Japan is rich in culture and part of its cultural landscape includes a truly wonderful realm of music. This spectacular realm of traditional instruments is surprisingly vast for a relatively small country, as numerous styles of Japanese music came into being for various purposes over the centuries.
Music’s Role In Traditional Japan
Music was not only for musical performance and personal enjoyment, but also an important part of religious ceremonies, theater, festivals, and other primary cultural events. Some instruments may span multiple purposes and types of venue, but some are of a specific purpose for a specific venue.
Not only are the instruments beautiful to the ears, but also to the eyes. The craftsmanship and sound of traditional Japanese instruments are spectacular even today and quite often of gorgeous ceremonial quality. They are a showcase of form in balance with function and are like musical pieces of art. Let’s take a look at a couple of the more popular instruments so we can get a little more acquainted with Japan and its traditional music.
The “Shamisen” (pronounced “Sha-mee-sen”) is a stringed instrument, approximately the length of a guitar, and featuring a total of three silk or nylon strings. It is primarily made of wood and at one end has a drum-like body that amplifies the sound of the strings. The instrument is often referred to as being a kind of Japanese banjo, although this is likely not an appropriate comparison even if the sound may be vaguely similar. Traditionally the shamisen is played both in classical theater and also by entertainers such as Geiko (Geisha) and their apprentices. Somewhat recently, a duo of Japanese shamisen players known as the “Yoshida Brothers” has done a lot to both popularize the instrument beyond Japan and also likely revive its popularity in Japan.
This wooden flute, known as the “Shakuhachi” (pronounced “Shah-koo-hah-chee”), is an iconic Japanese instrument featured in many Samurai movies and other popular Japanese media. It is a unique style of wooden flute and it features a mouthpiece that cuts the air of the player’s breath directly at its opening.
It is known for its meditative qualities and is traditionally used as a tool for Zen meditation. This is partly where its function in Samurai films comes into play, as many Samurai were students of Zen and would supposedly play shakuhachi for extra income as wandering monks when they were not in active military employ. Traditionally the Zen monks would wear a wooden basket over their heads down to their shoulders.
The music they played was considered a kind of meditation and the tones of the flute were considered spiritually important. Today the shakuhachi is often used as soundtrack music in movies and other media, and its deep wooden sound is a fitting backdrop to any traditional scenery in Japan.
You have probably already heard these instruments without even knowing what you were hearing. Hopefully, now you know a little more about traditional Japanese music and the instruments commonly played to make its wonderful sounds.