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Daniel Guerrero

Daniel Guerrero

First Year Seminar


Argumentative Research Paper 11/21/18

Western Influences on Japanese Music and The Full Circle

Japan, a nation rich in culture, history, art; and a mixing pot of musical themes. When one thinks of Japanese music, the first thing that may pop into your mind’s eye (or ear) is the ever so popular genre of “J-pop”. However, one should be keen to acknowledge the great depth of the Japanese music scene both in the past, and in this present day. Music in Japan has played an immense role historically both socially, and more recently, on an extremely large economical scale second only to the US. This paper is built upon the historical background of Japan’s music scene and how the Western world has influenced it. I argue that the main element that has influenced modern Japanese music has been the presence of Western music. This is done by analyzing music trends throughout the years, starting since the 19th century and continuing beyond. I also briefly analyze how in our modern day, Japanese music has influenced some Western genres, artists, and themes. These will include influences on electronic dance music both from Japan, the Western world, and vice versa. This paper will also touch upon the aesthetics of “nostalgia” within our own, current Western trends.

The West introduced the idea of “absolute music” to Japan, along with a greater acknowledgement for the composer themselves and their compositions. Most historians

commonly associate the Meiji era as the time period when Western music was first assimilated into Japan. Ozawa Shuji had a key role in “commissioning” songs that used pentatonic scales in their melodies. This scale type, while commonly used with Western composers in their works, was not the primary scale that had been traditionally used in Japanese music. During the same era, Western military marches had began to become popular. To be more specific: “After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the imperial government that replaced that of the shoguns created a national conscript army and navy, each with their own bands und foreign musical directors. Military bands played for official ceremonies and gave public performances.” (Mehl, M. (2013). Western Art Music in Japan: A Success Story? Nineteenth-Century Music Review) The influence of such a musical styles can be seen in “shoka and gunk”. These are militaristic styles of music, clearly resembling a merging of the Western military marches and the Japanese folk themes of the time.

It is key to recognize the musical environment in Japan in this specific time period. Eta Harich-Schneider wrote the first English language history of music in Japan. Within it, the German author wrote: “Japan’s confrontation with Western art music in the nineteenth century ‘took place at a moment when the contrast [with its indigenous music] was at its strongest’. The nineteenth-century Western idea of ‘absolute music’, she claims, had no equivalent in Japan. Nineteenth-century Western attitudes towards the composer and his work were alien to the Japanese.” (Harich-Schneider, Eta, A History of Japanese Music (London: Oxford University Press, 1973)) There are two key points to take away from this excerpt. Firstly: the fact that Western music was first introduced during the time period in which Japanese “indigenous” music was at its is a massive deal. This would point to fact that the first “Western influenced” scores

composed in Japan had a massive indigenously Japanese influence. One must also take into account the full social aspect of such a groundbreaking thing as introducing a completely different compositional style. The second important point to take away is the introduction of the concept of “absolute music”. The direct definition of “absolute music” is: “instrumental music composed purely as music, and not intended to represent or illustrate something else.” This introduction would be absolutely groundbreaking during this time period, especially as Expressionism (with its unique flavor for discordance and unconventional harmonic structures) began to take hold of the Western instrumental world during the end of the 19th century. Take into account this quote from an article on Cambridge’s files: “In fact, the very concept of ‘music’ had little meaning to most Japanese: the word ongaku for ‘music’ only gained currency when it came to be used as a Japanese translation for the Western word, and today Japanese people still tend to associate it with Western music.” (Mehl, M. (2013). Western Art Music in Japan: A Success Story? Nineteenth-Century Music Review). One should realize that the magnitude of the introduction of Western music to Japan was so prevalent, that even to this day, people still tend to associate the word for “music” with the West.

Arguably, the biggest influencer when it came to “pop music” in Japan was the introduction of Jazz. This can be traced to the 1920s, when modern composers began to further use Western compositional techniques such as pentatonic scales, and even instrumentation such as harmonicas. The one obstacle that stood in the way of these advancements was the war, as written here: “Jazz continued to ascend in popularity leading up to the Pacific War era, in which it was banned by the government in favor of propagandist "war songs" that incorporated traditional marches. Many pioneering composers of the pre-war era were enlisted to write these

songs or otherwise marked as antinationals.” (Hildred, A Brief History of Japanese Pop (J-pop) Music). Jazz can single-handedly be claimed responsible as the greatest Western influencer of modern Japanese music. Even to this day, it isn’t rare for Japanese Jazz artist to achieve international recognition. The reason for this spread can be explained quite simply by the increase of travel during the 1920s. An article by UNESCO explains it as such: “Identifying the exact origin of the emergence of jazz in Japan is difficult, but it is clear that the increasing number of Japanese citizens traveling to the United States had its role to play. Their travels exposed them to this new style, a musical mix of African and American cultures.” (UNESCO, Jazz in Japan: A History of Tradition and Modernity) A parallelism can be observed with the popularity of Jazz in the United states at the same time that it was growing in popularity in Japan pre-war era. The popularity of Jazz is responsible not only for the further integration of Western music into Japan, but also for inspiring more and more Japanese groups into performing more popular songs. It wasn’t uncommon for Japanese artists to cover these American songs. The article continues with: “ some Japanese groups even went as far as covering some of the songs. Make no mistake, however: Japanese artists did cover American songs, but they did so while adapting them to their own language and culture. Jazz at that time was not just a tool of expression and entertainment: it embodied the growing influence of the United States.” During this era, the start of what is now Japan’s important music industry was just starting.

The official name for Japanese based compositions with Western elements arrived in the 1960s as “kayoukyoku”. With the rise of popular band genres such as rock and roll, its not surprising to know that Western influence was now incredibly relevant in Japan. Similar to habits during the Jazz-heavy period in Japan, covers were still prelavent in the start of this wave,

however this began to change: One thing that became particularly popular was translating Western songs into Japanese and covering them, lending kayoukyoku to the "cover pops" boom. But as time went on, musicians would begin writing their own Western inspired music set to their own original lyrics.” (Hildred, A Brief History of Japanese Pop (J-pop) Music). We began to see the rise of more and more independent acts, not only changing lyrics of songs to their own language, but even going as far to start writing their own Western-influenced pieces. A quick article online states: “With rock and roll sweeping the whole world in the 1960s and 1970s, J- rock or Japanese rock invaded the Japanese music scene as well.” (Tom Takihi, History of Japanese Music)

Just as the Western world heavily influenced Japan throughout the start, things started to change in the 70s and 80s. With technology developing rapidly during the 80s, the ever- important sub-genre of “City Pop” began to emerge. Out of many acts, arguably, the most influential group during this time period was “Yellow Magic Orchestra”: “Yellow Magic Orchestra paved the way for "City Pop" to emerge as a popular trend during the early 80s. City Pop focused on urban and big-city living themes with electronic elements and jazz fusion at its back.” (Hildred, A Brief History of Japanese Pop (J-pop) Music) This form of music greatly reflected the economic boom that occurred in Japan during the 80s. The usage of electronic- heavy production went on to form of the base of what we now know as “J-pop”. Modern music trends in themselves to this day tend to be build on such electronically produced songs. Many argue that Japan was actually ahead of the curve when it came to electronic music. In this day and age, there are many elm sub-genres that can easily be attributed as having Japanese themes and motifs. Take for example the popular genre of “future bass”. This downtime genre has

inspired an even more niche sub-genre called “Kawaii Future Bass”: “Kawaii Future Bass ("kawaii" coming from Japanese meaning cute) is another subgenre. Mostly bombarded by jazz chords, video game samples and anime samples. Hugely popularized by artists such as Snail’s House.” (Electronic Music Wiki, Future Bass). Artists such as Porter Robinson tend to play on the “nostalgia” theme common within Japanese modern media. “Nostalgia” is one of the most common aesthetics of our generation. Porter Robinson commonly uses Japanese inspired visuals and themes both in his live shows, and songs. In an interview, he stated: “I’m just stuck on Japan for some reason” (Murphy, Japan’s Influence on Western Music). This recent movement in Japanese aesthetics has greatly taken over the modern electronic music scene.

The West’s influence on Japan’s music scene is undeniably noticeable when we listen to this day. One should notice that as our world became more and more connected, musical themes began to merge over easily. With modern technology, it can easily be assumed that more and more themes will continue to be crossed over both from the Western world to Japan, and vice Versa.

Works Cited

Harich-Schneider, Eta. A History of Japanese Music. Oxford University Press, 1973. Hildred. “A Brief History of Japanese Pop (J-Pop) Music.” Spinditty, Spinditty, 7 Mar. 2018,

“History of Japanese Music.” Singapore Travel Guide, of-japanese-music-ceello.html.

“Japanese Music.” Topics, Sample Papers & Articles Online for Free, 30 Mar. 2016,

Mehl, Margaret. “Western Art Music in Japan: A Success Story?” Nineteenth-Century Music Review, vol. 10, no. 02, 2013, pp. 211–222., doi:10.1017/s1479409813000232. Murphy, Sam. “THUMP Investigates Japanese Electronica, Part 3: Japan’s Influence On Western Music.” Vice, Vice, 27 Aug. 2014, japanese-electronica-part-3-japans-influence-on-western-music.

Murphy, Sam. “THUMP Investigates Japanese Electronica, Part 3: Japan’s Influence On Western Music.” Vice, Vice, 27 Aug. 2014, japanese-electronica-part-3-japans-influence-on-western-music.

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