Old and New: The Music of Japan


Nakamura Ichinosuke performing on the shamisen.

In my few weeks here so far, I’ve managed to catch glimpses of a variety of parts of the musical culture of Japan, from the pleasant music of open air shops and markets to overhearing American pop music on the train. Fittingly, the first real encounter I had with authentic Japanese music was at “Shamisen Night,” a performance by acclaimed shamisen performer Nakamura Ichinosuke at TUJ.

Ichinosuke is a Tokyo-born musician who was trained in singing and performing since his childhood. After an extensive career performing in TV shows, movies, and stage shows, he came to perform for a group of Temple students. My personal favorite was his second song, “Seijurou’s Love.” The song, an original composition of Ichinosuke’s, tells the story of two lovers, Onatsu and Seijurou, during the Edo period. The two elope against the will of the lovers’ parents, so Seijurou is put to death and Onatsu is driven insane.


The shamisen is a traditional Japanese instrument, resembling a three-string fretless guitar. It is played using a bachi to pluck the strings.

While the subject matter is rather dark and serious, the song itself was fascinating to listen to. Ichinosuke finished with “Kewai,” a predominantly improvised song (with a creative insertion of the first verse of The Beatles’ Let It Bestrangely enough!). He then allowed the students in attendance to more closely examine the shamisens, and some even got to try playing them.

The shamisen is a traditional instrument, and most modern Japanese listen to modern music. One thing that I’ve observed about Japan is that there is music everywhere. From the trains to the shops, there is constantly melodies drifting through the air. Train play music indicating that the doors are closing before departure, with different lines having different jingles, and even some larger stations having short melodies.

Music is also playing constantly in shopping areas. In some of the shopping areas in Itabashi, music is playing constantly in the evening, mixing with the smells of shops and cafes and creating a wonderful sense of atmosphere for those returning home from work or school.

An interesting note is that it’s not just radio music being played; most of the time, it’s ambient instrumental music. While shopping at 100 yen stores I’ve heard soft instrumental versions of themes from TV shows and animes, pop music, and even classic hits. (I think I’ve heard an instrumental version of the Monkee’s Daydream Believer every single time I’ve walked into a 7/11).

One of the most popular types of music though seems to just be international hits. In some of the shops in Harajuku, you’d be forgiven for briefly thinking you were back in America: many of the store constantly pump out American tunes, much more so than stores playing Japanese music (at least in my experience). Even when riding the train, it’s not uncommon to see commuters listening to western groups like One Direction. Pop and boy bands tend to be massively popular, which makes sense since many of Japan’s own famous or currently popular music groups are either boy bands or pop idol groups.


A signed copy of the Sheep’s second CD (complete with a little illustration!)

Of course, music always comes in multiple forms, including the massively popular and the more unknown. While walking back from dinner one night, I passed by a few younger guys setting up instruments in Hiyoshi station. Soon enough they began playing.

The band calls itself “The Sheep” and comes from Okinawa. Using my rudimentary Japanese, I complimented their music. After a brief chat I left them to their music, but not without scoring a signed copy of their second CD, “Spring, Beginning”. Their music was very good, and an excellent reminder that music, from the traditional shamisen to street performers, is an important part of culture.


The Sheep performing at Hiyoshi station



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