Sunday, July 26, 2015


Japanese music goes back many centuries, and there are many different kinds of traditional styles of music. Traditional music consists of several different types, and variations have changed throughout the centuries. Different styles of music were divided between male and female musicians or whether it incorporated dance or not. Some styles of music were designed as the accompaniment for stories such as The Tale of the Heike. Min’you folk music is another popular folk music style, and I’ve seen min’you performers showcase their talent here in Indianapolis. There are different kinds of songs and dances they perform: work songs, religious songs (mostly used in Shinto), children’s songs, and songs for gatherings (weddings, festivals, funerals, etc.).


There are several native instruments in Japan, many related to instruments in China and other areas in eastern Asia. The koto is a type of stringed instrument where 13 strings are spread across a wooden base that had movable bridges. It’s often considered the national instrument of Japan. The shamisen, which is generally shaped like a guitar and has three strings and a square-ish body, is often used in kabuki, bunraku, and folk music. The shakuhachi is a type of flute that is played in front of the player. Its history involves the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism who often wore wicker baskets on top of their head (as a symbol of detachment), and some shakuhachi performers will still play with a basket on their head. There are many types of taiko drumming, and the drums can range from rather small to very large. Taiko drums were originally used during warfare and later used in theatre. Taiko ensembles, called kumi-daiko, are pretty popular today and amazingly didn’t come on the scene until the 1950s. Today, these drumming groups can often be seen during festivals and other events. I was even in charge of one of these taiko drumming groups once when I worked for Mori no Ike at Concordia Language Villages many years ago. 

There are several styles of dance, and of course many of these styles varied in different regions across the country. Many dances were born out of the theatre. Kabuki incorporated dance into its performances (the “bu” part of “kabuki” signifies dance when looking at the kanji spelling of the word). Noh Mai dancing is often performed to flutes and hand drums. The movements are done with elegance and grace. Bon Odori is performed during the holiday Obon (which I have done many times before). It’s a dance done in homage to the dead and designed to awaken their spirits. It usually takes place in August, so you may have some Obon festivals in your community sponsored by the local Japanese cultural centers coming up. There are many other dances that are more specifically identified with certain regions, prefectures, and cities. 

Renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa
Since Western classical music was introduced to Japan, they have taken it very seriously. Many Japanese musicians, singers, composers, and conductors have reached international fame. Almost every major city in Japan has its own symphony orchestra. Starting in the 1930s (except during WWII), Japanese musicians were also drawn toward jazz music. Learning from the best American and European jazz masters, Japanese musicians began to emulate what they heard. Today, there are many jazz clubs performing traditional jazz music as well as more experimental jazz.

One of the most iconic things about the Japanese music culture is karaoke. You either love it or hate it. Anthony Bourdain is widely known for hating it, and I certainly don’t mind it at all; I think it’s fun, although it’s been a long time since I’ve been. Japan takes music seriously: it’s the largest physical music industry in the world and second largest overall (next to the US; Germany is 3rd, UK is 4th, and France is 5th). 

I have so many Japanese bands and musicians that I like (often called J-pop or J-rock -- and one thing you'll notice is they use a lot of English words and phrases mixed into the Japanese lyrics), and it’s really hard to narrow it down. Unfortunately, many of the bands and musicians that I enjoyed from the late 1990s and early 2000s aren’t on Spotify for some reason. However, many of these bands do have a lot of videos on YouTube and some even have their own YouTube channels. I think it has something to do with the fact that digital music really isn’t a thing in Japan, so therefore, it wouldn’t be on this type of medium. Regardless, I thought it would be best to just list some of the bands I have grown to love over the years: 

Love Psychedelico (influenced by American music from the 1970s; I love their style, and they’re clearly one of my favorites), Chara (one of the first musicians I heard, I used to have a VHS copy of her movie Swallowtail Butterfly and her band called Yen Town Band that was pretty much made for this movie), Bonnie Pink (I love Bonnie Pink; she’s one of my favorites, and I like that she uses a horn line in her music), Namie Amuro (classic Japanese dance/electronica music; you expect it to be in a video game or something; I laughed at the video anove because this video is from 1995, and it's like they raided my closet from that year), GLAY (a hard-rock boy band of sorts), Judy & Mary (I was always 50/50 about them, but I bought their CD for only a few songs; still, I learned to like the others), Shiina Ringo (hands down, one of my top favorites; I totally wish I could find more of her stuff), Speed (very classic girl’s bubble gum pop group; there were a few songs that I liked), B’z (not a band I listened to much when I was in Japan, but they have a style similar to [if not better than] GLAY; I like them a lot), Mr. Children (another band that was widely popular that I didn’t listen to much; they have a pop-rock sound to them), L’arc~en~Ciel (I like this group; it’s the kind of hard rock you imagine playing in a TV show when people take a drive or long walk to ponder their problems), Spitz (I used to know a guy whose favorite band was Spitz; it’s more or less average rock music), Ulfuls (I seriously only knew one song from them for the longest time [“Banzai”] since it was played at Mori no Ike all the time, so I enjoyed finding out they had others out there), The Brilliant Green (another singer I loved for only a few songs; I wish I could find more), Dragon Ash (I love Dragon Ash for representing the small Japanese hip-hop genre; they had a song on the Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift soundtrack), The Star Club (apparently Japan has a few punk bands I didn’t know about; they’re not too bad), Bomb Factory (another punk band; I like their sound a lot; I can get behind this), Hime (you know I have a thing for foreign female rappers, and I can now add one from Japan; her style reminds me of some of the Middle Eastern or French-language rap styles), Guitar Wolf (totally a garage punk band, and they starred in a horribly hilarious rock and roll zombie horror movie called Wild Zero, but it’s best to watch this while drunk or high or both), Teengenerate (I would put their music in the same category as Guitar Wolf—you know, music to relax to), Melt Banana (if you like high energy noise seizures, you’ll love this band), Peelander-Z (my kids think their name is hilarious [and that their side project name should be Pooplander-J], but it’s good ol’ rock and roll; I like their music), X Japan (think 1980s hair bands from the US), Mad Capsule Markets (imagine Japanese noise rock met metal), Utada Hikaru (definitely a pop star but with some R&B influences there), Puffy AmiYumi (super stereotypical Japanese pop made for TV but with some catchy songs, the types that will give you serious earworms), Misia (her music has a lot of soul and R&B styles evident in it), and Cocco (one of the older musicians I have, there are many of her songs that I liked. I used to have a bunch of songs on a tape that broke years ago). 


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