Traditional Music in Modern Life

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Akihisa Kominato

    Main guest

    Shakuhachi player Akihisa Kominato, born into a family of musicians, was deeply involved in the world of traditional Japanese music from an early age. In addition to traditional music, Kominato has broken boundaries by using the shakuhachi to perform pop and jazz. He makes frequent appearances both in and outside Japan, and is also involved in fostering the next generation of traditional musicians.

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July 11, 2017

Traditional Music in Modern Life

*You will leave the NHK website.

The whole world knows that modern Japanese culture is a blend of old and new, of East and West. But while we might think of this blending as something that has simply happened, it has been, from the beginning, a deliberate process: individuals decide which parts of traditional Japan to retain, which Western trends to embrace, and where to skillfully fuse the two into something entirely new. This edition of Japanology Plus tracks a group of people engaged in this process, specifically in terms of music.

Another recent edition of Japanology Plus focused on traditional Japanese music, which itself comprises many styles and is played on a variety of instruments. Some of those, like the shamisen and koto, are at least somewhat familiar to Western ears. Other traditional instruments may be less familiar, like the shakuhachi, the end-blown flute played by today’s main guest, Akihisa Kominato.

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Shakuhachi player Akihisa Kominato says it may take months for a beginner to get even one sound from the instrument.

While Kominato toiled away at the venerable shakuhachi, thereby living up to his parents’ expectations, his contemporaries were learning to play what were arguably “cooler” Western instruments like the guitar. This was indicative of a larger trend within Japan (and, indeed, the world) as a whole: indigenous music was giving way to the popular music of the West.

Kominato eventually decided that he would like to preserve traditional Japanese music by making it cool, too. He first steps in that direction included performing on the street in jeans and dyed hair, playing duets with Western instruments. These days, he serves as the music producer of the NHK WORLD TV program Blends, which, as the name implies, presents a mix of Western compositions and instruments with traditional Japanese ones to create a brand-new sound.

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An example of Japanese and Western instruments playing side by side.

But this initiative by Kominato and others isn’t the first time Japanese and Western music have found themselves mixed together. As far back as the 1930s, composers like Ryoichi Hattori were writing jazz songs that incorporated traditional Japanese folk melodies and instruments. In the 1960s, the genre of melancholy ballads known as enka combined sentimental Japanese lyrics and vocalization with Western backing instruments (often played on the Japanese pentatonic scale). And the electrification of Japanese instruments like the tsugaru-shamisen has led to a wave of high-powered traditional music with an amplified rock’n’roll twist.

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The electric tsugaru-shamisen (right) has allowed shamisen players to add guitar-style amplification and distortion to their sound.

This blending of old and new, or Japanese and non-Japanese, doesn’t end at music, of course. From wasabi-flavored ice cream to kimonos made with denim, modern Japan is filled with surprising mash-ups—and plenty more combinations that have now become a part of everyday life.

This kind of combination tends to rock the proverbial boat, setting off debates about whether those like Kominato are helping to preserve tradition, or are actually diluting or even destroying it. But as Kominato points out, what is new for one generation may become traditional for the next, and on down the line. “The only constant is change” may be another truism along the lines of “Japanese culture is a mix of old and new,” but both truisms are continually showcased by Japan’s ever-evolving culture and the creative individuals who shape it.

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It’s anyone’s guess as to what the next generation of traditional instrument players will come up with.

*You will leave the NHK website.