La plupart des écoles primaires japonaises possèdent leur propre orchestre qui font la fierté des élèves. (© KAZUHIRO NOGI / AFP)
La plupart des écoles primaires japonaises possèdent leur propre orchestre qui font la fierté des élèves. (© KAZUHIRO NOGI / AFP)

Music education in Japan, a model to follow?

When it comes to music education, Japan is an exception, since it is strongly anchored in the school system. By making music an academic discipline as important as mathematics, the country has managed to extend it to the whole of society. But what about drawbacks?

Today, Japan's education system is still a victim of many clichés. Intense pressure faced by primary-school pupils, good and docile workers, busy schedules... Even if some schools may have experienced something like that, the reality is actually much calmer for Japanese schools. This surely explains why Japan is in second place among the best education systems in the world, according to the Collège of Bernardins' ranking. It can't be a coincidence if music education has an important place in this system - and we are talking about something unprecedented.

During the Meiji era, the study of music in Western culture became compulsory in primary and secondary school. This process was strengthened after World War II, to such an extent that pupils from the age of 6 are exposed to the notions of solfeggio, they also start playing some instruments in an orchestra or singing in a choir. A case almost unique in the world, since music is considered as important as mathematics or Japanese. During the years of primary school (6 in total), approximately one hour and a half per week is dedicated to music education.

La salle de concert de la Geidai de Tokyo. (© Victor Tribot Laspière / France Musique)
La salle de concert de la Geidai de Tokyo. (© Victor Tribot Laspière / France Musique)

Music classes are given by a regular teacher who is thus trained before teaching this subject. Classes focus on: Western and traditional music, score reading, singing, playing an instrument, even playing in an orchestra in some schools. In fact, many schools have various music instruments partly funded by the pupils’ parents. Orchestras or choirs in schools are of vital importance, since they represent each school and its identity. They are really unifying and are the equivalent of high school football teams in the United States.

Every year, important national competitions are organised to elect the best orchestra. This allows pupils to be highly motivated in terms of instrument practice because they want to defend the honour of their school. In middle school, music courses are also mandatory - even if they are not considered as important as they were in primary school. Lastly, in high school, music becomes optional; however, it is still taught better than in France, and the programme is the equivalent of French "classes à horaires aménagées", meaning they offer a timetable adapted for pupils without negatively affecting the other subjects.

In Japan, since academic success is so important, the majority of children are familiar with classical music, and they also have a very good level of practice. Of course, there are music schools and conservatory that allow talented pupils to pursue their music studies. However, given the very high cost to be added to school fees, learning music is mainly something for children from wealthy families. This is one of the first things regretted by Laurent Teycheney, who is a harpsichordist and teaches solfeggio at the Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai), the Japanese equivalent of the Paris Conservatory. The two schools even signed a partnership in 1997. Laurent met his wife, a Japanese harpsichordist, when they were both studying at the Conservatory in Paris. They moved to Tokyo in 1995.

Laurent Teycheney et un de ses étudiants dans sa classe de solfège à la Geidai de Tokyo, l'équivalent japonais du Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris. (© Victor Tribot Laspière /France Musique)
Laurent Teycheney et un de ses étudiants dans sa classe de solfège à la Geidai de Tokyo, l'équivalent japonais du Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris. (© Victor Tribot Laspière /France Musique)

"Music schools or universities are really expensive for the average Japanese person. Something like the Juilliard School in New York. Since the arrival of music from the Western culture at the end of the 19th century, Japan has been experiencing an elitist and bourgeois scheme, in terms of access to culture. Not much has changed since them. I always see this with my pupils. No one of them comes from a modest background”.

A predominance of music from Western culture

The study (or rather the discovery) of Japanese traditional music has been integrated into primary schools only a short while ago. This is one of the consequences of the Meiji era, a period of openness to the world as well as of adoption of music from Western culture. Japanese people gradually dropped their own culture. "The average Japanese citizen does not know anything about traditional music. It was finally integrated a few years ago and now it is taught at Geidai, just like classical music. But not so many pupils are interested in it", explains Laurent Teycheney.

"If Japanese traditional culture still seems alive and well to our Western point of view, that's especially thanks to European artists, who have always shown great interest and curiosity. This mirror we put in front of them has somehow saved their rich artistic history. We should also not forget about the fact that the U.S. wanted to wipe out Japan from the map after World War II. The Japanese generation who is now 50 to 60 years old does not know anything about their own culture. This was also a gesture of honour, so as not to have to think of the humiliation of defeat in 1945. To cope with that, the Japanese society decided to only look at Western culture".

Fortunately, the Japanese governments have gradually been made aware of this loss of identity, and traditional arts - including music - slowly returned after the 1970s, and about 15 years ago they were fully recovered, especially in primary school. However, there’s still a lot to be done - explains Laurent Teycheney. "One of the major problems of Japanese musicians is the lack of openness towards other cultures. How is it possible that a piano pupil has never seen sheet music for koto or shamisen, for example? I’m trying to create connections between classical music students and traditional music pupils, but it is a real challenge". Laurent told us the story of a Dutch student who went to study cello at Geidai because he was really into Japanese culture. "He had quickly been disappointed when he realised that there weren't any lessons, not even an intro to Japanese music. That is a real problem here".

Mari Kamimoto is a composer who also teaches at Geidai in Tokyo. She regrets the lack of a cross-cutting approach in music teaching, even if she’s seeing small signs of change in attitude. "When I was a student here at Geidai, students would exclusively focus on classical music. There was no curiosity towards the jazz scene, or even towards other disciplines such as dance, which was taught in the building across the road. Now it is somehow changing a bit. I have a composition pupil, for example, who plays jazz piano in bars for a living. He studies so diligently and I feel that he is going in the right direction to become a complete and original performer”. However, the issue of opening a jazz studies department is not even relevant for Geidai, no one talks about that, and Japan has an excellent jazz scene. "Classical music is placed on a pedestal in Japan, it is almost too respected. As a consequence, this doesn't leave much room for other types of music to make their way in school curricula. That’s too bad, because it is through being open to other cultures in general that we can enrich our performance and improve" states Ms Kamimoto.

Laurent Teycheney et Mari Kamimoto. (© Victor Tribot Laspière / France Musique)
Laurent Teycheney et Mari Kamimoto. (© Victor Tribot Laspière / France Musique)

Kamimoto and Teycheney both regret that this closure prevents students from innovating: "Here in Japan, the level of our students is excellent, but if I have one criticism to make about music teaching, it is that it has somehow “frozen” things. This can result in naive, docile and fragile pupils. They tell them to prepare a specific piece for an exam or a concert of end of the year, they do as they say and that’s it. They are aware that the system is frozen, that traditionally concerts begin at 7 pm, with a programme that lasts an hour and half and is always pretty much the same, but they also have the impression that they cannot change anything, therefore they don't dare".

Another difficulty in Japan: music professors are experiencing situations of precarious employment, which is increasingly becoming a reality. Three months ago, the Ministry of Culture decided to reduce by 30% the salaries of teachers at Geidai, and no one bats an eye. That is one of the many benefits of the Japanese mentality for politicians, there are very few social protests when it comes to reforms. "Many of my fellow musicians are still living with their parents at the age of 50. They have to do a minimum-wage job -in addition- to escape poverty. It seems to me that this is much more serious than in Europe. But Japan's way of (not) acting makes it difficult because they don’t dare to change a thing" regrets Laurent Teycheney.

The solfeggio teacher, on the other hand, points out Japan’s global excellence on the artistic level, especially the fact that the society has managed to make classical music part of everyday life. "Of course, Japan has many things to learn in terms of teaching music and culture in general, but the opposite is also true. Many countries such as France would benefit a lot if they drew inspiration from the Japanese model".

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