Gagaku Music

Gagaku music, commonly translated as court music, is an example of Japanese tradition heavily influenced by China. The word, gagaku, comes from the Chinese word, yayue, which means proper music. Despite originating from China, Gagaku music became something heavily associated with Imperial Japan. While this, along with Japan’s history, contributes to the decline in popularity of this music, it also gives a glimpse into the rich history of Japan. Gagaku music shows many of the social aspects of Japan during this time.


Gagaku orchestras consist of three main instrument groups: percussion, wind, and string instruments. The most notable percussion instrument in the Gagaku ensemble is the Dadaiko, a massive drum. The ensemble normally contains two of these drums. The leader of the ensemble is the player of the Kakko, a small drum that can be played on both sides. Other percussion instruments include a medium size drum (Taiko) and a bronze gong (Shoko). The string instruments include a six-stringed zither (Wagon), another zither (Gakuso), and a lute (Gakubiwa). The key to the Gagaku ensemble is the wind instruments, including the double reed Hichiriki, the flutes (Ryuteki and Komabue) and the seventeen reed pipe instrument (Sho). The Hichiriki is responsible for the sharp sound heard in the Gagaku ensemble. Each orchestra is organized through the Jo-ha-kyu concept. Jo means the introduction, Ha is the exposition and Kyu is the ending.

As previously stated, Gagaku music came to Japan through China. Chinese music entered Japan through visiting priests, envoys, students, and musicians during the Nara and Heian periods. While in China the style was mainly used for banquets, in Japan it was adopted for court functions. After the Heian period Japanese society became more militaristic, and since the skill of the Gagaku instruments were passed down from generation, the disruption of society caused for Gagaku’s prominence to decline. Yet when the Tokugawa dynasty was established in the seventeenth century, remaining musicans were either sent to the emperor in Kyoto or the shogun in Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Once Japan began to westernize under the Meiji Restoration, these musicians were sent to Tokyo. At this point, it was only one ensemble, nothing compared to Gagaku orchestras in its golden age.


While the sharp sound of the Hichiriki makes Gagaku music controversial, other aspects of it do as well. Gagaku was limited to only palace performers until 1871, meaning it was not available for public consumption. Only the elite could listen to Gagaku music. Women were also not allowed to play Gagaku music in its early days. While the musicians were talented, they were considered to be a servant class in the court. While this does not affect the music, it is still important to note the social background of those performing in the tradition.

It is unfortunate that Japan moved away from this tradition historically, but it is also important to recognize that the social aspects of Gagaku were also outdated.   Luckily, one can still hear Gagaku music being played at temples on special occasions across Japan. It is important to keep the tradition alive, but in a way that includes all who want to be able to experience this musical tradition.


Ukiyo-e Printing

The Edo period in Japan (1615-1868) is marked by the flourishing of Japanese art and theater. Ukiyo-e, meaning floating world, is a form of wood-block art that depicts beauty in a fantasy-like method. Ukiyo-e is created first by an artist as a drawing, and then a copyist traces the original lines on a stronger sheet of paper.
Next an engraver pastes the copied drawing face down on a cherry-wood block and cuts away parts of the block allowing for the lines in the painting to be clearly seen. Ink made from rice paste and pigment was used to color parts of the block in later prints. This was a arduous and multi-stepped process that made ukiyo-e prints desirable and valuable piece. Since many ukiyo-e prints were often of Kabuki actors, a popular form of theater at the time, they were in high demand.

Commonly thought of as the pioneer for ukiyo-e style, Hishikawa Moronobu was born at the beginning of the Edo Period. One of his most popular ukiyo-e prints, ‘Lovers’, perfectly embodies the spirit of ukiyo-e prints. In this print, two lovers are embracing in an area filled with flowers. While the young samurai’s lover embraces the idea of beauty, the scenery does as well. While ukyo-e prints were black and white at this point, one can easily imagine the vibrant colors this scene might hold. Moronobu begins a tradition of capturing beauty through ukiyo-e prints.

When one thinks of Japanese art, often they picture the works of Katsushika Hokusai. Born in 1760, he became an apprentice to an ukiyo-e engraver at a young age. His prominence only continued to rise. The most iconic of his works is “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” This piece is part of his series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” Hokusai loved depicting Mount Fuji in his work. In his most well known print, we see a big wave capturing boats in its fury. This scene of impending destruction is contrasted with the peaceful Mount Fuji in the distance. Through this work, he not only shows the beauty of this wave, but through its destruction it also highlights the peaceful serenity of Mount Fuji.

Ukiyo-e prints are one of the most recognized forms of Japanese art today. These prints not only successfully capture human beauty, but also the beauty of nature. Unsurprisingly, these works went on to inspire many other forms of art such as Japanese manga. Through these works we can see a glimpse of life in Japan’s Edo Period and how beauty was depicted during this time.

Murasaki Shikibu and The Tale of Genji

Scene from Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Japanese scroll painting, Heian period, 12th century.

Scene from Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Japanese scroll painting, Heian period, 12th century.

Tale of Genji, The. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 17 May. 2014. <>.

Murasaki Shikibu was born in Kyoto, Japan at the end of the tenth century (973CE). As is the case with the majority of historical figures in Japan at the time, her precise identity is unknown. Her name Muraskai is an epithet meaning “purple wisteria blossom.”  Shikibu refers to her father’s position in the imperial Bureau of Ceremony. Scholars postulate that she may have been a woman named Fujiwara Takako. Regardless of her name, her history is somewhat better known.  Murasaki was born to a family of minor nobility with connections to the imperial court. As a woman living in the middle ages, she lived an exceptional life. Because her mother died when she was young, her father, a scholar at court, took it upon himself to raise her (something usually left to the mother’s relatives). As a result, Murasaki was afforded an atypical education reserved only for young males. She became proficient in kanji (Chinese characters) and classical Chinese grammar in addition to mastering her own native kana alphabet and poetic tradition (waka). Her literary abilities were recognized early, and she was employed as a favorite lady-in-waiting to Empress Shoshi at court.  

During her lifetime, Murasaki produced three literary works: (1) a diary, (2) a collection of poetry, and (3) The Tale of Genji. The sheer length and scope of the Tale of Genji swallows the contributions of the other two works. For example, her collection of poetry containing only 128 poems is eclipsed by some 800 poems appearing in The Tale of Genji’s. More importantly, The Tale of Genji ranks as the world’s first novel, one written mostly in Japanese kana, not classical Chinese. It is divided into 54 chapters and three sections (the last somewhat questionably attributed to Murasaki) that recount the troubled life and love affairs of Hikaru Genji (the “Shining” Genji), a precious young prince at court. Genji’s numerous trysts and the tangled web they weave (at one point he has a relationship with an empress resembling his dead mother) comprise the major plot points of the novel. An important historical aspect of the work is how poetry is used as a necessary mode of communication between the literate. It is evidence of an actual historical practice used to communicate veiled meanings in a decorous manner.

To read an English translation of the text, click here.

Further reading: * McCullough, Helen Craig.  Genji and Heiki: Selections from the Tale of Genji and the Tale of Heike. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994.  

Kokin Wakashu

Section of the earliest extant complete manuscript of the Kokinshū (Gen'ei edition, National Treasure); early twelfth century; at the Tokyo National Museum

Section of the earliest extant complete manuscript of the Kokinshū (Gen’ei edition, National Treasure); early twelfth century; at the Tokyo National Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Under the 33 year reign of Emperor Daigo (897-930CE), Japan organized the first of its many imperial poetry collections. Daigo, son of Emperor Uda, assigned four of his best court poets, Ki no Tsurayuki, Ki no Tomonori, Oshikochi Mitsune and Mibu no Tadamine, in 905 CE to collect and order the best of Japanese poetry. The Kokin Wakashu was the fruit of their work (914CE).

 The Kokin Wakashu is the first of 21 imperial, Japanese poetic collections. It is compiled of 1,111 Japanese poems and its title may be translated as “Ancient and Modern Japanese Poems.” The collections begins with a Japanese preface, which begins with the most heavily commented secular prose text of the Japanese tradition: “Japanese poetry takes as its seed the human heart.”

Its position as the first would dictate the form and format of later Japanese poetry well into the 19th century. It set the precedent for anthologizing lyrics into seasonal periods and topics (e.g. Love) and of placing ancient poems alongside modern ones (which the word kokin suggests). There are 20 parts or rubrics to the collection ranging from “Spring” to “Partings,” “Travel” and “Laments.” The type of poetry contained in the collection is called waka, a term that distinguishes it from previously used Chinese forms. There are many different kinds of waka but two of the major ones include the tanka (split into a 5-7-5/7-7 syllabic structure) and the choka (5-7-5-7-5-7…/5-7-7). These poems contain no rhyme and are divided up into syllabic units called mora.

 The collection’s preface also officially begins the Japanese tradition of literary criticism, in which the nature of poetic inspiration, expression and production are explored. Major poets of the Kokin Wakashu include Ariwara no Narihira, Ono no Komachi, Henjo and Fujiwara no Okikare.

To read the Japanese text, click here.

To preview an English translation of the text, click here.

Further reading:

* McCullough, Helen Craig.  Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1985. 

Naiku Shrine

A site plan of the Naiku Shrine

A site plan of the Naiku Shrine

The Naiku Shrine is one major Shinto shrine located in the large shrine complex of the Ise Grand Shrine. The Naiku Shrine is located in the town of Uji-tachi and is one of Japan’s most sacred Shinto sites.. Legend has it that the shrine was built over 2,000 years ago. Yamatohime-no-mikoto, the daughter of the Emperor Suinin, was searching for a site on the Isuzu river to house relics and worship the goddess Amaterasu. Her search brought her to Ise where Naiku was built at around 3 BC. Since 690 BC, it has been renewed and rebuilt every 20 years, following the Shinto principles of ritual renewal. By rebuilding the shrine, there is a focus on cleanliness, purity, and freshness. Its rebuilding also shows an acceptance of the natural cycle of life and death, another important Shinto belief. It costs around $300 million to rebuild the shrine and requires 12,000 trees, 25,0000 bundles of kaya, 10 lbs of gold.

The preparation ceremonies begin 8 years before the rebuilding. It involves a number of different events. The lumberjacks and trees in Kiso mountains, the villages of transit, the timber pulled by the residents, and the artisans all must be blessed. In addition, prayers are given surrounding the groundbreaking as well as to the kami of the buildings and the residents who bring the stone. The buildings must be purified and the treasures must be transferred. The preparations end with a procession led by siashu, a sengu ceremony which is the transfer of the diety, and ritual music and dancing.