Japan is a country with a rich and interesting history devoted to music and dance. It has managed to salvage and re-ignite traditional dances and musical events which could have easily died out over the years and with a changing culture and society. Indeed, many countries in the world do not celebrate their traditional cultural history as much as Japan does.
This article will give a brief description of some well-known traditional dance styles, music genres and musical instruments in Japan which are embedded into the culture of Japan and are still celebrated and practiced today!
Many of these are totally unique to Japan and differ greatly from international styles. Read on to find out about these great styles and where you can go to see them for yourself in Japan!
Japan has held on to many of the traditional dance styles which have developed over centuries. You can find them in various festivals and events during the year and all over Japan, and they may differ slightly depending on the area of the country.
Here are four of the main dance styles which are still celebrated today in Japan, and differ greatly from dance style you may see in other parts of the world!
1. Bon Odori
Bon Odori is a traditional Japanese dance which is usually performed at summer festivals (Matsuri), and which locals and visitors alike love to get involved in!
People usually wear beautiful kimono dress and dance to the traditional music with various steps, movements, and gestures. You are likely to see hundreds of people taking part in this dances and they are very public and celebratory.
This dance is, as the name suggests, associated with the Bon Festival which takes places each August and is held to commemorate ancestors.
2. Nihon Buyo
Nihon Buyo is a very traditional Japanese dance, performed by dancers wearing kimonos and using traditional accessories and items such as fans and ropes.
Differing from the very participatory Bon Oburi, this dance is mainly performed on stage as part of entertainment events. Dancers are specially trained to perform these dances and are taught by teachers called ‘Shiso’.
The dance is commonly associated and performed with Japanese background music. The movements in the dance are slow and include specific and gentle gestures and movements.
3. Noh Mai
Noh Mai is a unique dance style with Japanese background music which is performed with traditional lutes and drums. Sometimes vocals are incorporated, too.
This dance is often choreographed to tell a story, and usually, these are traditional and well known Japanese fables. Performers wear many colorful costumes and sometimes perform with masks too.
Kabuki is perhaps one of the most famous dances within Japanese traditional entertainment. Specifically, Kabuki is a ‘dance drama’, incorporating dancing, singing, acting, and art.
Kabuki is performed mostly at special Kabuki theaters, of which there are many in the country. Kabuki shows often tell a story about Japanese history, lifestyle, and society, and can give visitors to the country a really authentic experience and insight into some aspects of Japan they may not find out anywhere else.
Kabuki has been a huge part of Japanese entertainment for a long time and is still popular today. With advances in technology, lighting, effects, and so on, Kabuki is somewhat changing with the times too!
Traditional Japanese Music is often closely associated with different dance styles and Kabuki shows and incorporates various Japanese musical instruments too.
Visitors to temples, shrines, and festivals can often see many traditional musical instruments being played and performed by musicians, and showcasing traditional music styles is still a very common practice in modern Japan.
We will now look at five of the most well known traditional musical instruments in Japan, which are commonly used to play traditional Japanese musical styles and songs, and are well loved in the country!
A Shamisen is a traditional instrument which closely resembles a violin. It has a distinguishable long neck and is about one meter long. It also has three strings and is commonly seen at traditional musical events and festivals in Japan.
Similar to a violin bow, wooden sticks called ‘batchi’, are used to play the shamisen. In history, the shamisen was used at kabuki shows as the long neck allowed for long and agile sounds needed for kabuki style songs. It was also used at puppet shows and in folk songs.
More recently, the shamisen has been used in some modern music. For example, the popular Japanese metal band Babymetal uses the shamisen in their shows and music videos. It has also occasionally been used by western artists, so perhaps it is making a comeback!
The shakuhachi is a five-holed bamboo flute. Originally introduced to Japan from China, it was particularly popular in the Edo Period. The instrument itself varies in size and has a versatile pitch which allows players to make a wide variety of sounds with it.
The beautiful sounding instruments were traditionally used by Zen Buddhist Monks and were seen as a spiritual tool. Playing this instrument was even seen as a meditation practice due to the focus on slow and rhythmic breathing techniques.
After the Meiji Restoration, the shakuhachi was more widely played, being featured at kabuki shows and other dance shows as background music. Nowadays it is also featured in more modern music and can be heard in famous moves including Jurassic Park, The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Braveheart.
This calming, beautiful instrument is still popular today, and many people in Japan practice it with the hope of becoming a Shakuhachi Master!
Named as the national instrument of Japan, the Koto is the largest among the traditional Japanese musical instruments, with an average length of around 180 cm and a width of 20 cm.
The 13 strings of this wooden instrument are played with right-hand fingers after covering the thumb, forefinger and middle finger with special coverings called ‘tsume’. Left-hand strings are used to adjust the sound by holding the string down, similar to a guitar.
The Koto was historically often played by blind musicians due to its ease when playing and maintained popularity all the way up to modern times. Japan still embraces the Koto today, with many players becoming Koto Masters and performing at traditional events.
The Koto was also particularly popular among international psychedelic rock artists in the 1960’s and 1970’s, being featured on songs by The Rolling Stones and David Bowie, and is also featured in songs by the rap artist Dr. Dre.
Wadaiko (also called Taiko) are traditional and much loved Japanese drums. They have been historically used in military processions and warfare, as communication tools, in theater, and for religious ceremonies.
Roughly shaped like a wine barrel, these drums come in many different sizes and with differing materials. Some are too big to move and will often remain in place at temples and shrines, while some are small enough to carry around whilst playing.
Nowadays, these drums can be seen at many different parades and festivals. They are also known to be used as part of political and social movements and protests, particularly by minority groups within Japan.
A Biwa is a Japanese lute with a short thin neck and is also played using a batchi. These beautiful instruments are used to accompany traditional Japanese court music (Gagaku). They are also used as a solo instrument.
The Biwa is regarded as the chosen instrument of Benten, the Goddess of Music in the Shinto religion, and was very widely used until the Meiji Restoration. After a period of decline, Japanese artists are now trying to revive the Biwa.
This instrument can now be heard featuring in J-pop songs and in some Japanese movies. It has a cute shape and a unique sound, and you will likely spot it at some traditional music events in Japan!
So, here are some of the most well known traditional dances and musical instruments in Japan. I’d highly recommend that you try to attend a kabuki show or traditional event and enjoy these unique dances and musical styles.These events can usually only be seen in Japan and are a great way to enjoy dance, music, and song!