June 24, 2020

European Influence on Japanese Music

Tomoko’s favorite piano music continues to be European classical compositions. That taste was started early in her life as she heard European classical music on the radio and the organ pieces that her brother played. These habits reflected the earlier Japanese interests in Western   (generally European) music.

Traditional Japanese musical tonality differed from its Western counterparts; it uses a Phyrgian scale of E-F-A-B-C-E instead of C-D-F-G-A. The Phyrgian scale is also used in modern blues minor keys. The oldest forms of Japanese music include Buddhist chant and orchestral court music. Traditional folk music included religious songs and songs for gatherings, work songs, and children’s songs. Typical instruments were stringed instruments, drums, flutes, bells. The first piano wasn’t heard until the opening of Japan, but by 1875 the Japanese were manufacturing their own pianos and other Western musical instruments.

Emperor Mutsuhito, who adopted the title Meiji – or Enlightened Rule – in 1867, pushed for modernization with an eye to the West to avoid becoming dominated by other countries. In 1868, the government issued the Charter Oath: a five-article document outlining the principles of the Meiji administration. It declared that “knowledge shall be sought throughout the world.” Meiji curiosity about Western culture included absorbing foreign classical and religious music. On the bureaucratic side, the Meiji government created the Music Study Committee, which encouraged Western music. They wanted Japanese composers to write in the Western style, and the committee required the German model of music instruction for all students. The committee also led to the founding of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, which Tomoko attended. 

Combining Western and Japanese music could be challenging though. For instance, Christian religious tended to be Western based, which was sometimes hard for Japanese to intonate. And when missionaries tried to translate their hymns into Japanese, they found it hard to match the rhythm to Japanese text. 

The tension between Western and Japanese music and their currents continued to flow through Tomoko’s families. During World War II at school Tomoko’s class sang nationalistic music with Japanese lyrics set to European music. Tomoko’s mother played and sang Christian songs, and Tomoko’s brother became a composer in the more Japanese mode. 

Nevertheless, Tomoko brings her Japanese sensibility as she performs music from around the world.

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