Daily Archives: 13 February 2009

Modernizing Music under Meiji

From “Cultural Change in Nineteenth-Century Japan,” by Marius B. Jansen, in Challenging Past and Present: The Metamorphosis of Nineteenth-Century Japanese Art, ed. by Ellen P. Conant (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2006), pp. 44-45:

Gagaku gained increased prominence, but at the cost of stultification. By the end of the Tokugawa period it was associated primarily with the imperial court; professionals performed at court and the larger Shinto shrines. In 1871 a Gagaku Bureau was established within the Imperial Household Office (later Imperial Household Ministry), and thereafter its representatives served on all commissions charged with musical policy. Gagaku practice became archaized and codified in the process of defining as a “tradition” what must at one time have been considerably more varied. Nagauta, which had deep roots in popular culture, flourished. It gradually became more independent from the kabuki theater, developing a concert format and spread into commoner homes as an amateur skill. Instrumental music was freed from special restrictions. Koto had been a special art reserved for blind performers, while shakuhachi had been associated with Fuke Buddhism, which was banned in 1871. Both skills became middle-class accomplishments. Satsuma and Choshu biwa music, previously considered provincial, now acquired a popularity corollary to the political dominance of those southwestern domains in the new regime. Small wonder that former Tokugawa retainers often sneered at their Meiji successors as imo (potato) zamurai.

Western music had made its entry in Bakumatsu times, sometimes under unlikely circumstances. The captain’s clerk aboard Commodore Perry’s Saratoga wrote that Japanese guests who were treated to a band concert in 1854 courteously asked to hear the first number again, but proved to mean the tuning-up period, whose sounds they found more interesting than the marches that followed. Satsuma samurai were sufficiently impressed by the martial strains that came to shore from the British band celebrating the bombardment that had just burned Kagoshima in 1863 to want to introduce Western military music into their own forces. An English bandmaster of the marine battalion guarding the Yokohama legation was asked to instruct thirty Satsuma militiamen, and in 1871 these formed the core of the new navy band, its English bandmaster’s salary shared by the navy and the Gagaku Bureau. In 1877 the Englishman Fenton was replaced by a German, Franz Eckert. The harmonization and orchestration of “Kimi ga yo,” which came to function as the new national anthem, was the product of the combined efforts of these bandmasters.

Military songs and marches quickly became popular. “Oh My Prince!” (Miyasan! Miyasan!) was ascribed to the armies that marched against the shogun’s capital. Words could be changed to fit new themes and occasions. “Battōtai” (The Drawn Sword Unit), composed in 1885 by a French instructor about the Satsuma Rebellion, became “The Sinking of the Normanton” in 1887 for the disaster off Kii in which all the Japanese, and no foreigners, were lost, and emerged again as the “Rappa-bushi” of the Russo-Japanese War. Still other songs adapted the melodies of Stephen Collins Foster to a Japanese mode, as with “Tobe Tobe Tonbi Sora” (Fly, Kite, Fly, High in the Sky!), whose tune turns out to be a version of “Way Down upon the Sewanee River.”

Appropriately enough, some of the last strains of late-Edo chant and song were suppressed with the people’s rights movement, which adapted them to political uses. Dainamaito bushi, satirical pieces designed to be explosive, were composed, sung, and sold by street-singer activists deploring official arrogance and government tyranny in the 1880s. The victories of the state in domestic politics and foreign wars, however, speeded the production of a new and less divisive national culture, homogenized by mass education and literacy, which emerged by the end of the century.

The Ministry of Stultification (or Zombification) would certainly be an appropriate name for the Imperial Household Ministry, even today.


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