Japanese music

The largest physical music (or 音楽 (ongaku)) market is Japan. Japan has a wide variety of music styles both now, in modern times, and in history. The Japanese word 音楽(ongaku) comes from 音 (on) which translates into ‘sound’, and from 楽(gaku) which means ‘enjoy’ in English. So put in different words, the Japanese word for music literally translates to enjoyable sounds. The Japanese music industry has a total value of 2.6 billion dollars (as of 2014). 37 out of the top 50 bestselling albums and 49 of the top 50 bestselling singles were created by Japanese artists in 2014.


Traditional Japanese music is quite different from Western music as it is often based on the intervals of human breathing rather than mathematical timing. Many musical forms of Japan were imported from China over a thousand years ago. Over the years these forms have been reshaped into their own Japanese styles.

Almost nothing is known about music in Japan’s prehistory, but there is evidence suggesting the early importance of music. The Japanese word 歌(“uta”)  in Japanese can mean “song” or “poem. The forms of verse and the use of poetic images developed at this time, these live through almost all Japanese music up to the present.

A considerable part of Japan’s official culture was in Chinese, even though the Chinese and Japanese languages are differ from each other quite a lot. Chinese is monosyllabic (consisting of one syllable) and has tones (variations in pitch distinguish different words), while Japanese has long polysyllabic (using more than one syllable) words and does not have tones. Pure Japanese literature in the Heian period (794 till 1185) and Japanese poetry in special, tried to avoid words of Chinese origin as much as they could, which of course sped up the ‘Japanese reshaping’ of the imported Chinese culture.


The top 100 in Japan right now:


The top 50 on Spotify:



Some random fun facts:

-People still buy a lot of CD’s in Japan. CD sales make up 85% of all music sales in this Far East country. It is still a mystery as to why this is the case in such a futuristic country. Another unusual thing; it is illegal to sell CD’s below the price of 25$.

-The capital of Japan, Tokyo, has the best sound systems in the world. Music fans take their fandom very seriously.

-Japan also has the largest pop group in the world. The group, called AKB which stands for Akihabara, consists out of 130 members!


Traditional Japanese music

There are several types of traditional, Japanese music. This are some of the most popular ones:

In short, Gagaku is an ancient court music from China and Korea. It is the oldest traditional Japanese music. Gagaku came to Japan from other countries in the Asian continent. It is still preserved in Japan long after it has disappeared in the countries Japan originally got the music style from.

Gagaku consists primarily of music by wind and string instruments accompanied by percussion. The nasal hichiriki and the harmonica-like sho are only used in Gagaku and are a part of its distinctive sound. The pieces of Gagaku are divided into two groups, To-gaku or pieces from Tang China and Rimpa-gaku or pieces from the region that is now the southern part of the Vietnam peninsula are called “pieces of the left”. And pieces from the three ancient countries of Korea and Pohai-gaku are called “pieces of the right”. The instrumentation and forms of these two groups of pieces are also different and originally they were performed by different groups of musicians that also enter the stage from different directions.

This music style is based on ceremonial music introduced from China and South Asia before the tenth century. In China Gagaku was played during ceremonies. However, Togaku music, is said to have been introduced from China and is presently played as Japanese Gagaku. Togaku is believed to be based on the music played in the Tang period (618 till 907). It has a relationship to the Vietnamese Gagaku (nhã nhạc) aswell.

Before the modern age, the Tennoji gakuso Theater in Shitenno-ji Temple ( situated in Osaka City), the Ouchi gakuso Theater in the Imperial Court (situated in Kyoto) and the Nanto gakuso Theater in Kasugataisha Shrine (situated in Nara City) were called “Sanpo gakuso theaters”.

These gakuso theater companies were asked to move to Tokyo during the modern age and became the basis for the current Gakubu section of the Imperial Household Agency. The tradition of each gakuso theater company has continued in each place.


Biwagaku is music played with the Biwa. A biwa is  an instrument with four strings that looks kind of like a lute:



Nohgaku or Noh:
Music played during Noh performances. It consists of a chorus, the Hayashi flute, the Tsuzumi drum, and other instruments. In the middle ages, Noh emerged. Noh was a masked drama with poetic texts and a spare percussion and flute ensemble in the middle ages. A noh performance:



Music played with the Koto, a string instrument with 13 strings, somewhat like a small harp. Later in time it was accompanied by Shamisen and Shakuhachi.  A koto:



Music played with the Shakuhachi. This is a bamboo of about 0.55 m long. The name Shakuhachi refers to an old Japanese unit of length of the flute. A Shakuhachi or shaku (尺) (“Japanese foot” ) is 30.3 centimeters or 11.9 inches.

Music played with the Shamisen. This is a three-stringed string instrument. Kabuki and Bunraku performances are accompanied by the shamisen, as mentioned before. You can read about the Shamisen right under this paragraph.

The Shamisen

The shamisen is a Japanese music instrreminds you of a guitar. Except that it has three strings instead of six. It still reminds you of a guitar because it has a long, thin neck and a small rectangular body covered in skin. The instrument can be tuned in the same way as a guitar. The strings are not plucked by hand, but with a plectrum, a large triangular one.

The shakuhachi

This instrument is a flute made of bamboo. Just like any flute it played by blowing on one end. The shakuhachi is sometimes called a five-holed bamboo flute because it has five holes. Four in the front, and one in the back. The small number of holes provides the instrument of its distinctive tone.

The koto

The koto is a large, wooden, 13-stringed instrument and it is the most popular traditional instrument. To give an impression of how large the instrument is; the width of this instrument is around 2 meters. The pitch is adjusted by moving bridges that are under every single string. It is played with picks, similar to the picks the Western world uses. The left hand of a player presses down on the strings to bend notes.

Historians argue that this instrument was created around the 300 B.C. in China. It originally had 5 strings but it became 12, then even 13. The 13 string Koto was picked up by the Japanese between 710 and 794. It initially performed with other instruments, in ensembles. But later in time it became an instrument that was played on its own.

Examples of the names of the parts of a koto are: “dragon’s tongue” or “dragon’s horn”. This is because the names derive from looking at the instrument as if it were a dragon laying on the ground. Here are some of the parts of the koto that have names of a dragon’s anatomy:


“Ryuko” or dragon’s back. This is the main body of the koto. A musician plucks the strings on the right of the “ji”, what we would call a fret on a guitar. They have notched tops to hold the strings and they help to transmit the sound from the strings to the body of the instrument. It makes the sound fuller and richer. These supports are slid up and down the instrument to adjust the sound of each string.


“Ryubi” or dragon’s tail. Back-up strings are ‘collected’ here, in case a string breaks. The string is coiled in two bunches. One coil of six strings and one of seven.


“Tsume” or claws. The strings of the koto are not played directly by a players fingers but with three “tsumes”. They are put on the thumb, index finger and middle finger.



Modern Japanese citizens rarely hear these instruments as they are traditional, but they are ‘kept alive’ by secondary schools going to theatres to listen to these instruments.