Western Art Music in Japan: A Success Story?
This blogpost is adapted from Dr. Margaret Mehl’s introduction to the latest special issue of Nineteenth-Century Music Review.
Japan’s successful modernization on Western premises, in the second half of the nineteenth century, included the introduction and adoption of Western music. So thorough was the appropriation of Western art music that by the mid-twentieth century it had a dominant position comparable to that in the countries of its origin. On a worldwide level, Japan was already a major consumer of Western art music by the 1930s, a fact that is reflected in the number both of gramophone recordings sold in Japan and of leading artists who included Japan on their international tours. After 1945 Japan became an export country for musical instruments, sound technology and even musical pedagogy, in particular the ‘Suzuki Method’ and the Yamaha music schools. Further influence came from the many Japanese musicians active in orchestras and conservatoires around the world.
Meanwhile, indigenous music was increasingly marginalized, and today it has a niche existence. Even contemporary popular music owes as much to Western music as to Japanese. Measured against the aims of the government officials who, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, made the decision to systematically import Western music and disseminate it through the military and the education system, this development can be described as a success. Their decision was motivated not by aesthetic considerations, but by the recognition of music’s functions in the nations of the West, including its role in ceremonies representing the power of the modern nation-state and in contributing to physical, moral and aesthetic education in schools. The introduction of Western music cannot be separated from the political, military, economic and social reforms enacted by the Meiji government.
It would be wrong, however, to see the introduction of Western music simply as a question of power politics: the threat of Western encroachment is not sufficient to explain the zeal with which Japan adopted Western culture. As Jürgen Osterhammel points out in his world history of the nineteenth century, ‘no one forced the Egyptians to found newspapers, and the Japanese to listen to Gounod or Verdi’. He refers to ‘more complicated, non-imperial processes’ in the worldwide dissemination of a Western-style press and Western music, by which tastes are exported but also imported and acquired independently of imperial or domestic official political agendas.
In the case of Japan, the political agenda included ambitions to promote Western music as an art form and ultimately to create a ‘national music’ that combined the best of Western and Japanese music. This, perhaps the most elusive of aims, was not reached, at least not in the nineteenth century and not in the way the early propagators of ‘national music’ envisaged – another indication that cultural flows are not governed by political measures alone.
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