Nihon no Uta: Examining Japanese Cultural Identity Through the Tradition of Song

Thursday, May 10, 2012
The homogenous nature of modern Japan and its sense of national identity remain of great interest to both the Western world and modern Japan itself. Such homogeneity is assumed to be the result of Japan's ethnic uniformity and class cohesiveness. Despite the popular Japanese belief of monoethnicity though, modern Japan is home to a growing percentage of diverse ethnicities.[1] Moreover, many people outside and inside of Japan describe the nation as a classless society, due to its prevailing middle class. The Japanese saying, ichioku-sō-chūryū一億総中流, which means "100 million completely middle class", refers to this idea of Japan being a nation of middle class. However, after the burst of Japan's "bubble economy"バブル景気 in the early 1990s, Japan descended into a recession which came to be known as the "Lost Decade" 失われた10年, during which the middle class decreased in size and stability. Today, Japan's economic disparity continues to increase, with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare 厚生労働省 reporting in 2009 that nearly one in six Japanese, or 20 million people, lived in poverty in 2007, putting Japan's poverty rate at 15.7 percent.[2] If one cannot explain Japan's seemingly homogeneous society then in terms of ethnic or class definition, how does one comprehend the prevailing sense of "Japaneseness" among citizens of modern Japan? What contributes to the Japanese identity in today's increasingly international, changing, and modernizing world?

For such an answer, many scholars turn to Japan's long history as an isolated island country and its supposed linguistically unique language. In actuality though, Japan never experienced complete isolation, receiving cultural influences from China and Korea from as early as the Yayoi period弥生時代 (300 BCE–250 CE), and actively engaging in trade with Portuguese, Dutch, English, Spanish, and Vietnamese sailors in the 16th century until the trade limitations that came with the closing of Japan's borders according to the Sakoku Edict鎖国令 of 1635. Japan did then subsequently experience a self-imposed isolation for roughly 220 years until the reopening of its borders in 1854, after negotiations with Commodore Perry ended in a treaty with the United States. Many scholars credit these 200 years as the core of what is now referred to as "traditional" Japanese culture, and as the longest period of peace and stability in Japanese history, it certainly was highly influential. However, Japan was not completely isolated under the sakoku policy, as limited trade with the Dutch, as well as with China and Korea, was permitted under strict regulations.

Similarly, while the Japanese language does possess some distinguishing characteristics, most notably its high degree of contextuality, it is ultimately more linguistically more common than many Japanese and Westerners alike perpetuate. Japanese is only technically considered a language-isolate because its genetic affiliation to other languages or language families is not definitively known.[3] Furthermore, most of the uniqueness of the Japanese language owe much to shallow comparisons with European languages; however, Japanese is typical in terms of overall grammatical structure, phonology, and its agglutinative morphology.

So once again, we return to the question of how to understand Japan's pervasive sense of identity. I think it's worth considering that the answer may lie in Japan's sense of national culture. Although Japanese culture denotes many varied arts, in this paper, I have chosen to focus specifically on the tradition of song in modern Japan (beginning with the Meiji period) and its role in preserving and unifying Japanese cultural identity. To do so, I have addressed the genres of children's song (warabeuta), folksong (min'yō), and the modern ballad (enka).

Music Education and Children's Songs: Warabeuta 童歌

In 1879, under the influence of rapid industrialization and Westernization that accompanied the Meiji Restoration 明治維新, Japan reformed its educational system. Among the changes to Japan's newly formed public school system was the inclusion of a primary music curriculum. Public music education was unheard in Japan at the time, as music and the arts were instead carefully transmitted down a long line of master-student relationships within the iemoto 家元 ("family foundation") or michi 道 ("path") system. Such systems resembled schools or families, in which a specialized craft was taught according to the secret teachings of a master, who had complete authority over his students' training. As a result, musical notation varied between schools, rendering musicians from competing schools unable to read notation outside of their own establishment.

In 1875, Isawa Shūji伊澤修二 (1851-1917) was sent by the Japanese Ministry of Education to Massachusetts in order to receive a formal Western education and training in teaching. There he met American music educator, Luther Whiting Mason (1828-1886), who, at Isawa's recommendation, was subsequently hired by the Japanese government to aid in implementing the new music program. Isawa and Mason, together with a committee consisting of a distinguished koto 箏 player (a zither; Japan's national instrument), gagaku 雅楽 musicians (classical music of the imperial court), and a man well-versed in Japanese literature, created children's songs for textbooks. The songs were a fusion of Japanese traditional poetry and music with European tonal harmony and modern notation. The Ministry of Education compiled these new works into three volumes called Shōgaku Shōkashū 小學唱歌集, or "Elementary School Song Collection." Their publication was wildly successful. Such a musical fusion of East and West eventually fell out of popularity, however, and after Mason's return to the United States in 1883 and Isawa's departure from the Tokyo Music School in 1890, school music education became increasingly more European in nature.[4]

Education went through another set of significant reforms after the Manchurian Incident of 1931, culminating with the renaming of Shōgaku 小学 (Elementary School) to Kokumin Gakkō 國民學校 (National People's School) in 1941. Music education during this time strongly reflected the spirit of ultra-nationalism and militarism that swept the country. Music education was directly addressed in Article 14 of Kokumin Gakkoa-rei Shiko Kisoku 国民学校令施行規則 ("National School Ordinance Regulations"):

The courses in the performing arts and in music are to be designed so as to cultivate the capacity for singing songs correctly and appreciating music, and to purify the national sentiments. The policy of instruction in the performing arts is, first, to place value on spiritual discipline, without lapsing into the instruction of technical skills; secondly, to impart knowledge about the characteristics of our country's performing arts and skills; thirdly, to cultivate the creative capacity for labor.[5]

The phrases "purify the national sentiments" and "spiritual discipline" are clear references to nationalist patriotism while the phrase "cultivate the creative capacity for labor" alludes to the concept of national effort so prevalent in Japan during the war.[6]

In accordance with these new regulations, schoolchildren's songbooks gradually became increasingly filled with music inspired by military marches and modified lyrics promoting allegiance to the war effort. For example, a song about Momotarō 桃太郎, or "Peach Boy", arguably Japan's most popular folk story, is depicted in these new song lyrics as waving the Japanese flag. Other newly composed song's lyrics were less transparent, with titles such as Heitai Gokko兵隊ごっこ ("Soldier Game"), Nyūei入営 ("Enlistment"), or Gunkan軍艦 ("Warship"). The lyrics are chilling, especially when remembering that these songs were composed specifically for children's education. They included lyrics celebrating the sinking of enemy ships at Pearl Harbor, proclaiming the glory of dying in war, descriptions of storming through a rain of bullets and carrying back friends' bones from battle, and emphasizing the imperialistic creation of a Greater East Asia by victory in a "holy war".[7]

Following Japan's defeat in World War II and under supervision of American occupation, Japanese education was again reformed. Music education was certainly not ignored among these reforms. The Gakushu Shidco Yoiryo 学習指導要領 ("Essentials of Educational Guidance") of 1947 firstly advocated that music education strive for: "Cultivation of high aesthetic sentiment and an enriched human nature by activating the comprehension and awareness of musical beauty."[8] Any lyric that hinted at nationalism, militarism, or Shintoism (the state religion during the war) was replaced by traditional Japanese poetic aesthetics, which praised the beauty of the moon, the seasons, and cherry blossoms. Friendship, peace, and good relationships were emphasized as well, such as can be seen in the lyrics of Minna Ii Ko みんないい子 ("Everyone a Good Child"):

Beautiful language, everyone a good child,
Get along well together, everyone a good child[9]

Unfortunately, with the positive change in lyrics also came the complete domination of Western tonality. Whereas wartime songs were consistently written in the traditional Japanese pentatonic scales of in陰and 陽, postwar songs moved away from Japanese tonality completely in favor of the Western key.[10]

The 1960s and 70s once again saw a renewal of interest in traditional music. This revival corresponded to the Nihonjinron日本人論 phenomenon that flourished at the time. Rotem Kowner defines the term Nihonjinron as "a vast discourse that takes place within the Japanese society and seeks to account for the particular characteristics of its culture, behavior, and national character."[11] As Japan's psyche slowly began to recover from its crushing defeat in the war, a re-evaluation of Japanese identity and culture emerged. Nihonjinron spans from a general positive interest in traditional Japanese culture and values to wild nationalistic theories concerning the proposed uniqueness or superiority of the Japanese mind and body. In the area of music education, however, where Japanese music had entered into a crisis period following the war, this movement contributed the Ministry of Education's 1958 decision to include Japanese music in the official course of study. Chihara Yoshio茅原芳男, who is recognized as a leading pioneer in the teaching of traditional Japanese music in school, began incorporating Japanese musical ensembles in elementary education in 1969. This would mark the first time Japanese instruments, such as the koto, shamisen 三味線 (a plucked three-string instrument), and taiko 太鼓 (a traditional drum), were taught outside of the traditional iemoto system. Chihara had learned the koto himself through an iemoto system, but then distributed his musical learning within the public school system, reformatting the teachings to benefit the school system learning environment. He went on to form The Tokyo Children's Japanese Music Ensemble, which flourished under his direction until his retirement in 1992.[12]

Chihara's philosophy for teaching Japanese music within the schools, independent of the iemoto system, was that "the present music curriculum which emphasizes Western music, leaves students without a sense of cultural identity", implying that "through the enjoyment of Japanese music, Japanese students can get in touch with their true cultural identity." Furthermore, one of Chihara's goals as a Japanese music ensemble teacher was to foster a sense of group cooperation.[13] In her 2000 Society for Ethnomusicology article, "Bridging Contexts, Transforming Music: The Case of Elementary School Teacher Chihara Yoshio", Joanna T. Pecore writes, "Japanese music education can play a significant role in reconstructing a sense of cultural identity among young people. … Adaptations to traditional music by classroom teachers serve as ongoing reflections and sources of informing a public sense of cultural identity." In 1989, Japan's Ministry of Education revised its music education guidelines with the objectives of "deepening international understanding" and "fostering an attitude of respect toward our nation's culture and traditions."[14] During this time, traditional music education increased in popularity, as did the idea that in order to successfully explore and interact with other cultures, one must be familiar with his or her own culture first. A common student response to the question of "why learn Japanese music?" was, "I ought to learn Japanese music because I am Japanese."[15]

Folksong: Min'yō 民謡

Though native Japanese songs were sung throughout the country since the beginnings of Japanese civilization, it was not until the 20th century that the term "folksong" actually came into semantic use. It was a direct loan word from the translation of the German word Volkslied ("folk song"). Japanese interest in min'yō arose under influence of Western Romanticism during the Meiji period. In the countryside itself, of course, min'yō were simply known as uta 歌 ("song") until as late as the 1960s.[16] Probably most popular among such songs were taue uta 田植歌, or, rice-plating songs. These songs set the communal planting rhythm of the field workers who sung them. Rural songs were associated with a specific region. A place or village name was used in the title, such as Iso Bushi 磯節. During the first quarter of the 20th century, the word min'yō connoted a song from outside one's region while uta implied a local song. At the time, min'yō were heard performed in teahouses when one traveled, and later, on radio and television commercials. These folk songs were most often performed by professional singers who added ornamentation and were accompanied by a shamisen or the shakuhachi尺八 (a wooden, end-blown flute). Song-text historian, Asano Kenji浅野建二, attempted to define the broad term of min'yō as "songs which were originally born naturally within local folk communities and, as they have been transmitted, reflect naively the sentiments of daily life."[17] The idea of native sentiment is truly what lies at the heart of min'yō and the genre's modern popularity.

Min'yō wa kokoro no furusato ("Folk song is the heart's hometown") is a saying made popular by the introductory statement of NHK'sstill-running radio show, Min'yō wo tazunete 民謡をたずねて ("In search of folk song"), originally launched in 1950.[18] Furusato古里 (liteally, "old village") refers to one's hometown. However, the Japanese concept of hometown does not necessarily reference a personal birthplace. It's not uncommon for second-generation Tokyoites to associate their furusato with their grandparents' village, a place they perhaps can only visit during Obon お盆 or New Year.[19] As folksongs are irrevocably linked with specific places and a specific time, it's a readied source of nostalgia and comfort for an ever-increasing urban Japan. The tension between modernity and tradition creates a unique balance in Japanese culture and society. A salary man living in a high-rise condo in Tokyo can find comfort in folksongs, which invoke imagery of a hometown from simpler times. Folksongs arouse from prewar hamlets, or buraku部落, a social unit comprised of 60 to 200 people belonging to a dozen or so families.[20] As Japan quickly rebuilt itself into one of the world's most modern nations following World War II, these small communities blended together, losing their identity in the merge to larger cities. Since the majority of folksongs originated among famers, the gradual reduction in manual labor that accompanied Japan's modernization disassociated min'yō from its original context.

Forty years after the opening of Japan's borders, Japan was thoroughly imbued with Westernization. Having made great strides in catching up with its Western neighbors, Japan experienced a resurgence of interest in the traditional arts that had been suppressed in exchange for the cultivation of European music. The transformation of a folk song in this environment is easily imaginable. Travelers to distant locations, such as a bustling port city, would carry a native, regional song with them for instance. From there, the song would be further picked up by a variety of people, from low-class migrant workers to the local geisha, who would alter the song into a more suitable parlor version for performances within inns and teahouses. Geisha, their patrons, and migrant workers would subsequently spread the song across the country, and soon its popularity would spread throughout the nation. Eventually, even classical shakuhachi players would perform the tune, with the high-class officials enjoying it just the same. Over time, the song would be intentionally standardized, with contests held for its best performance, and studios created for its teaching. Folksong troupes would tour the country, transmitting the song throughout Japan.

The defining term of 1890s Japanese culture is hozon 保存 ("preservation"), and in 1897 the government enacted its first law, The Old Shrine and Temple Preservation Law古社寺保存法, meant to protect art treasures.[21] Ueda Bin上田敏, a translator of European poetry and literature, urged his country's musicians to collect and preserve folksong. By 1904, influenced by the nationalist and socialist movements sweeping the world, and further affected by the Russo-Japanese War, min'yō flourished. Newspapers held lyric contests for subscribers, and around 1915, poetic circles came together to create dōyō 童謡 ("children's songs") and new min'yō, with a conscious textual focus on the 'needs of the people'.[22] This in turn spurred the new Folk Song (shin min'yō 新民謡) Movement. New folksongs, or shin min'yō, were originally published as lyrics only, but by 1920, melodies accompanied the lyrics in publication. The dominant lyricist of the movement, Kitahara Hakushū 北原白秋, who also collected and published traditional children's songs (warabeuta), wrote in 1927 as an explanation for new folksongs, "Japanese folk songs, once the voice of the people and the land, have since the Meiji period largely lost their local color and pastoral flavor."[23] Kitahara, in the spirit of preservation, began composing new folksongs in an attempt to right this cultural loss. Shin min'yō were often commissioned by patrons, such as factory owners, for the creation of urban work songs similar to rice-planting songs. With women leaving their rural homes to work in city factories or textile mills, such songs were hoped to boost worker morale.[24] The new songs' success and popularity eventually led to the distinction between min'yō and shin min'yō being blurred completely. However, the movement ground to halt with the arrival of World War II, when composers turned their attentions to militarist songs instead.

By the 1960s, min'yō had grown into an entire musical genre, with its activity base shifted entirely to Tokyo and Osaka. Today, Japanese people consider shin min'yō to be just as authentic and traditional as its folksong predecessors.

Modern Tradition - Enka演歌

Since the Meiji period, Japan has struggled to reconcile its cultural identity between native tradition and Western trends. Enka演歌, an indigenous popular ballad genre that incorporates traditional Japanese scales and vocal styling with Western instrumentation and modern technology, seems to have found a successful balance. The genre's single-line melodies are reminiscent of traditional pentatonic scales, but are accompanied by chordal harmony, provided by saxophone, trumpet, electric guitar, keyboard, and synthesizer. Sometimes Japanese instruments, such as the shamisen, koto, or shakuhachi, are added for a touch of traditional flavor. The vocal line is highly melismatic and features a characteristic vocal warble called kobushi 小節. Lyrics, which in Japanese vocal music have always been the most important element, are suggestive of traditional poetry in themes and images. Female singers almost always perform in kimono. The "Japaneseness" of enka is therefore found in all of the genre's components, musically, visually, and textually.

In her book, Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song, Christine Reiko Yano effectively summarizes the appeal of enka in modern Japanese society:

To the Japanese public, enka sounds timelessly old, although it is still actively created and consumed. The erasure of passing time is in fact part of its attraction. A 1993 hit is deliberately contrived to be easily mistaken for a 1953 one… What helps to achieve this timelessness are not only the sounds and the images of enka but also – and most important – its sentiment. Here are hometowns left long ago but not forgotten, lovers parted, mothers remembered for their sacrifices. Amid the tumult and complexity of today's Japan, which faces challenging questions of political leadership, economic recession, and globalization, these affairs of the heart, dredged up from a reconstructed past, seem wonderfully simple, direct, and untarnished. … Its reputation [is that of] "nihon no uta" (song of Japan), an expression of "nihonjin no kokoro" (the heart/soul of Japanese) and eve "dentō no oto" (the sound of tradition). Amid the nationalistic cultural fervor of the 1970s, the record industry promoted enka as one emblem of national culture.[25]

Here we can see a direct connection to min'yō in the shared emphasis on sentiment. However, where folksongs typically expressed themes of work, nature, and location, enka most often conveys themes of personal relationships – particularly, those of love and loss. Enka, like min'yō, is also a genre of nostalgia, but where min'yō is connected to a specific place or furusato, the hometown sung of in enka is generalized.

Enka's most traceable origins derive from antigovernment protest songs of the Meiji period, called senzetsu no uta 演説の歌 ("speech song"), with the word enka, in fact, being an abbreviation of the term.[26] Gradually, the role of these street singers shifted from that of protestor to performer, distributing lyrics instead of political propaganda. Enka was originally more of a stylized speech than song, but with the import of Western musical practices in the Meiji period, enka began to take on more melodious qualities. Enka's lyrics most likely evolved to subjects of lost love, separation, and loneliness during the social upheaval of the Taishō period 大正時代, when rural people migrated to the cities for work.[27] In 1938, amidst the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, Japan issued the National Mobilization Law (Kokka Sōdōin Hō国家総動員法), seeking to suppress unwanted elements and promote elements that were beneficial to the war effort. Musically, this resulted in a ban on American music and its influences, as well as Japanese popular songs that expressed overly sentimental, romantic, or sad themes and lyrics.[28] Instead, approved militaristic music was broadcast daily with the intention to "instill group consciousness in the Japanese nation and foster a fighting spirit."[29] Popular songs focused on the strength and resilience of the Japanese spirit, as well as family relationships. The enka song, Kudan no Haha 九段の母 ("Mother of Kudan") relates the story of an elderly mother who travels from her home in the countryside to Yasukuni shrine, where her son is enshrined as a war hero.[30] In the postwar years of enka, Japan fell in love with the singer Misora Hibari 美空ひばり, later immortalized as the "Queen of Enka." Misora, who first came into the spotlight at the tender age of twelve, came to represent the postwar Japanese spirit, and it was during her sprouting career that enka experienced its greatest surge in popularity. Though presently there are enka fans of all ages and nationalities, especially with the latest resurgence of enka production and interest, the genre is most typically associated with listeners over the age of fifty. Interestingly enough, this is not representative of an aged population clinging to music from their youth, but rather, a case of age grading, as enka reappears in each consecutive generation. The popular consensus in Japan is that enka, the genre that sells nostalgia, is the kind of music one comes to appreciate in the later years of life.


As the second largest music market in the world following the United States, music continues to have an immense effect over life and contemporary society in Japan. Music in Japan is typically categorized as either modern or pre-modern, popular or traditional, with the implication being that modern popular music is not truly "Japanese music" (nihon ongaku 日本音楽). However, both the popular and traditional can be thought of as elements within a body of musical practices that comprise "Japanese musical culture."[31] In his article, "Japanese Music Can Be Popular", Hugh de Ferranti writes:

In Japanese popular music, evidence for musical habitus and residual traits of past practice can be sought not only in characteristics typical of musicological analysis; modal, harmonic and rhythmic structures; but also in aspects of the music's organization, presentation, conceptualization and reception. … Such an inclusive approach to new and old musical practices in Japan enables demonstration of ways in which popular music is both part of Japanese musical culture and an authentic vehicle for contemporary Japanese identity.[32]

Not only do modern popular musicians in Japan have a powerful influence over contemporary Japanese culture, but their work continues in the tradition of premodern music as well.

The role of song in Japanese society has a long and rich history of preserving culture and influencing national identity. It may be seen in wildly successful Japanese television advertising, in which a brand promotes its product through a unique song and dance that society will emulate. On the eve of the New Year, Japan's most important holiday, families will gather around the television to watch NHK's annual Kōhaku Uta Gassen 紅白歌合戦 ("Red and White Song Battle"), in which artists from the year's most popular pop and enka songs are invited to perform and compete in teams of red (female singers) and white (male singers). Red and white, of course, are the colors of the Japanese flag. Furthermore, when crossing the road in Japan, one may hear the traffic light play the popular children's song (warabeuta), Tōryanse 通りゃんせ, indicating that it's safe to cross the street.

Today, millions of Japanese businessmen will go out after work for a drink with their coworkers. They will head to a karaoke bar, where they will relax and even do business among the singing of their colleagues. Young people on a weekend will similarly seek out a private karaoke box and unwind by singing songs they've heard time and time again among the circle of their friends. The benefits of communal singing are so numerous that currently, music therapists have patients engage in karaoke among small groups in order to relieve anxiety, boost serotonin levels, and encourage positive social interaction. As a music therapy researcher, Dr. Thaut said, "The brain that engages in music is changed by engaging in music."[33] No doubt Japan's rich heritage of song has and continues to subtlety shape and unify Japanese cultural identity.


Davis, William B., Kate E. Gfeller, and Michael H. Thaut. An Introduction to Music Therapy: Theory and Practice. Ed. American Music Therapy Association. 3rd ed. Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association, 2008. Print.
De Ferranti, Hugh. "'Japanese Music' Can Be Popular." Popular Music 21.2 (2002): 195-208. Web.
Donahue, Ray T. Exploring Japaneseness: On Japanese Enactments of Culture and Consciousness. Westport, CT: Ablex Pub., 2002. Print.
Eppstein, Ury. "School Songs Before and After the War. From `Children Tank Soldiers' to `Everyone a Good Child'" Monumenta Nipponica 42.4 (1987): 431-47. Web.
Fackler, Martin. "Japan Tries to Face Up to Growing Poverty Problem." Asia Pacific. The New York Times, 21 Apr. 2010. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.
Hughes, David W. "Japanese "New Folk Songs," Old and New." Asian Music 22.1 (1990): 1-49. Web.
Hughes, David W. Traditional Folk Song in Modern Japan: Sources, Sentiment and Society. Folkestone: Global Oriental, 2008. Print.
Masayoshi, Shibatani. The Languages of Japan. Cambridge [England: Cambridge UP, 1990. Print.
May, Elizabeth. "Japanese Children's Folk Songs before and after Contact with the West." Journal of the International Folk Music Council 11 (1959): 59-65. Web.
Pecore, Joanna T. "Bridging Contexts, Transforming Music: The Case of Elementary School Teacher Chihara Yoshio." Ethnomusicology 44.1 (2000): 120-36. Web.
Wade, Bonnie C. Music in Japan: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
"The World Factbook: East & Southeat Asia :: Japan." Central Intelligence Agency: The Work of a Nation. The Center of Intelligence. Central Intelligence Agency. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.
Yano, Christine Reiko. Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song.
Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002. Print.

[1] The Central Intelligence Agency has reported the ethnic make-up of Japan as consisting of 98.5% Japanese, 0.5% Koreans, 0.4% Chinese, and 0.6% other. It also notes that up to 230,000 Brazilians of Japanese origin migrated to Japan in the 1990s to work in industries, with some returning to Brazil (2004). Though this percentage of diversity is rather small from many Western, especially American, readers' viewpoint, such an ethnic diversity cannot be overlooked or ignored due to cross-country comparisons.
"Japan." The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency, 2012. Web. 17 Feb 2012.
[2] Martin Fackler, "Japan Tries to Face Up to Growing Poverty Problem," The New York Times: Asia Pacific, 21 Apr. 2010, Web. 17 Feb. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/22/world/asia/22poverty.html>.
[3] Masayoshi Shibatani, The Languages of Japan (England: Cambridge UP, 1990) 89.
[4] Elizabeth May, "Japanese Children's Folk Songs before and after Contact with the West" Journal of the International Folk Music Council Vol. 11, (1959) 61-62.
[5] Ury Eppstein, "School Songs Before and After the War. From `Children Tank Soldiers' to `Everyone a Good Child'" Monumenta Nipponica Vol. 42, No. 4 (Winter, 1987) 432.
[6] Eppstein 433
[7] Eppstein 437-442
[8] Eppstein 431
[9] Eppstein 445
[10] Eppstein 446-447
[11] Ray T. Donahue, Exploring Japaneseness: On Japanese Enactments of Culture and Consciousness (Westport, CT: Ablex Pub., 2002) 169.
[12] Joanna T. Pecore, "Bridging Contexts, Transforming Music: The Case of Elementary School Teacher Chihara Yoshio" Ethnomusicology Vol. 44, No. 1 (Winter, 2000)
[13] Pecore 130
[14] Pecore 133
[15] Pecore 133
[16] David W. Hughes, Traditional Folk Song in Modern Japan: Sources, Sentiment and Society (Folkestone: Global Oriental, 2008) 11.
[17] Hughes 14
[18] Hughes 1
[19] Hughes 1
[20] Hughes 49
[21] Hughes 111
[22] Hughes 123
[23] Hughes 124
[24] David W. Hughes, Japanese "New Folk Songs," Old and New Asian Music Vol. 22, No. 1 (Autumn, 1990 - Winter, 1991) 4
[25] Christine Reiko Yano, Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002) 3-4.
[26] Yano 31
[27] Yano 33
[28] Yano 37
[29] Yano 38
[30] Yano 38
[31] Hugh de Ferranti, " 'Japanese Music' Can be Popular" Popular Music Vol. 21, No. 2 (May, 2002) 195.
[32] de Ferranti 195
[33] William B. Davis, Kate E. Gfeller, and Michael H. Thaut An Introduction to Music Therapy: Theory and Practice 3rd ed. (Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association, 2008) 475.

Written by Erin M. Ure

The Way of Japanese Arts

Tuesday, May 01, 2012
The traditional arts of Japan exist as products of michi 道, meaning "the way" or "path". The connotations of the word "art" in European tradition typically involve an idea of individual creative expression and a rejection of conformity. In pre-modern Japan however, the practice and performance of an artistic skill was largely regulated and governed by a defining set of rules within a specific society. Though there are commonalities between these two worlds, East and West, traditional Japanese arts cannot be accurately realized through Western eyes without understanding the influence of michi on traditional Japanese aesthetics. In this paper, I will analyze the shared and contrasting theories of the way of Nō能, chadō 茶道 (Japanese tea ceremony), and shodō書道 (Japanese calligraphy), understanding them within the context of performance arts and Konishi Jin'ichi's theorized five elements of michi: specialization, transmission, conformity, universality, and authority.[1]

Nō theatre probably best exemplifies the tradition of michi. Our theories on Nō come primarily from dramatist and actor Zeami Motokiyo 世阿弥 元清. Born in the Muromachi period室町時代 around 1363, Zeami wrote approximately twenty hiden秘伝, or secret transmissions, on the nature of Nō before his death in 1443.[2] Transmission of secret texts, passed down within the confines of a family or school, is a defining element of michi, which insured the preservation and prominence of competing artistic methods. In fact, Zeami's writings remained virtually unknown to the general public until their discovery in a used bookstore in 1908.[3] As Zeami was the first in Japan to write on dramatic art theory, there lacked a lexicon concerning Nō theatre. Zeami's writings therefore drew heavily on terminology from surrounding influences, such as Shintoism, Buddhism, and Chinese classical texts, as well as other michi, including existing treatises on court music and renga 連歌.[4]

Zeami described Nō as a specialized training that lasted one's entire lifetime. In Zeami's treatise Kyūi九位"The Nine Levels", he outlines the different phases of an actor's career according to ability and development. These various levels, or kurai位, are divided into groups of three: upper, middle, and lower. The levels themselves represent what is considered typical michi thinking concerning training, in that one must diligently train according to the path before finally reaching mastery. It is only in mastery that a performer is considered a true individual artist, which Zeami referred to as achieving full flowering.[5] The lower three levels, consisting of Roughness and Aberrance麁鉛風, Strength and Roughness強麁風, and Strength and Delicacy強細風 belonged to a beginning or untrained actor possessing natural talent.[6] The middle three levels, consisting of Shallowness and Loveliness浅文風, Broadness and Minuteness広精風, and a Right Flower正花風 designated a student in the process of formal training.[7] The emphasis on the authority of a master who could teach a student critical perspective not achievable outside of such tutoring is the focus of the middle levels. It is in these three stages that an actor receives kuden口伝, or oral transmission from his master. In the upper levels of a Calm Flower 閑花風, a Profound Flower 寵染花風, and a Mysterious Flower 妙花風, mastery or full blossoming has been achieved through years of assimilation, integration, conformity, and technical training.[8] In the upper levels, growth continues, but now according to individual artistic expression. It is in the upper levels that an actor may receive the secret written transmissions of his master and may break the rules to which he was previously restrained. Interestingly enough, it is in these upper levels that an actor may return to the lower levels if he wishes, where he can bring new life and interpretation into his performances.

The nine levels are defined by qualities achieved spontaneously by the student during his natural progression and are known only to the master, which then indicates the regimen of training appropriate for said student. These levels were also degrees of yūgen 幽玄, an aesthetic quality which may be understood as the profound and the deep. This quality of subtle beauty shaped the spirit of the actor's performance. In all things, the actor was to imitate the spirit and beauty of the character he portrayed with "true intent". However, as certain roles, such as a demon, a mentally deranged person, someone possessed by spirits, or a poor old man, are too frightening or unattractive for complete authenticity on the stage, the actor is required to observe these roles' quality of unique, strange, or faint beauty and heighten it. Zeami explains this perhaps best by saying, "This would be like looking at court ladies of high and low ranks, men and women, monks and rustics, even beggars and outcasts, all adorned with a spray of blossoms."[9]

Lastly, the way of Nō further exemplifies michi in its spiritual implications. Nō plays typically feature characters of the supernatural, which are brought to the audience through the medium of a Buddhist monk acting as narrator. The symbolic, otherworldly scenes played out on stage are not meant to represent everyday life and its struggles, but rather a higher truth and the mysteries of the universe. The protagonist is typically a sinner who achieves some form of enlightenment by the end of the play, and along with the character, so does the audience. In this way, Nō is ritualistic.[10] Furthermore, the music of Nō is derivative of Buddhist chant, and emphasizes the form of jo-ha-kyū 序破急, or beginning, break, rapid, which Zeami believed was observable in everything: "All things in the universe, good or evil, large or small, animate or inanimate, have the rhythm of jo-ha-kyū."[11]

Chadō, or Japanese tea ceremony, is an interesting practice in that it blurs the line between life and art, ritual and performance. For theories on chadō, we now turn to tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyū 千利休, who lived from 1522 to 1591 and set down a collection of rules concerning the practice of chadō. Similar to how an audience member may gain the feeling of spiritual purification from the performance of a Nō play, participants of chadō are meant to cleanse themselves of everyday life and enter into a purer, more beautiful world. Rikyū wrote, "The first thing the host of a tea ceremony should do is to bring out water for the guest. The first thing the guest should do is to wash his hands with the water. In this act lies the basic meaning of the whole setting. Both the host and the guest, facing each other on the garden path, cleanse themselves of the stains of earthly life. The water basin is there for a purpose."[12] Guests enter the tearoom through a garden path, symbolically leaving the world, and then literally and figuratively, cleanse themselves from their earthly life. Although chadō has obvious spiritual connotations, the topic of religion is strictly forbidden by Rikyū in the tearoom, along with other worldly topics such as politics and gossip.

Continuing with this idea of the tearoom as a place cut off from the outside world, the aesthetic of chadō stresses modesty and poverty. This idea of beauty, called wabi侘, may be interpreted as an extension of the Buddhist idea of nondualism, in which the earthly and the divine are one and the same. Wabi was so far-reaching in it aesthetic principle that Rikyū wrote of a story in which he bought a beautiful vase and broke off one of its ears in order for it to achieve this ideal sense of imperfection.[13] While Nō transported its audience to the otherworldly and divine, chadō emphasizes the beauty of the common man, "just as it is" (sono mama).[14] In this way, chadō is comparable to Zen in its focus on the human instead of the divine. In this sense, chadō may be viewed as a ritual. Through the gradual process of a lifelong devotion to a particular michi, it was believed that one could achieve special wisdom or a sense of enlightenment. Chadō delivered this enlightenment or wisdom with each meeting in the tearoom. This too is reminiscent of Zen, which, in contrast to the traditional Buddhist belief of gradual enlightenment, offered the opportunity for instant awakening. However, chadō is also a performance art, in which host and master co-create a unique world, like that observed on stage, but in real time.

Though rigorous training was central to Nō performance, authenticity of performance was continually stressed. If an actor made too hard an attempt to achieve a specific emotion, the effect was lost on the audience who would inevitably feel the unnaturalness of the performance. This theory carries over to chadō as well, where even though there are rules concerning the practice, one should not be restricted by them to a point of artificiality. Force is not the way to enlightenment, as one of Rikyū's disciples aptly pointed out when he said, "The two hearts perfectly communicating with one another – this is fine. But the two hearts striving toward perfect communication – this is bad. If the host and the guest had enlightened hearts, the atmosphere would become congenial by itself."[15] Chadō seems to have eventually developed into a michi under the direction of wabi tea master Murata Shukō村田珠光 (1422-1502), who studied under the eccentric Zen master Ikkyū Sōjun 一休宗純. In a rejection of the luxurious lifestyle Buddhist monks were increasingly earning from the profits of religious exploitation, Shukō established the popularity of wabi, which he only referred to as, the "chilled and dried up".[16]

Finally, Shodō, or Japanese calligraphy, (which I have classified as a performance art due to its product's heavy dependence on rhythm and movement) represents another true michi, with emphasis on lineage and secret transmission. As the aristocracy lost increasing amounts of political power to the emerging warrior class in the late Heian period平安時代, nobles maintained their class status through the possession of secret teachings on the arts. By regulating the disbursement of such knowledge, they maintained their positions of luxury.[17] As in Nō theatre, here too shodō consisted of a lifelong devotion, with the achievement of mastery the goal. Attainment of mastery level granted an artist creative freedom and greater room for personal expression. In Prince Son'en's尊円法親王 (the founder of the Shōren-in school of calligraphy) 1352 treatise Jubokushō, he stresses this by saying, "Superior work that has attained a level of expertise is free in every respect."[18] This is attained through mastery of technique, achieved through tutelage under a master, and a development of appreciation for the classic works of calligraphy. As in Nō, spontaneity of development is stressed. A student was to develop his talents authentically as opposed to mimicking his teacher's style. Yet at the same time, a student must be careful not to bring his personal inclinations into practice. Son'en did not write extensively on the physical aspects of learning and performing calligraphy, but rather stressed the proper attitude and spirit necessary for successful practice.

Calligraphy was viewed as a living thing, with the brush an extension of the artist's mind. Because of this, a great deal of focus in calligraphy treatises is on the moral conduct of the practitioner. Seventeenth century expert Japanese calligrapher, Ojio Yūshō, wrote in his treatise that, "It is only natural that handwriting should mirror the writer's personality as it follows the way of his heart."[19] Continuing with this idea, Yūshō saw calligraphy as a moral practice, as it was only the good-hearted who could produce good calligraphy. Laziness, boastfulness, and most importantly, an unauthentic spirit were heavily criticized. Yūshō therefore spoke of the way of tea ceremony as a michi for moral and religious perfection.[20] His ultimate advice to students was to "Keep your body upright and your soul righteous as you take up the brush", and to "Learn the Way of Calligraphy."[21]

The traditional Japanese practices of Nō, chadō, and shodō represent various michi of performance arts. A common thread among all three is the idea of achieving some form of spiritual enlightenment or wisdom through the michi's teachings. These teachings, protected secrets, are transmitted from master to student through oral instruction. As the student progresses naturally along the Way, he may be able to achieve mastery himself and receive written transmission of the art's specific teachings and insights. True mastery comes from a lifelong devotion to one's art, regulated according to strict, guiding rules. However, as limitations often inspire creation, the reward of this submission and dedication is the attainment of mastery, in which a student is transformed into an artist.


DeCoker, Gary. Secret Teachings in Medieval Calligraphy: Jubokushο̄ and Saiyο̄shο.
Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer, 1988).
Jin'ichi Konishi. Michi and Medieval Writing (道:中世の理念). Principles of Japanese
  1. (1985).
Ludwig, Theodore M. Before Rikyu: Religious and Aesthetic Influences in the Early
History of the Tea Ceremony. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Winter, 1981).
Nearman, Mark J. Zeami's Kyui: A Pedagogical Guide for Teachers of Acting.
Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Autumn, 1978).
Pinnington, Noel John. Models of the Way in the Theory of Noh. Japan Review, 18
Quinn, Shelley Fenn, How to Write a Noh Play: Zeami's Sando. Monumenta
Nipponica, Vol. 48, No. 1. (Spring, 1993).
Ueda, Makoto. Literary and Art Theories in Japan. Cleveland: Press Western
Reserve University, 1967.

[1] Konishi Jin'ichi, Michi and Medieval Writing (道:中世の理念). Principles of Japanese Literature. (1985), p. 181.
[2] Shelley Fenno Quinn, How to Write a Noh Play Zeami's Sando. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 48, No. 1. (Spring, 1993), p. 53.
[3] Quinn, 53
[4] Noel John Pinnington, Models of the Way in the Theory of Noh. Japan Review, 18 (2006), p. 34.
[5] Mark J. Nearman, Zeami's Kyui. A Pedagogical Guide for Teachers of Acting. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Autumn, 1978), p. 305
[6] The source of the original kanji comes from Nearman, 307-310. For the translation, I referred to Ueda's Literary and Art Theories in Japan, p. 64
[7] Nearman, 314-317
[8] Nearman, 319-323
[9] Ueda, 60
[10] Ueda, 70-71
[11] Ueda, 70
[12] Ueda, 88
[13] Ueda, 91-92
[14] Theodore M. Ludwig, Before Rikyu. Religious and Aesthetic Influences in the Early History of the Tea Ceremony. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Winter, 1981), p. 388
[15] Ueda, 96
[16] Ludwig, 390
[17] Gary DeCoker, Secret Teachings in Medieval Calligraphy. Jubokushο̄ and Saiyο̄shο. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer, 1988), p. 200
[18] DeCoker, 208
[19] Ueda, 184
[20] Ueda, 184-185
[21] Ueda, 185

Written by Erin M. Ure

Japanese Poetry and Song

Thursday, October 06, 2011

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The Aesthetic of Uta

"The seeds of Japanese poetry lie in the human heart and grow into leaves of ten thousand words. Many things happen to the people of this world, and all that they think and feel is given expression in description of things they see or hear. When we hear the warbling of the mountain thrush in the blossoms or the voice of the frog in the water, we know every living being has its song."[1]

Ki no Tsurayuki (紀貫之) begins his Japanese preface (Kanajo 仮名序) to the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集) with these words, stating that poetry and song is of a natural possession, inherit in all living creatures. Whether you agree or not that the desire and ability to communicate emotion through poetry or song is of natural predisposition, such a statement demands a basis on which to evaluate these artistic expressions. How do you separate the songs of a bird from the poetry of man? What constitutes the difference between the poetry of an uneducated commoner and that of a nobleman? What defines the work of a masterpiece from inferiority? Guided by the six classifications of Chinese poetry (Liushi 六詩) as explained in the "Great Preface" (Daxu 大序) of the Shi Jing (詩經 "Book of Songs"), Tsurayuki attempted to answer such questions by classifying and setting standards for the growing genre of native Japanese poetry.

Indeed, Tsurayuki begins his Japanese preface in much the same way as the Great Preface of the Shi Jing.
"Poetry is the place where intention (zhi 志) goes. In the heart it is intention, when expressed in words, it is poetry. Emotions (qing 情) are stirred within and take shape in words. "[2]

We see similar sentiments in the preface to the Chinese classic, the Yueji (樂記 "Record of Music"), found within the Liji (禮記 "Book of Rites"), which most likely influenced the viewpoint presented in the Great Preface.

"As for the emergence of tones, they are born from the human heart. That the human heart is stirred is due to the influence of the external matter/world (wu 物)." [3]

This idea that the external world incites emotions internally, which man must act as a medium to in order to release externally in the form of song, gained popularity in philosophy, religion, art, and politics in China before being carried over to Japan. Tsurayuki continues the tradition, observing that,

"…many poems have been composed when people were attracted by the blossoms or admired the birds, when they were moved by the haze or regretted the swift passage of the dew, and both inspiration and forms of expression have become diverse."[4]

In typical Japanese fashion, the external matter/world (wu 物) that seemed to compel the creation of Yamato uta most often was nature. Included in this passage is also a hint at Tsurayuki's ideal for Japanese poetry, found in a play on the words translated as "inspiration" and "expression" in the last sentence. The Japanese words kokoro (心 "heart", "inspiration", "spirit") and kotoba (ことば "expression", "diction", "materials") are the principle elements in the Japanese view of poetry. The ideal set forth in the Kokinshū was a balance between the two. In an effort to describe this harmony of emotion and form, the preface attempts to categorize and explain the rikugi (六義 "six principles") of poetics as taken from the Chinese model, while exemplifying both success and failures along the way.

The Great Preface of the Chinese Shi Jing describes six types of songs, classified as feng (風), fu (賦), bi (比), xing (興), ya (雅) and song (頌). Tsurayuki, in his preface, adapted his translations as necessary. Feng (風) for instance, is described in the Shi Jing as a type of didactic allegorical poetry, in which rulers admonish their subjects and subjects criticize their rulers. The form relies on artful subtlety so as not to bring trouble to the speaker, but effectively influence the listener into modifying their behavior. While China was ripe with political movement and philosophy, such moral and civic criticism was practically unknown in Heian Japan. Therefore, Tsurayuki labels the first principle of poetry soeuta (諷歌), and describes it as a form in which "the surface meaning of the poem conveys an unrelated hidden meaning"[5]. It is allegorical, but it does not serve a didactic purpose. The second principle of poetry, known in Chinese as fu (賦) is described in the Great Preface as a narrative which employs a direct style. In the Kokinshū's preface, it's given the Japanese term kazoeuta (数え歌) and labeled as poems in which things are described clearly without analogies. The poem offered as an example however, does a poor job fitting into this category, as it employs two kakekotoba (掛詞) and artfully hides the names of three separate birds within its lines. It's worth considering whether rhetorical devices and word play had become so standardized within the Japanese language that Tsurayuki didn't consider them allegorical, or if the problem with finding a fitting example was simply that Japanese poetry does not properly correspond to the Chinese liushi system. I believe it to be a matter of both, but find it interesting how word play was so commonplace as to be taken for granted.

Continuing on with the third principle of poetry, known in Chinese as bi (比), the liushi classifies such poems as metaphorical, in which meaning is expressed through allegory, but without didactic purpose as in the feng. This was problematic for Tsurayuki, who already had discarded the didactic purpose of the feng. He calls this third principle nazuraeuta (準え歌), and describes it as poetry that present similes describing one thing as like another. But how now are the Japanese to discriminate between the soeuta andthe nazuraeuta, which without the didactic modifier, are homogeneous? The fourth principle, known in Chinese as xing (興), are allusive pieces that begin with a description of something in the animal or vegetable world, which the poet later references as means of expressing his message.[6] Known in Japanese as tatoeuta (喩え歌), these poems are interpreted by Tsurayuki as those that express feeling through the use of all the plants, trees, birds, and animal that exist, without a hidden meaning.[7] Ya (雅), the fifth principle, is referred to by Tsurayuki as tadagotouta (徒言歌). In the Great Preface, they are referred to as odes that were sung to musical accompaniment during festive occasions at court. Depicted as representations of the customs of the kingdom, these 'right' and 'proper' songs were recorded as having the power to cause the government to flourish and decay.[8] In Tsurayuki's preface, this poetic principle was interpreted as poetry that described a well-ordered, truthful world. Lastly, the sixth principle, known in Chinese as song (頌), were hymns of praise sung during sacrificial rites at the ancestral temples. The Great Preface states that, "the song are so-called because they praise the embodied forms of complete virtue, and announce to spiritual beings its grand achievements."[9] Translated in the preface to the Kokinshū as iwaiuta (祝い歌), the Japanese appropriately interpreted this form as sung celebratory pieces, which praise the world and are pronouncements to the gods.[10]

After an attempt at assimilating Japanese poetry into the six Chinese classifications, Tsurayuki continues on to his true objective, setting forth standards that will define good Japanese poetry. His complaint seems to accompany the growing popularity of native poetry. As society has come to regard her local poetry with so much value, great masses of people are now writing yamato uta, no matter how poor composition.

"Nowadays because people are concerned with gorgeous appearances and their hearts admire ostentation, insipid poems, short-lived poems have appeared."[11]

Although he also takes offences with the growing trend of private poetry for the explicit purpose of courtship, I believe his central complaint is the deterioration in the quality of the art. Courting poetry is just an area of example where standards had particularly fallen in his eyes. The ideal balance of emotion and form cannot be achieved when the poet is overemotional, nor when he or she is lacking in a sufficiently emotive feeling to compose a proper poem. The poet cannot be rushed to the point where the resulting work lacks form and wit, and yet, over-thinking the form will ruin the poem just as effectively. As in so many Japanese arts, the balance is achieved through years of training in order to reach a point where mastery appears effortless. Essentially, what Tsurayukiis attempting to define is wabi-sabi (侘寂).

Tsurayuki makes several examples of poets who fail to achieve the ideal balance in their works, such as the Archbishop Henjō (遍昭), whose style (form) was refined, but who Tsurayuki criticizes as lacking sincerity (emotion). We can see this in his poem:

along slender threads
of delicate twisted green
translucent dewdrops
strung as small fragile jewels—
new willow webs in spring

The form is lovely; Henjō's choice of words is descriptive and artistic. However, the poem lacks emotion for a simple reason; what was the purpose of this poem? Poetry and song are meant to express emotions that prose fails to convey. As the Great Preface of the Shi Jing states,

"When words are no longer enough (to express the emotions), they are expressed in sighing. When sighing is not enough, they are expressed in singing. When singing is no longer enough, the hands unconsciously dance and the feet stamp."[12]

Tsurayuki also assess in his own preface to the Kokinshū that,

"It is poetry which, without effort, moves heaven and earth, stirs the feelings of the invisible gods and spirits, smoothes the relations of men and women, and calms the hearts of fierce warriors."[13]

It is difficult to believe that dewdrops and dewdrops alone created such a powerful emotion in Henjō that he simply had to find passage for such feelings through poetry. It is equally difficult to believe that such a poem could invoke powerful feelings in the reader, let alone heaven, fierce warriors, or the gods.

The opposite Henjō's failings can be seen in the poetry of Ariwara no Narihira (在原業平), whom Tsurayuki criticizes as having too much emotion without the balance of appropriate form. Take for example the following poem:

is this not that moon—
is this spring not that spring we
shared so long ago—
it seems that I alone am
unaltered from what I was then[14]

The sentiment of Narihira' poem can clearly be felt, however, it lacks the refinement and wit of a truly successful poem. Narihira's fault is that his poetry is too strong and lacks subtlety. In my opinion, an ideal balance of kokoro and kotoba is achieved most beautifully by Ono no Komachi (小野小町), who also projected an ideal vision of mono no aware (物の哀れ) in her work. Take for example the following famous piece:

that which fades within
without changing its color
is the hidden bloom
of the heart of man in
this world of disillusion[15]

Here, Komachi has met emotion with restraint, expressed feeling through aesthetically innovative word choices, displayed subtle wit, and yet, it all appears quite effortless.

The poetry collected in the Kokinshū all seem to work toward achieving this ideal balance, and reflect poems that can favorably stand alone without context. With no explanation given as to the circumstance surrounding the composition of the poem, the poetry throughout the Kokinshū can all be understood, and resonates on an emotional level. However, a noticeable difference is present in the poetry of the Ise monogatari (伊勢物語). The poetry found within the Ise monogatari does need context in order to be understood and appreciated, so much so that the present-day reader is forced to wonder which came first, the poem or the surrounding prose? Without the poem's accompanying story, most of the poetry of the Ise monogatari is ineffectual. For example:

When my beloved asked,
"Is it a clear gem
Or what might it be?"
Would that I had replied,
"A dewdrop!" and perished.[16]

The poem, without context, is convoluted. Given its surrounding story, it retains a feeling of artificiality, as though it was forced. This, of course, goes against the very ideals as set down by Tsurayuki. There are several poems found in the Ise monogatari that would be sure to please even Tsurayuki, however, the majority need support, and are therefore not complete in their own right. The poetry of Ise monogatari also contains many examples of private courtship poetry, which Tsurayuki rebuked. While I personally find a select few of such private poems to be of beautiful quality, the majority are so conversational that it becomes clear why Tsurayuki was a purist about the ideals of public poetry. A work that can stand the test of time and stand alone seems to possess more artistic weight than a piece that is easily forgettable or in need of contextual support.

The lyric ideals of pre-modern Japanese poetry ultimately express an idea of divine poetic inheritance, in which songs came into being along with the formation of the heaven and earth. From the wedding chants of Izanagi (伊弉諾尊) and Izanami (伊弉冉尊) when songs were raw, direct emotion, unpolished to the point of obscurity, to the song of Susano-o no mikoto (須佐之男), by which time, the age of humans began and poems of 31 syllables were composed[17], it is clear that poetry has a divine and organic evolution in the Japanese tradition. It is only natural then that poetry would continue to progress in refinement. As such, the pre-modern artistic ideal was defined as a balance of kokoro and kotoba. Kokoro encompasses the emotional capacity, or mono no aware, to respond to the natural world through the act of poetic creation. Kotoba serve as a medium for the poet's emotion and expresses the internal externally. In reading the poetry, the audience must also possesses kokoro in order receive the emotion conveyed through the kotoba, and make an evaluation as to whether it possesses jōshu (情趣), or sentiment with artistic sensibility.

[1] Mary Catherine Henkenius and Laurel Rasplica Rodd, Kokinshū: A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern (Princton University Press, 1984) 35.
[2] Li Zehou and Liu Gangji (trans.), Zhongguo mei xue shi中国美学史 (Peking: Zhonghua, 1987) Vol. 2, 572.
[3] Shi sanjing zhu shu (十三經註疏) vol. 2, 2527.
[4] Henkenius and Rodd, 36
[5] Henkenius and Rodd, 37
[6] Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen, Murmured Conversations: A Treatise on Poetry and Buddhism by the Poet-Monk Shinkei (Stanford University Press, 2008) 264
[7] Henkenius and Rodd, 38
[8] Ramirez-Christensen, 265
[9] Ramirez-Christensen, 265
[10] Henkenius and Rodd, 40
[11] Henkenius and Rodd, 40
[12] Li and Liu, vol. II, 572
[13] Henkenius and Rodd, 35
[14] Henkenius and Rodd, 44
[15] Henkenius and Rodd, 45
[16] Helen Craig McCullough, Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan (Stanford University Press, 1968) 73
[17] Henkenius and Rodd, 36

Written by Erin M. Ure

Enka 演歌

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Written by
Erin M. Ure

Enka (演歌) is a genre of popular Japanese ballads, or kayoukyoku (歌謡曲), that combines Western instruments with Japanese scales, rhythms, vocal techniques, and poetic traditions into melodramatic songs of love, loss, and yearning. Made popular in the postwar years of the Shouwa (昭和時代) period, which lasted from December 25, 1926 to January 7, 1989 during the reign of Emperor Shouwa Hirohito (昭和裕仁), enka has always been considered a “conservative” genre of song. It is frequently contrasted with Japanese pop, rock, and various other forms of popular music trends in Japan, as the “unchanging” genre of enka possess a long-lasting staying power unique within Japan’s fast-paced, ever-evolving world of pop culture. Enka’s target audience seems to be middle-aged or elderly listeners, finding popularity especially in rural areas.Although there are of course, life-long fans of enka, the majority of listeners claim to have turned to the genre only in middle age or as older adults. This changing taste in music seems to be a typical adjustment to aging in Japanese culture, when it’s appropriate and expected to turn from youthful fascination with Euro-American fashions and influences inward toward “Japanese sensibilities.” In fact, many Japanese refer to enka as “the oldies”, considering both its primary audience, as well as its compositional and performance techniques that give even the newest enka song the sound of a ballad from “the good ol’ days”. However, in 1989, about 20% of albums sold in Japan were of enka, and one enka hit consistently figures among the top ten hits of each year.Since the “youth-culture”, or consumers in their teens and twenties comprise the majority of Japan’s booming economy, especially in record sales, it’s apparent that the population of enka fans is actually much larger and more diverse than statistics suggest.

The word enka itself is derived from the Chinese kanji characters en (演), meaning performance or entertainment, and ka (歌), meaning song or poem. Enka is thought to have evolved from political speeches set to song and spread by political activists during the Meiji period (明治時代) (1868-1912) and the Taishou period (大正時代) (1912-1926).In 1874, Japan’s first political party was formed, however, party leaders were not permitted to speak in public.In order to have their thoughts heard by the people, they instead wrote speeches and gave them to hired singers who would go out into the streets to deliver their message through song. The lyrical style of enka seems to have evolved from waka (和歌), styles of Japanese poetry originating from the Heian period (平安時代) (794-1185). Enka lyrics do in fact resemble waka in its poetic features, as both have no concept of rhyme or line, as well as in its aesthetic sensibilities.

Modern enka as Japan recognizes it today is characterized by its highly melodramatic qualities. In the large commercial industry that is Japan’s music business, enka produces tears for sale.In fact, enka is a form of naki bushi (泣き節) (crying songs), songs whose merit actually rests upon eliciting tears. Similar perhaps to American country or western music, to which it is often compared, enka’s overtones paint a nostalgic picture of the more traditional, idealized, or romanticized aspects of Japanese culture and life. Perhaps because of this reason, enka has been regarded as the national music more than any other genre of popular song in Japan. Both within and outside the music industry, the genre has earned a reputation as nihon no uta (日本の歌) (song of Japan), dentou no oto (伝統の音) (the sound of Japanese tradition), and as an expression of nihonjin no kokoro (日本人の心) (The heart/soul of the Japanese). According to both enka’s producers as well as its fans, the emotions in enka are characteristically Japanese. The genre could perhaps best be explained as “a story the Japanese tell about themselves to themselves.”

The most frequently used words in enka lyrics are yume (夢) (dream), kokoro (心) (heart/soul), namida (涙) (tears), sake (酒) (alcohol/sake), onna (女) (woman), and koi (恋) (love). Lyrics are highly gendered, with female lyrics reflecting on themes such as unrequited love, loneliness, and drinking, while lyrics from male-oriented songs tend to focus on themes of enduring hardships, persevering in the face of difficulties, longing for home, and the general gambaru spirit (がんばる) (the act of doing one’s best and hanging on patiently). These vast differences in themes between the sexes reflect Japan’s ideals for men and women. Heroines in Japanese folklore for instance, are often tragic figures who have to endure immense grief, reflecting the mono no aware (物の哀れ) (pathos of things; appreciation of the fleeting nature of beauty) aesthetic that beautiful women, who have an aura of sadness about them, are graceful. A woman in grief, bearing it with patience, is a classic image of Japanese feminine beauty. Consider for instance the poetry of famous female poet, Izumi Shikibu (和泉式部), written in the Heian period:

A man saw[1] me
Then forgotten did I spend my days
Upon my sleeves
The rain[2]-knowing well my fate-
Never ceases falling.

Comparing this waka of ancient Japan with enka lyrics from a famous 1966 Misora Hibari (美空ひばり) song, Kanashii Sake (悲しい酒) (Sad Sake), one can see the similarities in both style and content.

Alone at a bar, I drink sake
Which tastes like tears of parting.
I drink, and long to forget his face, but
When I drink, his visage floats before me in my glass…
I cry with bitterness toward a world
Which keeps me apart from the one I love.

The lyrics often found in enka’s male songs however, celebrate manhood, which is defined by hard work, physical endurance, and reverence to the gods. Performed by husky stars such as Kitajima Saburou (北島三郎), affectionately known by fans as Sabu-chan, these songs feature faster tempos, a more intense rhythmic drive, and simpler vocal style than the typical romantic enka song. The following lyrics are an excerpt from a famous enka favorite, Matsuri (祭り) (Festival), often sung as the grand finale performance in the Japan’s biggest television concert, the Kouhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦) (the annual “Red and White Song Battle” shown every New Year's Eve), which showcases well the masculine side of enka:

These young men, permeated with the smell of the earth
Their hands are treasures…
Burn! The life of a man is one of sweat and tears.
I am living to the fullest.
This is a festival of Japan!

Another common theme among masculine enka songs is a longing for one’s hometown, as can be seen in Boukyou Jonkara (望郷じょんから) (Jonkara Homesickness), originally sung by enka star Takashi Hosokawa (細川たかし).

This is the time of year when the snow begins to blow in Tsugaru, isn’t it?
Is everyone fine there? Is everything all right?
I long for my hometown, where we sang the childhood song – ah! …
So many years have passed since I left there.
Shall I go home? I want to go home.

This yearning for one’s home of the past is the very essence of enka, whose songs and image uniformly reflect a longing for a simpler homeland that has transformed entirely since World War II and continues to reinvent itself daily. Yearning for ones furusato (古里) (hometown) is certainly a characteristic Japanese sentiment found repeatedly throughout Japan’s rich cultural history. Legendary waka poet, Ariwara no Narihira (在原業平) (825-880), is known for reflecting on such nostalgic predisposition in this famous and often-quoted poem:

More and more
Do I yearn for
The Capital I have left
Oh, how I envy incoming
Waves that can return.

Attire further continues enka’s gendered divisions, as female artists are almost always seen in traditional kimono (着物) and the accompanying upswept hair style for performances and publicity shots, while men typically appear in formal Western attire, and occasionally in traditional Japanese garb as well.Interesting enough, women will perform men’s songs in men’s attire, similar to a Mezzo-Soprano singing a “trouser role” in the Western opera tradition, and vice versa. However, it is far more common for women to “cross-dress” than men. Misora Hibari (美空ひばり), the “Queen of Enka”, was an award-winning Japanese enka singer, actress and Ningen Kokuhou (人間国宝) (Living National Treasure). One of the most commercially successful music artists in the world and often regarded as being one of the greatest singers of all time, Misora Hibari was especially known for singing men’s roles. The majority of enka singers are female, and this gap between the sexes only widens with time.

Enka songs are most frequently written in duple meter at a slow to medium tempo, with 4/4 meter predominating.However, 4/4 meter within enka differs from a Western 4/4 in that there is no differentiation of stress among beats within a measure. This “unstressed” meter is found within traditional Japanese music as well, as the relationship between beats is instead one of“front” and “back” (omotema and urama) (主手間と裏間) spaces or beats. This uniform emphasis stems from the Japanese language, which itself is fairly unstressed, in stark contrast to the Romance languages. This difference is further highlighted in vocal music, when it is a crucial objective for a performer to deliver the text artistically, but yet in a way that is still understandable.In most languages, word stress is apparent in song through the use of dynamics, rhythm, and the melodic line. However, the Japanese language is unique in that its alphabet is comprised of consonant-vowel pairs, such as to (と), mo (も), da (だ), chi (ち). Only vowels and the consonant n (ん) stand by themselves. Words are built by grouping these sound clusters together, and each generally receive equal stress, such as in the word tomodachi (ともだち = 友達) which means “friend”.When singing the language, each “letter”, whether they be a consonant-vowel pair like hi (ひ), a singular vowel such as u (う), or the consonant n (ん) receive equal stress and vocal emphasis, meaning that in stark contrast to Western vocal music in which one “sings on the vowels” and “moves through the consonants”, the consonant n (ん) is sung on as an equal sound, and can be held for sustained periods of time.

Enka’s sound finds its roots in one of two pentatonic scales: the yonanuki major and the yonanuki minor. Yonanuki (四七抜き) literally means “without 4 and 7”, as yonanuki major and yonanuki minor are pentatonic scales, major and minor respectively, with no fourth or seventh scale degree.In recent years, a minor pentatonic scale, without the second and sixth scale degrees has also come into use. While these scales do share some characteristics of certain scales found in traditional Japanese music, they are in fact not traditional.In traditional scales, the fourth scale degree is given great importance, as they are based on a tetrachordal structure that spans a perfect fourth.However, in the yonanuki scale, the fourth scale degree is missing entirely. The reason for the popularity of this unique scale comes from the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when after 200+ years of isolation from the rest of the world, Japan underwent a modern transformation through Westernization in attempts to become equal powers with the Western sphere. Music, of course, was not left out of the renaissance, resulting in a change of music theory and education. After comparing Japanese scales with those of the West, the Japanese discovered that the pentatonic scale was common ground between their two cultures and frequently found in Western music, and in conclusion, deemed it superior. The yonanuki scale then became the core of music education, used widely in children’s songs, and gradually found a permanent residence within the Japanese ear.

It only seems natural then that the instruments found within enka are a varied mix of Western instruments along with traditional Japanese instruments, such as the shamisen (三味線), a three-stringed banjo-like instrument; the koto (琴), a long 13-stringed zither and Japan’s national instrument; any number of yokobue, transverse bamboo flutes, such as the shinobue (篠笛); and taiko (太鼓), wide and usually large Japanese drums played with a mallet. Western instruments are responsible for the majority of accompaniment, however, consisting of mainly live orchestra or bands, as well as guitar, piano, and synthesized instrumentation.

An extremely important characteristic of enka is its melismatic vocal style, use of a delayed, wide vibrato, and use of kobushi (小節), an undulating vocal embellishment popular in traditional folk songs. Enka’s vocal style is heavily-influenced by Japan’s traditional vocal music, specifically, minyou (民謡) (folk song). This stylistic technique is just one of the fundamentals of the kata (型) (pattern; form) of the performance, a method which keeps the traditional alive through the practice of patterning, as opposed to reinventing the art into something entirely unique to ones self.In enka, hit songs of the past are preformed and re-preformed again, with each newly-debuted singer working to perfect their individual art in order to recapture the beauty of the original performance or recording. This isn’t seen as performing a “cover” as one would think of it in Western pop music, but is rather comparable to a classical pianist or vocalist working to mater a standard piece of repertoire, such as a Beethoven sonata or a Mozart aria, in which only certain stylistic choices and interpretations are acceptable. This idea is known as kanzen shugi (完全主義) (the beauty of complete perfection) and can be appreciated in many of the traditional Japanese arts, such as chanoyu (茶の湯) (tea ceremony), ikebana (生花) (flower arrangement), the arts of the geisha (芸者), sumou (相撲) (Sumo wrestling), Nō (能) (Noh) and kabuki (歌舞伎) theatre.

In spite of what might appear to be a highly formulaic system alone, in which an artist’s lyrics, music, performance practices, appearance, and staged actions are carefully picked from a history of the genre’s tradition, kata does have its limits.Solely adhering to the patterns taught by an enka teacher will not make one a star, as an individual must possess kosei (個性) (individuality, personality) in order to stand out from the crowd of other enka singers, capture an audience’s attention, and rise to the top of the charts. Enka’s sole purpose is not to preserve the past, like that of the genre natsu-mero (懐メロ) (an abbreviation for natsukashii merodei [懐かしいメロディ], meaning “nostalgic melody”), which strictly consists of rereleased old songs. Enka is surprisingly a genre that is constantly being renewed: each year original songs are composed by essentially assembling together a combination of successful old songs, and fresh-faced singers are introduced into the market. It is the kata that ensures each new piece and performer retain the genre’ s style of nostalgia and vintage charm, yet within this sepia-tinted structure, an artist may push the boundaries ever so slightly to create something new and special. A seasoned artist especially may take liberties in their performances after having perfected the established art and proven him or herself a true enka star.This level of mastery is known as touitsu (統一), in which one goes beyond the pattern or form (kata) and becomes one with it.In this way, enka is very much a traditional art, in that an artist must first kata ni hairu (型に入る) (follow the form), then kata ni jukutatsu (型に熟達) (perfect the form), and finally kata kara nukeru (型から抜ける) (go beyond the form).

Enka presents a world in which the Japanese, whose society is built upon appropriate levels of hedataru (隔たる) (distance) and enryo (遠慮) (restraint), are at their weepiest, their most vulnerable, and according to many, at their most Japanese. A beloved combination of the historical and idealized, traditional and imported, vintage and modern, enka is truly a unique art Japan is proud to call her own.

[1] In this context, “seeing” someone implies sleeping with him/her in a sexual sense.
[2] This is, of course, the abandoned woman's tears.

Selected Bibliography
Craig, Timothy J.Japan Pop!: Inside the World of Japanese Popular Culture.
Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.

Davies, Roger J., and Ikeno, Osamu.The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary
Japanese Culture.Tokyo, Rutland, Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2002.

Maki, Okada, and Gerald Groemer.“Musical Characteristics of Enka.”
Popular Music, Vol.10, No. 3, Japanese Issue (Oct., 1991): 283-303

McAuley, Thomas.2001 Waka For Japan 2001. BBR.
http://www.temcauley.staff.shef.ac.uk/introduction.shtml (accessed November 25,

Suzuki, Nobue.Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan.
Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 2007.

Yano, Christine R.Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular
Song.Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003.

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