Japan: the other country of the classical music

Less than 150 years after its introduction into Japan, western classical music has never been better. The Japanese people made of their country one of the places on earth where classical music is at its peak. What is their secret?

When Japanese talk about "musique", it is obvious they talk of western music. On the opposite, it is necessary to point out when traditional music is in question - not really traditional as a matter of fact, as its practice is still very much alive and has been taught since the the 9th century.

How can we explain that Japan, that archipelago on the other side of the world, so far from the western world, captured so fiercely classical music? The explanation could be sum up to just one word: syncretism. This notion means the synthesis of several doctrines to create a new one. During its rich history, Japan proved it is a world champion of syncretism: language, ideograms, religion, arts... This country has always built itself from imported forms that were assimilated and transformed, so much so that they had nothing in common with their origins at the end of the process. 

As for classical music, Japan hasn't reached yet the third stage of the syncretism but it surprises us on many levels. In order to understand better how classical music was introduced into this country, we have to remind some key events of its recent history. Between the 17th and 19th century, the archipelago cut itself from the rest of the world. That period called "sakoku" that lasted for more than 200 years was a period of civil peace and economic prosperity. This isolation allowed the Japanese arts to be considerably developed without any foreign influence. That situation ended though in 1868 with the establishment of the Meiji era that was the starting point of the modernization of the country. Japan gave up the feudal regime of the Shogunnat and opened itself to the world.

Le parvis du Suntory Hall à Tokyo. L'une des salles les plus prestigieuses du Japon. (© Victor Tribot Laspière / France Musique)
Le parvis du Suntory Hall à Tokyo. L'une des salles les plus prestigieuses du Japon. (© Victor Tribot Laspière / France Musique)

The Emperor Meiji decided to limit the traditional music to give more place to the western music. At the time, Japanese society was divided into castes, each one had its own music style, repertoire and instruments. As an example, the aristocratic class listened to gagaku, a repertoire made of instrumental music, songs and dances. On the other side, the Nô, a theater with songs, dialogues and dances was reserved to the military class.

This social compartmentalization was a source of conflicts and Emperor decided to favor the western music to the detriment of the Japanese music. From 1870, observers were sent to Europe and the United States to take notes on the different methods of teaching, of training and of music broadcasting. That was the case for Isawa Shûji who was a member of the Ministry of Education sent to Boston. In 1872, he sent to the government a very enthusiast report on the American system of music education and advocated that a similar system was created in Japan, to unify the country, which was one of the Emperor's main aims.

In 1879, the Meiji government made an unprecedented decision: the teaching of western music became mandatory his primary and secondary schools. The Japanese musicologist Akira Tamba pointed that fact out in his book Classical Music in Japan, from the 15th century to our days by asking the reader to picture the decision if it had been the other way around. One morning, a western government would impose to the students to learn Japanese music at school without anyone raising an eyebrow. Of course, at the beginning of that revolution in education, only the child of the bourgeoise elite benefited of that education, but it would eventually reach all the layers of the society.

This abrupt change of the music education is the result of a political, diplomatic but also ideologic strategy. For it is through the western music the government intended on creating the Japanese national unity. Isawa Shûji saw in music the way to contribute to the children's formation, and a several level: thei physical development, their social and moral formation and the teaching of working as one. This notion is one of the basis of the Shintoist philosophy: always put the collective self in front of the individual self. Shûji was in a way the precursor of El Sistema, and as soon as the end of the 19th century.

The other event that settled for good the classical western music throughout all the country was the Second World War. Big losers of the war, Japanese lived under the American occupation from 1945 to 1952. That presence influenced and transformed a great deal the society in its entirety. In 1947, the United States put in place a new system of music education on Japanese soil, mainly based on singing and supposedly following the children's taste. 

Yet, the Ministry of Education was apparently unsatisfied with the system and decided to boost in 1958, claiming it completely neglected the technical aspect of the musical teaching. Four new lessons were added: vocal expression technique, instrumental expression technique, musical creation and musical critic. Once more, the famous Japanese syncretism was taking over: starting from a basis inspired by the American system, the country worked to improve it and take it further.

Masahide Kajimoto, CEO of the Kajimoto Company (oldest and most important artistic agents company in Japan, created by his father in 1951) explained this need to seize the western classical music: "After two centuries of complete confinement, Japan felt the need to exist, to be a part of the world, to be recognized. The western classical music then became a diplomatic tool to enter in cultural exchanges. But it is especially after the Second World War that the classical music became popular. During that chaotic period for our country, people fought to find food, to find a shelter, work... and my father felt they needed to be offered pleasure and happiness to have the courage to keep on fighting and living. That is why my father started to organize concerts". 

Masahide Kajimoto et l'une de ses collaboratrices au siège tokyoïte de Kajimoto, l'une des plus importantes entreprises d'agents d'artistes et d'organisation de concerts classiques au Japon. (© Victor Tribot Laspière / France Musique)
Masahide Kajimoto et l'une de ses collaboratrices au siège tokyoïte de Kajimoto, l'une des plus importantes entreprises d'agents d'artistes et d'organisation de concerts classiques au Japon. (© Victor Tribot Laspière / France Musique)

Since then, Japan had no rest catching up the western music world. That is why classical music is today booming is Japan. As soon as they enter primary school, children have several hours of music lessons each week and the subject is as important as mathematics or history are. Moreover, almost every school have their own orchestra with their stock of instruments. Every city built a concert venue and set up orchestras and choirs. In Tokyo, we count 16 professional orchestras and 5 venues who can hold more than 2000 people.

We find in those places of culture a population much more diversified than it is in France for example. Japan also has to face to aging audience problem, but is much smaller proportions than in the European countries even if, as surprising as it is, the country has to deal with a real problem of general aging in its population: more than 10 millions people are more than 80 years old on 127 millions of Japanese.

Since the 1960's, Japan has become one of the main destinations of the great international artists. The numerous venues of the country have a reputed acoustic and are very easily packed. Many artists praise the quality and the attention of the Japanese audience. According to Masahide Kajimoto the growth of the classical music is connected to Japan's amazing economic progression: "From the 1960's, we experienced what we call the Japanese economic miracle. People had more money and therefore became more interested in activities of leisure and culture. They had an incredible thirst for discovering new cultures, a will to turn even more towards the outside. It was a magical time for classical music and we are enjoying the benefits of that period".

Les mélomanes japonais vouent un véritable culte aux grands musiciens. Ici,le chef américain Leonard Slatkin signe des autographes après un concert avec l'Orchestre national de Lyon au NHK Concert Hall de Tokyo. (© Victor Tribot Laspière / France Musique)
Les mélomanes japonais vouent un véritable culte aux grands musiciens. Ici,le chef américain Leonard Slatkin signe des autographes après un concert avec l'Orchestre national de Lyon au NHK Concert Hall de Tokyo. (© Victor Tribot Laspière / France Musique)

There is another proof of the classical music's good health in Japan: it is the country where they sell the most classical music records and partitions worldwide. It is also of the last countries who kept its big record stores, when the others were closed because of the growing of streaming platforms. 

To keep up with the efforts

The booker Masahide Kajimoto still says his job doesn't give him many reasons to be optimistic: "The great years of the Japanese economy are behind us and unfortunately, when economy is not good, neither is culture. Thoase past ten years have not been so thriving for classical music". Mister Kajimoto reproaches Japan for its aspect still too conservative in the matter of programmation, an attitude that has to be linked with the country's economical troubles. "Venues directors are not willing to take risks anymore and content themselves with putting up always the same huge successes of the classical music to keep the audience reassured. Nobody wants to take to risk to book more audacious pieces and therefore, Japanese are not discovering new or little known contemporary composers".

Kajimoto's CEO remembers when the Ensemble Intercontemporain could come easily in Japan to give concerts. Today, venues have become very timid. "Bookers would rather have the Berlin Philharmoniker for three dates in April, for example. It is a guarantee to sell all the tickets, to earn money more easily. But is costs so much to make that orchestra come here than nothing else will happen until October! This is how it goes nowadays in Japan and it is pretty sad". 

The classical music professionals notices another problem in Japan: Japanese orchestras and musicians are not easily exported. It is pretty rare to read the name of a Japanese orchestra touring in France. For Shoji Sato, agent in Japan of many internationally known artists, including Martha Argerich, the problem is not of a quality aspect: "There is obviously economical problems. Japanese orchestras don't have the same prestige as do the European or American ones. Therefore, it is difficult to find producers willing to take the risk to spend a lot of money without any insurance that the venue will be packed. But in my opinion the real problem comes from somewhere else: most of the Japanese musicians who play in our orchestras all studied and started their career in Europe. They feel they are at the heart of the classical music's life and are greatly motivated. Once they go back to Japan, they lose that motivation. That explains why it is so difficult to set up ambitious projects". 

Shoji Sato fortunately assists to the birth of a new playground: Asia. Japanese main orchestras very often play in China and South Korea. "It is a very good news, the demand is still growing bigger and bigger in Asia. And it gives our orchestras the chance to work more and therefore to improve their level of playing and, who knows, many one day catch the eyes of the European bookers?"

La salle du Bunka Kaikan de Tokyo, l'une des nombreuses salles de concert du Japon à avoir été conçue dans les années 60. (© Victor Tribot Laspière / France Musique)
La salle du Bunka Kaikan de Tokyo, l'une des nombreuses salles de concert du Japon à avoir été conçue dans les années 60. (© Victor Tribot Laspière / France Musique)

Despite the classical music professionals' fears in Japan, all acknowledge that is still going on pretty well and even better than in other countries. Classical music in Japan had a great luck: it didn't suffer of a bourgeoise and elitist image as it it too often conveyed here. Classical music is more popular and going to a concert is pretty common there. A situation that certainly comes from the educational politic that has been led since 1958.

There is another intriguing fact: Japan bears an unconditional love to the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, called the Daiku in Japanese. Every year, during the month of December, the symphony is played all around the archipelago by amateurs and professionals to commemorate the beginning of winter and the end of the year. An pretty unique event worldwide who says a lot about the natural place western classical musical now has in the Land of the Rising Sun.

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