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.