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Cultural background: koto



In the Meiji era, Japan went through a dramatic upheaval in the way it approached its traditional music, clothing, drama, government, and military style. People living in modern Japan have little awareness of how much the musical culture of the country has changed in a mere century and a half. Although the Japanese public was initially reluctant to accept foreign music as their own, governmental pressure and the introduction of European-style music to the military and education systems eventually engendered a complete transformation in Japan’s music. It also completely changed the hierarchy of traditional styles, toppling the dominant shamisen from its pedestal, and elevating the koto, as well as the gagaku style from which it came, into a new spotlight.

The koto was first brought to Japan over a thousand years ago as a member of the ancient gagaku orchestra. It appears in the Tale of Genji, and was traditionally associated with the emperor’s court, where sacred gagaku was performed, and the sophisticated women of the aristocracy. However, it didn’t truly become a popular instrument until the blind shamisen player Yatsuhashi Kengyo began to study it in the early Edo period, taught by a monk from Fukuoka whose own teacher had been inspired to use the koto as a solo accompaniment to singing. From then until the dissolution of the blind musicians’ guild, koto was propagated mainly by blind musicians, who paired it with shamisen and the bowed kokyu (replaced in most modern performances by shakuhachi), using the distinctive tunings of Edo.

Though plenty of popular music had been written for the koto, its endearing reputation as an instrument of the nobility saved its music from the greatest reforms of the Meiji Era, and from being eliminated from school curriculums. Its current beloved position was cemented by the popularity of one of the last famous performers and composers to emerge from the guild system: Miyagi Michio, whose pieces incorporated elements of European style much in the way that contemporary European composers like Debussy were experimenting with various world styles. The song Haru no Umi, in particular, written in 1929, struck a perfect balance between Japanese and European melodic styles that resonated with audiences around the world, and has come to be perhaps the most famous example of Japanese music both at home and abroad (second only to another koto melody, Sakura, Sakura.) Though written less than 100 years ago, Haru no Umi has come to represent the sound of Japanese traditional music, and many Japanese audiences are shocked to learn that it was written less than a century ago; it is the go-to background music for evoking a classic Japanese atmosphere in TV, and is ubiquitous at the New Year, the agreed upon time for Japanese to remember that they are Japanese and celebrate this fact.

Miyagi Michio also developed a bass koto, which has become an important part of contemporary koto ensembles that play new 21st-century music. Today, the koto stands as one of the best examples of Japanese instruments continuing to endure, adapt, and appeal to audiences in an ever-globalizing world.

Event info: Koto Recital in Nagoya

This weekend, enjoy a chance to experience the refined sounds of Japan’s historic soukyoku tradition. Ai Sato, a graduate of Nagoya College of Music’s traditional Japanese music program, will be performing a collection of classical works for koto, shamisen, shakuhachi, and voice. Special performances from Miho Ishigaki, Jouzan Kato, and Satoko Okubo.

Date: Saturday, September 16th
Time: 18:00-20:00
Location: The Concert Hall at Denki Bunka Kaikan, approx. 2 minutes on foot from exit 4 of Fushimi Station on the Higashiyama Line
Tickets: 3000 yen
Program

Shiki no Kyoku (Song of the Four Seasons), by Yatsuhashi Kengyo (father of classical koto music)
Kozarashi, by Fukakusa Kengyo
Mizu no Hentai (The Phases of Water), by Miyagi Michio
Yaegoromo, by Ishikawa Koto

Cultural background: Mikawa Manzai



“Manzai” as it is most commonly used today typically refers to a popular duo style of comedy, similar to a classic double act, originating in Osaka. But manzai as a tradition is far more than just that ? it has a varied and fascinating history, and one of its incarnations can be found in the traditional performances of Anjo’s Mikawa Manzai Preservation Society. A combination of singing, dance, comedy, and good luck ritual, this unusual tradition offers a rare glimpse into what functions manzai has played in Japanese society throughout the country’s history.

Manzai originates from good luck rituals performed at the new year in order to invite blessings and conjure a convivial spirit of celebration, typically in front of the gate of an estate or manor. Historically, manzai performers were religious figures, connected with shrines and temples, and their status in society rose dramatically in the Edo period with the patronage of the Tokugawa family. “Kitoshi,” or shamans, began to travel from what is now Aichi Prefecture to Edo and throughout the country to perform rites for their powerful warrior patrons at New Year’s. Some historical sources attest that these kitoshi even went as far as modern-day Sakhalin Island off Hokkaido (now Russian territory.) As the demand for performers grew, so did the variety of styles, and some kitoshi also began to incorporate legends, dance, and, significantly, humor into their craft. As different regional styles came to be differentiated, manzaishi from the Mikawa region, homeland to many powerful warrior clans, established their prominence.

As in modern manzai, Edo-period Mikawa Manzai was performed by two people, but reflecting the influence of other styles such as Owari Manzai, it is now often performed with a single “taiyu,” who carries a fan and speak-sings the main narration, and a group of 2-6 “saizo,” who beat tsuzumi drums and occasionally join in in chorus. Reflecting the ancient, noble origins of the manzai tradition, the taiyu wears a black eboshi cap and suou robe, clothing associated with the Edo period, and carries a large fan (which has carried over into modern manzai, used as a slapstick for comic effect.) In one of the standard pieces of repertoire, “Goten Manzai,” the taiyu calls the seven lucky gods one by one to bless the pillars of a house that is being built. This is one of the classic stories of manzai, and demonstrates the unique blend of humor and reverence that developed within this unusual Japanese tradition.

In the Meiji Era, as governmental reforms jumbled the strata of Japanese society like an earthquake, manzai performers were forced back into a more traditionally religious role, as the government cracked down on performance arts of all kinds, fearing vulgarity and corruption of popular morals. However, manzai still continued to entertain audiences at celebrations and festivals, and in the Taisho period an entertainment conglomerate from Osaka, Yoshimoto Kogyo, took its name for a new style of duo comedy they premiered. The more traditional forms of manzai, while not as wildly popular as Yoshimoto Kogyo’s, nevertheless continued to entertain and serve as an important art to be protected, and thanks to the efforts of a number of regional preservation societies manzai can still be seen today throughout the Chubu region.