater music is a newcomer–it originated a mere four or five centuries ago. A three-stringed Japanese lute known as a shamisen accompanies Japanese puppet theater, known as bunraku, as well as kabuki theater (described a bit above).

Also starting at least several hundreds of years ago is the Japanese tradition of itinerant musicians. Guild-like associations of musicians, mainly composed of visually impaired men (mōsō = “blind monk”) or women (goze) wielding biwas (short necked lutes), koto or shamisens, traveled the land telling epic stories like The Tale of the Heike. (Samurai Dave and his Roving Ronin Report show us a performance from The Tale of Heike, complete with helpful English explanations.)

Japanese taiko drumming is also an ancient and very powerful Japanese classical tradition, in which ensembles of drummers perform folk and festival music in exhilarating performances. Taiko drumming is undergoing such an international revival that it may soon be coming to a video arcade near you.


Japanese folk music (known since the early 20th century as “min’yō“) encompasses four main types of songs: work songs, religious songs, songs used for gatherings such as weddings, festivals and funerals, and children’s songs. The tradition is strong throughout Japan, especially on the once-independent island of Okinawa, whose min’yō differs from that on the mainland in several ways. For example, while mainland Japanese min’yō uses the shamisen, Okinawan min’yō uses the shansin, as well as the sanba, which produce a clacking sound similar to castanets, as well a sharp form of whistling known as “the finger flute” (look for it at 2:50 into the video).

In the mid 19th century a more modern form of min’yō developed that eventually came to be known as “enka.” The origins of traditional enka are in dispute. Some say the style originated as political “speech song” when the Freedom and People’s Movement of the late 1800s used music to bypass government prohibition of public dissent. Others say the term “enka” has less to do with politics than with the fact that the music was specifically intended for performance. Whatever its origins, postwar enka has formed the foundation for modern Japanese pop.

Japanese Westernized pop music, known as kayōkyoku, first appeared in the early 1900s, beginning with “ryūkōka,” which blended Western classical music with Japanese folk. Ryūkōka eventually birthed modern enka, which became exceedingly popular after the War. Hibari Misora, whose “Kappa Boogie Woogie” and who you’ll meet more below, became kayōkyoku’s greatest star.

While kayōkyoku maintained Japanese structures, “J-pop,” which has became internationally popular in the ’90s, uses Western forms as its foundation. J-Pop has its roots in Western bands from the ’60s like the Beatles, but has grown to encompass most Westernized Japanese musical styles, other than contemporary

versions of enka. This is J-Pop. This is J-Pop. Even this, of all things, is J-Pop.

Though J-Pop is a substantial commercial force in Japan, the Japanese music industry encompasses many other genres, some of which wholeheartedly embrace Western music, like Japanese jazz, rap and heavy metal (Japan loves heavy metal [though you may not]). Other Japanese genres like Japanoise, a cacophonous free-form explosion of sound, take substantial root in Japan and spread from there around the world.

In class we’re going to listen to:

— “Kaze Wo Atsumete” by Happy End
In the early 1970 the band Happy End pioneered a genre called, “city pop,” which had a smooth, sophisticated sound that mixed jazz, folk, and Japanese pop while lyrically (and apolitically) addressing issues that were relevant to Tokyo life. The genre was popular throughout the ’80s, until the Japanese “Bubble Economy” burst ushered in music with a rougher edge. City Pop has experienced a revival since Happy End’s “Kaze Wo Atsumete” appeared on the soundtrack of the movie “Lost in Translation.”

More information:
Wikipedia on Happy End | A short but sweet city pop overview: “City pop is a special and good kind of Japanese music.” | Look at Bill Murray and listen to Happy End

— “Kappa Boogie Woogie” by Hibari Misora
Hibari Misora is one of Japan’s all time most beloved vocalists. In the course of her illustrious 40 year career Hibari recorded over 1,200 songs, sold over 80 million records and won the hearts of several generations of Japanese music-lovers. She made her professional recording debut in 1949 at the age 12 with “Kappa Boogie Woogie,” a landmark in recording in Japan’s public embrace of American jazz. (She is said to have preferred her second song, “Kanashiki Kuchibue,” which you can see her perform at the age of 12 in this YouTube video.) Hibari started singing enka in the ’60s and went on to become a giant in the genre. Since her death in 1989 she has continued to sell millions of albums gain respect as a musician and cultural icon. A kappa, by the way, is a Japanese mythological creature about the size of a five year old child that lives in ponds or other bodies of water. A kappa has a duck beak, a turtle shell and webbed feet, though it’s also somewhat human in appearance and, of course, speaks Japanese. Kappas are notorious pranksters, and not always kind to children, but once befriended, your kappa will be a lifelong pal, especially if you keep giving him his favorite food: cucumbers.

More information:

Wikipedia on Hibari Misora | In 1997, ten million Japanese voted Hibari’s “Kawa no Nagare no You ni” the greatest Japanese song of all time | Next time you’re in Kyoto go to the Hibari Misora museum

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