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.

Click here to access the full article. 


  1. It’s highly misleading to say that ‘indigenous music’ (by which the writer presumably means traditional genres performed prior to the full-scale introduction of Western music into Japan) has been ‘marginalised’ and that it occupies a ‘niche position’ in Japan. In many parts of Japan (Okinawa is the most prominent in this respect) traditional music is still far more widely performed and taught than Western music, but the main point is surely that the sociological background (i.e. the situations in which different types of music are performed) of Western music and traditional music are totally different. Many local communities throughout Japan are held together by their festivals, in all of which traditional music plays an integral part. All Japanese children have to learn a traditional instrument as part of the music curriculum, and traditional music and musical vocabulary continue to occupy the bedrock of Japanese musical culture. And with the great majority of contemporary Japanese composers (not just those who work solely in traditional music) now composing works featuring or incorporating Japanese instruments, it really is not the case (except in a purely commercial sense) that Japanese music occupies a ‘niche position’ within the Japanese musical world any more than that visual genres such as ukiyo-e, ink painting and pottery occupy a marginalised ‘niche’ position in the contemporary visual arts. Japanese traditional music continues to play the key role in defining the Japanese musical sensibility.

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