Japanese Folk Music

One of the major problems with attempting to learn more about traditional Japanese music, or Folk music, is the problem that in Japanese culture, poems are incredibly important, as were songs.

Unfortunately, in Japan it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the two. One is left wondering whether the manuscripts dating back 1500 years with melodic verses are meant to be poetry or music. The word “uta” can mean either song or poem, making the distinction between the two even more difficult. Luckily, we do have some information about Japanese Folk music, including that it was incredibly important in Japan, from ancient times to the modern day.

The Nara and Heian periods set the Japanese standard for Folk music, with the imperial anthologies Manyoshu and Kokinshu. This poetry was thought to always be recited aloud, making it more song-like than poem-like. The forms of verse and the poetic imagery styles used by this form are the types that have lived on through Japanese culture and are still in use today. One famous story of this era is that of Genji Monogatari, a great lover in the imperial court and much of the dialogue is in the form of exchanges of poetry. This poetry was traditionally accompanied by various forms of what we now know of as the flute. Originally, much Japanese poetry was written in Chinese, but after this era poetry and song began to be almost exclusively written in Japanese.

In what we know to be the middle ages, military rule in Japan in essence squashed the creativity of Japanese poetry, and nearly the only songs and poetry heard were simple prayers. Afterwards, there was a large civil war in Japan, which only really ended around 1600, after which creative arts such as poetry and Folk music were once again allowed to emerge. Lyrical styles of music developed to accompany the very popular theatre performances at the time.

However, when the west began to enter Japan, the musical tastes changed, and Western music became more popular. Western music was taught to schoolchildren, though traditional Japanese music did not die completely. One traditional Folk music venue developed was called the Yose or vaudeville houses, where serious historical tales were told, with traditional music being an important part of the storytelling. With the invention of the radio, Yose became popular once more with the access to widened exposure.

However, after the Second World War the popularity of traditional Japanese Folk music died out. Western music was much more popular and young people no longer took an interest in traditional Japanese music. In the very recent past, however, young people have began to once again take an interest in traditional Japanese music and culture, and traditional Japanese music is being set to be taught in schools as to not lose the traditions of the country which have lasted thousands of years.  Japanese Folk music is very unique, and very alike to the old style of music, without much change seen.