The history of classical music in Japan, as explained by renowned violinist Midori
By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Japanese are considered to be one of the biggest consumers of classical music. Despite the global economic downturn, concerts are constantly being presented in Tokyo and other cities. The number of foreign artists and orchestras performing in Japan has also been increasing.
On April 23, internationally renowned violinist Midori gave a lecture at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus. Titled “The Presence of Western Music in Japan: Then & Now,” the program was presented by the Atsuhiko and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation and the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. It was the 6th annual lecture presented by the Tateuchi foundation.
The talk focused on the development of Western classical music in Japan. Maestro Gerard Schwarz, music director of the Seattle Symphony, introduced Midori, an Osaka-born violinist who made her debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at age 11. Since then, she has been performing around the world. Midori’s involvement in nonprofit and community work and her role as an educator were highlighted.
“She feels very passionate about proper education. … She’s the Jascha Heifetz Chair and the Chair of the Strings Department at the [University of Southern California’s] Thornton School of Music.” Midori also received her master’s degree in psychology in 2005 and was designated a UN Messenger of Peace in 2007.
Midori is often asked why the Japanese love classical music so much. “My friends like to perform in Japan because the audience is so appreciative,” she said.
Comparing the classical music scene in Japan to that of the United States, there is “a lack of education on classical music” for “young Americans as a group.” Midori continued, “For the Japanese, it is unfathomable that music is not taught in school curriculum.”
Classical music was brought to Japan in the mid-1500s by Portuguese missionaries. It arrived in feudal Japan when Christianity was introduced there.
“As time went on, there was a growing sense of xenophobia,” Midori said, referring to the period of isolation Japan experienced when it became unified. “Western culture continued to exist, for example, in underground church music.”
In 1853, Japan reopened itself to Western influence. “Western influence that was so strictly shunned was now taken in like a sponge,” said Midori.
During the Meiji era, an official named Izawa Shuji brought classical music to school curriculum, also compiling European songs like “Auld Lang Syne” in a Japanese song book.
“Rentaro Taki (1879–1903) and Kosaku Yamada (1886–1965) were the first Japanese composers to ‘go West,’ ” said Midori. “Before World War II, many foreign artists visited Japan, including Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler — some even came multiple times.”
One of the reasons why Westernization was a priority at the time was that the Japanese society perceived a “threat from European imperialism” and felt that they needed to catch up. The development of classical music in Japan was only hindered for a short period of time during World War II. “Immediately following the end of World War II came the second wave of Westernization,” added Midori. But this time, cultural elements of Japan were clearly present.
The development of American classical music was tied to immigrants. Composers such as George Gershwin (1898–1937), Aaron Copland (1900–1990), and Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) were sons of immigrants.
American composers were eager to incorporate their own sounds, for instance, jazz, into their music.
Encouraged to incorporate Japanese instruments into their works after World War II, Japanese composers were “trying to find their unique voice and identities,” said Midori.
“Only since early 2000 was Japanese traditional music incorporated into school curriculum,” she continued. This was due to the fear of inciting nationalism in children. Contemporary Japanese composers such as Toru Takemitsu (1930–1996) and Minoru Miki (1930–) have drawn on traditional Japanese music in their works.
While the number of concert halls has been rising in Japan, classical music, in general, is affected by an aging audience. Midori noted, “Finding ways to connect [music] with the community and be inspired by music is the key.” While education and advocacy play significant roles in connecting music with the community, having music festivals is another method to achieve this.
Concluding her lecture, Midori said, “I would like to see more musicians engaged in community work. … This need has no border.”
When, during the Q&A session moderated by Maestro Schwarz, Midori was asked about how she set off her lifelong adventure with the violin when she was a child, she told the audience, “My mother is a violinist. I always remember having music in my life. Violin, in particular, is a part of the family. … It was something that my mother took very seriously. I took it with pride that I was able to do it. It was an act of sharing with my mother.” ♦
Vivian Miezianko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.