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Goin’ Japanesque!

The Japanese Traditional Musical Art Gagaku is the World’s Oldest Orchestra

Japan boasts a tradition of musical art called “gagaku,” which is sometimes referred to as the world’s oldest orchestra. Today, while the number of people who know gagaku and have actually listened to it is on the wane even among the Japanese, it is a form of Japanese traditional art which is designated as an important intangible cultural heritage and deserves great respect as such. Here we are going to show you the world of gagaku, the traditional musical art with rich history.




Bugaku Dance: Ranryo-Ou, Photo by hakugakai

Gagaku is a traditional form of music which was introduced from China and Korea to Japan. It is one of Japan’s important intangible cultural assets and was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2007. The music and dance introduced from Asian countries developed into an integrated form of Japanese musical art called gagaku and has been handed down from around the 8th century (the Nara Period) to date.

Gagaku can be classified into main three different categories; “Kuniburino Utamai,” “Tougaku and Komagaku,” and “Utaimono.”


Kuniburino Utamai


Writer’s Photo

“Kuniburino Utamai” refers to the songs and dances which have long been performed at the imperial court since ancient times. Many of them are themed on the myths featured in such ancient books as Kojiki and Nihon Shoki and are deeply associated with Shinto religion and the imperial court. This is especially the rare genre of gagaku to be performed for public viewing and some titles from this genre are only performed for the coronation ceremony of the Japanese emperor.

Kuniburino Utamai gagaku includes the sub-genres below.

 – Kagura Uta
 – Kume Uta
 – Azuma Asobi
 – Yamato Uta
 – Outa


Tougaku and Komagaku


Writer’s Photo: Gagaku in Performance

1. Tougaku

Bugaku Dance: Manzairaku, Photo by hakugakai

Tougaku is a form of music introduced to Japan from Asian countries including China, India and Vietnam. When Tougaku is performed with accompaniment dance (as bugaku dance), three kids of wind instruments (sho, hichiriki and ryuteki) and three kinds of drums (shoko, kakko and taiko) are used. When performed without any accompaniment dance (as the style called “kangen,” or instrument only), another two kinds of Japanese harp (koto and biwa) are added.

2. Komagaku

Bugaku Dance: Nasori
The color of these outfits is referred to as “midori (green)” in gagaku.

Komagaku is a form of music which originated mainly from Goguryeo, Baekje, Shilla the Balhae Kingdon, the ancient kingdoms of the Korean Peninsula. It was only bugaku style komagaku which was introduced to Japan but recently some Japanese gagaku groups have been performing kangen (instrument only) style of komagaku too. One of the wind instruments, sho, is not used for komagaku, though. Hichiriki, komabue and the three kinds of drums mentioned above are used. The outfits of the dancers performing komagaku are always colored “midori (green)” as it is traditionally so called.


Utaimono (Saibara and Rouei)


Writer’s Photo

Saibara and Rouei are two sub-genres of Utaimono, which was created as a form of Japanese song music around the 8th to 12th century (the Heian Period) taking great influence from the Chinese continent. The lyrics of Saibara and Rouei are respectively based on Japanese folk songs and Chinese poems.

They are often performed at gagaku concerts and other occasions. Their lyrics are not very easy to understand but the sound of the music is very beautiful and elegant.


How and Where to Enjoy Gagaku

Photo by hakugakai

By far the most famous gagaku concert is the ones hosted by the Imperial Household Agency. The autumn concert held from around late October until early November every year is open to the general public. It is a free concert but as there are many applicants, you would have to be chosen by lot among many applicants to get to see the concert.

Many shrines and temples around Japan often hold free gagaku concerts. There are also regular concerts held by gagaku groups around Japan.

For example, Itsukushima Shrine holds gagaku concerts regularly throughout the year. And Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto holds “Meigetsu Kangen Sai,” the event where you can enjoy kangen (instrument only) style gagaku concert while admiring the full moon.

Check out the regular concert schedule of some gagaku groups and of gagaku events by shrines and temples, and enjoy the world’s oldest orchestra in Japan, if you ever have a chance.

Miyajima Tourist Association Official Website
Shimogamo Shrine Official Website

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