An Intro to Japanese Court Music
This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of CONNECT.
Veronica Nielsen (Hiroshima)
When you think of traditional Japanese music, what are your first thoughts? Some may imagine the tranquil sound of the three-stringed shamisen instrument. Others might ponder the careful plucking of strings on a koto or Japanese zither. Given these instruments’ long history and their impact on shaping contemporary music, it’s no secret that traditional Japanese music such as gagaku continues to influence how various artists create and share music even today. But how far back can we trace the presence of traditional Japanese music in history? And where do Japanese folk songs draw their inspiration regarding musical composition, lyrical content, and more? Gagaku, or Japanese classical music originally played for the imperial court, consists of musical elements we can hear today and an examination of it can help us better understand how important gagaku has been to Japanese music history.
Origins and Types of Gagaku
Gagaku in its current form dates back to the Heian period, or about the late 10th century. (1) However, its roots trace back even earlier to around 589 when the Japanese were introduced to Chinese court music and Buddhism from China. To Japan at the time, China was the most powerful and sophisticated civilization in the known world. Because Japan’s early rulers wanted to develop Japan into a country that others could also respect as being sophisticated like China, they sent various delegates abroad to China to learn about Chinese culture. From music and writing to political leadership, many influential Japanese figures brought knowledge from China that would provide the necessary foundation for Japan to create its culture. One of these was Chinese court music and instruments, which formed the basis for gagaku.
In the Heian period, various performers played gagaku in the imperial court, and musicians passed on how to play it each generation. Gagaku in Japan is a fusion of numerous musical types deriving from China’s togaku and Korea’s komagaku music. Three categories distinguish one type of song from another: Kangen are instrumentals, bugaku includes music for performers to dance to, and utaimono includes a singer chanting or singing poetry or other lines to the music. (3)
I recently tried listening to all three kinds on Spotify and YouTube. Ever since, I will never think about this mysterious music the same way I did before. It is a unique musical genre that one cannot compare to other folk genres elsewhere in the world.
Three Types of Gagaku
Kangen initially sounds eerie, with several flutes resounding louder than other wind instruments and the taiko drums. Many of the songs in this genre are slow-paced, with prolonged notes and occasional drum beating. Depending on where the song composition originated, the tempo in kangen music can vary. In China, for instance, the music consists of faster-paced instrumentals which make for energetic music. On the other hand, songs with influences from Korea or Indonesia tend to have slower background music that will remind listeners of many kangen songs they can hear online today. However, much of it is still slower-paced compared to other traditional music some foreigners may be familiar with on instruments like the shakuhachi flute or the koto. Having listened to several kangen songs, I could understand how the slow progression of the music was considered suitable for imperial court members for formal occasions in the Japanese imperial court back then.
The second genre, bugaku, is somewhat similar to kangen, as members play similar instruments like the mouth-organ and lute. Despite this, unlike kangen, bugaku is accompanied by dancing and has slightly more variety in the music speed. (3) Some of these faster-paced songs came from countries like China and Korea, and some of the performers’ attire displays influences from Indonesia and other parts of Asia with its bright colors and accessories. (1) The dances can be performed by one individual or a group, such as the one in this video. Here, a single performer wears bright orange attire with ornate accessories and moves slowly around the stage in tune with the song. Viewers can also watch how a group of four performers partake in a similar performance to a slightly faster-paced song; they can enjoy seeing the four turn and change places in smooth transitions. (2)
Out of the three main types of gagaku music, I enjoyed listening to utaimono the most; it was the most familiar to me in its musical components than the previous two. From the songs I listened to online, utaimono is probably closest to kangen, with its slower atmosphere and flutes resounding above the drumming and other instruments. However, utaimono also utilizes vocals and song lyrics that are inspired by or directly reference famous poems. One example is the poem “Kanshin” (嘉辰) by Fujiwara Kinto, a poet said to have lived from the mid-Heian period and whose other Chinese poems also inspired other utaimono songs. (4) With all these elements, it’s the most comprehensive of the types of gagaku, and it’s my favorite type for it. (1) The singing style varies between songs, but I enjoyed hearing how vocalists could reach various high notes that listeners may not often hear in much contemporary music. Some listeners may also notice that some vocals remind them of chanting in these folk songs.
Enjoying Gagaku Live
Today, gagaku is no longer played in China or Korea, but the music is still alive and preserved through various ceremonial performances in Japan. (2) Given its cultural significance, gagaku is primarily performed today in the Imperial Household for prestigious occasions like ceremonies and banquets. However, visitors and residents in Japan can also observe gagaku performances at multiple events throughout the year at Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima island in Hiroshima Prefecture. Spectators can listen to Japanese classical music that draws inspiration from China, Korea, and Indonesia. (2) If you’re ever visiting Hiroshima, I hope you can attend the various events and festivals Itsukushima Shrine holds and take advantage of the chance to listen to this fascinating musical genre in-person.
Veronica Nielsen is a first-year Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) living in Hiroshima Prefecture. She enjoys learning about Japanese culture, specifically popular culture, history, and its influences on contemporary Japanese society. She has visited much of Japan and hopes to explore Shikoku and Kyushu, the last two main islands she has yet to see.