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Arts and Culture, Music and Dance

hichiriki, Ozawa Seiji, Korean performer, samisen, gagaku

The earliest reported form of music and dance in Japan was gigaku, imported from China by a Korean performer sometime in the early 6th century. In gigaku, masked dancers performed dramas to the accompaniment of flute, drum, and gong ensembles.

The ancient music and dance of Shinto is called kagura. In kagura, performers danced for the pleasure of the gods and expressed prayers asking for prolonged or revitalized life. Drums, flutes, and sometimes cymbals provided music, and as in gigaku, the dancers often wore masks.

The ritual music of the emperor’s court, gagaku, accompanied dancing called bugaku. In addition to the instruments already mentioned, gagaku employed a type of double-reed pipe or oboe (hichiriki) and a mouth organ (sho). Of all the musical sounds of Japan, the exotic tones of these two instruments are probably the most unusual to Western ears.

Sometime in the late 16th century, Japanese musicians began playing a three-stringed, banjolike instrument called the samisen, which had originated in the Ryukyu Islands. Both the kabuki and puppet theaters adopted the instrument as an accompaniment, and it was also played frequently by geisha, a class of professional female entertainers that emerged in Tokugawa times. No sound is more symbolic of the Tokugawa “floating world” than the notes of the samisen. Even today it commonly accompanies classical dance recitals.

In the modern era the Japanese wholeheartedly embraced Western classical music. Japan has produced some of the world’s leading classical performers, conductors, and composers. Well-known Japanese musicians of the 20th century include Ozawa Seiji, an internationally renowned conductor, and Toru Takemitsu, who gained fame for composing modern music using traditional Japanese instruments. Modern Japanese dance draws on both traditional and Western styles, and includes the avant-garde buto dance form.

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