Case Study: Japan!

Hello Class,
I wanted to return to Japan after experiencing some eye-opening musical culture from that region during my “Cultural Insider/Outsider” post from week 3. That week I discovered Japanese Noh Theatre Music, a beautiful and unique cultural tradition. This week I hope to dig a little deeper and look at the wider scope of Japan’s rich musical culture.

Our neighbor across the pond, Japan, is a group of four large islands which together form a country roughly the size of California (Miller, 223). The population is estimated at a crowded 127 million people, most of whom reside in the sparse lowlands in what is otherwise an extremely mountainous country (Miller, 222). Japan has their own language which is spoken almost exclusively.

(Japans Population Distrobution: Image via

(Japans Population Distrobution: Image via

While our book did not touch on this subject, I think it’s probably important to consider the impact World War II had on Japanese culture and traditions. The 5 years of conflict had led to the death of millions of Japanese, including a huge number of young men (Dower, 122). The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were completely wiped off the map with nuclear arms, and many other cities and towns lay in total despair. Japan no longer had a form of government or a military. The culture of Japan was essentially starting over from scratch after centuries of history.

From an ethnomusicological standpoint, this seems to me to be a fascinating scenario to have happened in such recent history. Not only did Japan need to rebuild houses and cities, but they had to rebuild their artistic culture— including their musical traditions, which were also very nearly wiped away forever. At the same time, Japan had to build toward a progressive future; It needed a new identity and new ideas. I don’t see how two such powerful forces — on the one hand a need to salvage and to remember, and on the other hand a need to move forward and never look back— could not have shaped the music that we have coming from, and preserved in Japan today.

In general, traditional Japanese music is heavily composition based, and is filled with large amounts of space between the notes or sounds. Miller describes the music of Japan as being best understood by the aphorism, “maximum effect from minimum means.” Miller continues:

“Whereas [many] Chinese and some Korean musics can sound continuously “busy,” Japanese music prefers minimal activity and makes silence an integral part of the soundscape. This sparseness, together with the use of strongly articulated notes, requires calm and attentive listening on the listener’s part.”

My father, Joe Stefanile, is a designer and artist who has the unique distinction of being the first American designer to work for the motor company, Honda. He had some unique experiences in the late 1970’s that suggest that ’sparseness’ or ‘simplicity’ is not just a aspect of Japanese musical style, but also encompasses much of the country’s artistic sensibilities. My dad recalls working with a team of designers who were inspired by super minimalist Japanese artists, who with a single brush stroke could create works that, to those initiated in Japanese culture, were considered absolute masterpieces!

(Single-Stroke Japanese Esthetic Art. Image via:

(Single-Stroke Japanese Esthetic Art. Image via:

I think it’s important to frame Japan’s musical traditions in this “less is more” way.

A Closer Look: ‘Kabuki Theatre’

In week 3, I was fascinated by the so-called ‘Noh Theatre Music’— and did some research on it (which can be found here: Some discussions in class led me naturally to another tradition, and a not too dissimilar one— the strange and beautiful music of Kabuki Theatre!

Kabuki is a somewhat “avant-garde” form of dramatic performance that finds it’s origins at the beginning of the 17 century and it rapidly became a popular form of entertainment with mostly average Japanese citizens (Ernst, 27). At the core of the performance is strong storytelling, which is typically weaved by a single storyteller, as well as beautiful and precise dance and movement. The actors are ornately dressed and make-up is designed to create accentuated expressions which fit the characters being portrayed. (Miller, 228)

Musically, Kabuki is beautiful, strange, refined and minimal. There is a ‘longing’ to much of the sounds I hear. Here is a good short example of a Kabuki dance with music:

What strikes me first are the male vocalizations, which feature a unique timber and occasional guttural whooping sounds that sometimes swirl up to a falsetto register. Typical non-vocal instrumentation include the muted twang of the shamisen (a three-stringed lute which is plucked with a pick), and the nokan (a transverse flute) (Miller, 320). The final element is the verity of percussion which defines the meter and accentuates the movement of the performers on stage. There is an “earthy” feel to the percussion. To me it is even reminiscent of some of the Aboriginal percussion we studied a few weeks back (a world away!) The drummers also use vocalizations as part of the performance. Miller explains:

“You hear occasional calls of “yo” and “ho.” These surprising elements are drummers’ calls and are considered part of the audible pattern of drumming.”

I hope I’ve scratched a bit of the surface where the truly beautiful world of traditional Japanese music! As I often find with my blog posts, It’s difficult to try and focus a massive amount of history and culture into a reasonably sized case-study. but hopefully if you like what you’ve checked out here you can ‘fall down the rabbit hole’, as it were, and have your mind opened to some really amazing and unique musical expressions!

Thanks for reading!

– Chris

Works Cited:

Miller, Terry E., and Andrew C. . Shahriari. World Music: A Global Journey. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Dower, John W. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1999. Print.

Ernst, Earle. The Kabuki Theatre. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1974. Print.


One thought on “Case Study: Japan!

  1. Hey, Chris. Interesting post. You touch on several very compelling areas (WW2, the simplicity inherent in Japanese music – including your personal connection to the culture through your father’s work, and Kabuki Theater). It seems to me that any of these individually would make a great post. I was left wanting more in all three of these areas (maybe that’s a good thing). What you bring up about the devastation of the war and its effect on the arts needs more specificity and supporting documentation. As it is now it seems a bit out of place. It would be great for you to open with the section about your father’s work, and then transition from there into the broader Japanese aesthetic as it relates to music, tea ceremony, flower arranging, and so on… No need to re-write, just some thoughts. Nice work. PK

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