The Growing Popularity of Classical Music in Japan

  • When you think about classical music, you most probably picture countries in Europe. Vienna in Austria is said to be where classical music was born and Berlin in Germany is the home to beautiful opera houses. There is also Italy as a lot of well-known classical pieces are written in Italian.

    However, it is uncommon to associate classical music with Asian countries so people often assume there is less enthusiasm for classical music in the East. Japan and Korea are most certainly better known for their pop music, notably J-Pop and K-Pop, but there is, in fact, a fascinating world of classical music in Japan to be uncovered.

    Classical Music in Japan

    In Japan, there is a widespread market for the genre of classical music. Surprisingly, 20 percent of the market for classical music is in Japan. There are wide sections of the said genre in music stores which sell well thanks to the lower prices of albums these days.

    Tokyo boasts nine orchestras and the exquisite main hall of Tokyo Opera City which is made almost entirely from wood in order for the music to resonate and come out rich and vibrant. The Japanese love for classical music is not restricted to Tokyo either. Even in the provincial parts of Japan, you can find art centres and concert halls just as lavish as in Tokyo and the music is just as well received as in bigger cities.

    Why Is Classical Music Popular in Japan?

    The passion for this classical art form is due in part to the image that anything western has on Japanese people. Japanese people have a fascination with the idea of classical music. They have this image of a princess in a dress or a prince in a suit playing the violin or the piano against a backdrop of a beautiful castle. The art form is in a sense regarded as something beautiful and elite. The devotion that Japanese people give to classical music makes it easier for the genre to penetrate other areas as well and contribute to what many call the ‘classical boom’.

    Classical Music & Figure Skating

    Classical music has a definite impact on figure skating because a lot of the programs are developed and choreographed using classical music. This also rings true in Japan. Mao Asada, a prominent Japanese figure skater and one of the most highly recognized athletes in Japan often performed with classical music during her competitions. People would look up the music after her performance and CDs of the song she used would sell really fast.

    Classical Music in Comedy

    Another area that contributed to the continual growth of the classical art form is in comedy. Now you might be thinking that it is impossible to do that and that it is difficult to imagine the collaboration between comedy and classical music but a popular comedy show in Japan has made it happen. Shin-kigeki, which translates to “new comedy”, has a long-standing tradition when it comes to comedy shows but what is fascinating about the show is that it combines modern comedy with classical music by having a live orchestra play background music or sound effects during the comedy performance. Sometimes, the orchestra members even participate in the comedy. By doing the said collaboration, classical music was introduced to a broader spectrum of audience.

    Classical Music in Animation and TV Adaptations

    While classical music has a more widespread popularity in Japan than in other Asian countries, it did not use to be popular with the younger generations. However, in recent years animations have started using classical music in television shows which has sparked an interest in the younger generation. Some of the examples of these anime shows are Nodame Cantabile, Piano no Mori: The Perfect World of Kai and Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso (Your Lie in April). These shows became so popular not just in Japan but all over the world which resulted in them being turned into TV adaptations.

    Nodame Cantabile Anime & Drama

    Nodame Cantabile is a story about two classical musicians that are polar opposites. Shinichi Chiaki is the top student at Momogaoka College of Music who dreams to play among the elites in Europe while Megumi Noda (who is referred to as Nodame) is a regular student who seems to have no direction in life. Shinichi is a perfectionist who is a highly critical of everyone – including himself. On the other hand, Nodame is playful and can often be very messy. However, when it comes to music, the two of them are similar in that they have a genuine passion for it and they are both equally talented.

    What makes Nodame Cantabile stand out is that it plays classical music in almost every episode. The music for both the live-action drama and the anime adaptation was provided by specially selected musicians who made up the Nodame Orchestra. The orchestra was conducted by the permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, James DePriest and in the case of the opening and ending theme of the drama series, conducted by Toshiaki Umeda. The opening theme was “Andante Cantabile” or “First Movement” from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and the ending theme was Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.

    With the success of Nodame Cantabile came an increase in people wanting to learn classical instruments, particularly the piano. People also became familiar with the names of the classical compositions played both in the animation and TV adaptations.

    Piano no Mori: The Perfect World of Kai

    If Nodame Cantabile sparked interest for learning classical music, Piano no Mori: The Perfect World of Kai, made existing musicians remember the reasons why they were playing the music and those who have grown bored with the art form found new enthusiasm by watching the show. Piano no Mori: The Perfect World of Kai is a story about a strong friendship between two musicians Amamiya Shuuhei, a child pianist who has spent years training in order to enhance his talent and Ichinose Kai, a boy who has never had formal lessons in piano but is the only one who could play the mysterious piano in the forest.

    Piano no Mori shows us the two sides of music, in general. Kai is the pure art of music. He is the symbol of that excitement and joy that comes from playing music. Shuuhei symbolizes the discipline that is required to hone the raw talent that a person has. He shows us that to meet your goal, you need hard work and perseverance.

    Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso (Your Lie in April)

    Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso is a story about piano prodigy Kousei Arima who refused to play the piano after the death of his mother, and Kaori Miyazono who inspired him to face music again. This show tugs at your heartstrings so hard that you will be left thinking about it long after the movie is over. It delves deep and deals with serious issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), childhood abuse, chronic illness, and death. The plethora of issues present in the storyline could have been too much but the show is done in such a way that it addressed those issues as they should – these issues are real, they are painful, and they leave a long-lasting impact. There is really no magic solution to make those things go away. You can only accept it, process it, and then learn to live with it. Thankfully, the show was able to portray that.

    Another thing that is notable about Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso is that the emotions are not only seen visually but you can also feel it in the music. With a fantastic musical scoring, this movie will make you appreciate classical music whether or not you were a fan of it to begin with.

    The interest in classical music across Japan appears to be growing day by day. It is slowly changing its image from a stiff genre that is only for the elite to something more comfortable and something that a lot of people from different walks of life can enjoy. With this change brings about the continued growth of classical music.

    If this current trend of music in Japan continues, we can be assured that classical music will be enjoyed by even more Japanese people in the future. I am personally looking forward to more classical music performances as well as collaborations with other genres. With the way things are now, I am positive that it is only a matter of time before classical music becomes mainstream.