Archive for the ‘音楽’ Category

Kôhaku Uta Gassen, or “Red-White Song Battle,” is what Japan does for New Year’s Eve. Tens of the biggest acts in Jpop and enka get together, in two teams, and perform for about four hours in a spectacle that, while it may sound kind of corny and silly on the surface, is easily as grand and expensively put-together as, for example, the musical performances at the Oscars.

I still owe you guys (owe myself?) a rundown of my thoughts on this latest Kôhaku.. Hopefully I’ll get around to it before the end of January. Most of my friends – including Japanese friends – think it silly, corny, or absurd that I should want to watch such a thing (imagine someone getting genuinely excited about watching Dick Clark / Ryan Seacrest’s New Year’s Eve show). But, in addition to being purely entertaining, Kôhaku is a great opportunity to learn about what songs are (were) hot in Japan in the past year – to discover new favorites – and also to see your favorite bands/singers perform.

I made many discoveries this time around; one of which was that the band HY is Okinawan (named after, apparently, their hometown of Higashi Yakena). The song they performed on Kôhaku, “Toki wo koe” (時をこえ) or “Extending/Moving Across Time,” has been stuck in my head ever since, and so I feel I want to share it with you.

Overall, I feel it has a very standard pop-rock-alternative sort of sound, something perhaps particularly Japanese, but on the surface not particularly Okinawan. Yet, underneath that, there is very much that feel, that flavor, that atmosphere of the Okinawan sound. The distinctive sound of the sanshin is there, not blatantly and obviously, but just subtly contributing to the Okinawan feel of the song. I never cease to be amazed at how distinctive such a thing can be – how much an instrument can sound so very different and distinctive as to mark a piece of music as definitively Okinawan, simply through something in the quality of the strings and the body of the instrument, and the way it is played. … The melody, while again seeming very much standard on the surface, seems to contain elements of Okinawan music, elements that remind you subtly, sub-consciously, of Okinawan folk music even as the sound more generally just seems modern and either Japanese or aculturally global. And, finally, there are the lyrics, and the sad but hopeful nostalgic tone of the song overall, which reminds me very much of the story behind this video, which I have linked before (it’s clips from the movie “Nabbie no koi,” which does not originally have anything to do with the song ‘Okinawa ni furu yuki’ to which it is set here); I think these same visuals would go really well with HY’s “Toki wo koe.” Then, of course, there are the eisa drums and chanting, and uniquely Okinawan phrases in the lyrics, but those don’t come in until later.

Sure, there are plenty of nostalgic songs from every culture – Japan not least among them – which speak of memories of grandparents and honoring their hard lives and sacrifices. But somehow I feel something special, something unique, in the way Okinawans remember and honor their grandparents; I guess it connects in to the devastation of Okinawa in the war, and the combination of terrible sadness and brilliant hope and optimism coming out of that.

Sorry for the overly lengthy introduction and rambling on…

Getting down to it, here is the song itself, “Toki wo koe” by HY, with my translation of the lyrics.

昔の話を聞いたのさ 自由な恋すら許されず
おばぁーは泣く泣く嫁いだよ あの人に別れも告げぬまま

昔の話を聞いたのさ 火の粉が雨のように降る
おばぁーはとにかく走ったよ あの人の命を気にかけて

曲がる腰 細い足 おばぁーの生きてきた証
その笑顔 その言葉 変わらぬものもある…

胸に刻みなさい あなたのその鼓動
昔、昔に繋がる この命 大切に生きなさい

昔の話を聞いたのさ 十四の頃から働いて
家族と別れて一人きり 涙は流せぬ生きる為

その時代を物語る おじぃーの話を聞いたのさ
しわくちゃな顔さえも 誇らしかったんだ

そっと頬伝う 温かい涙を見て思ったよ
誰かに伝えなきゃ 僕らが伝えなきゃ

「家族の事を1番に」 昔の人は言いました
“命どぅ宝”の言葉こそ 忘れちゃいけないもの

今日もまたひとつ 過ぎ去られる記憶
だから僕達は この歌にのせてさ 届けなきゃあなたへ

昔の話を聞いたのさ 笑うおばぁーのその横で
輝くおじぃーのその涙 かけがえのないもの見つけたよ

I heard the stories of long ago // Even loving freely was not allowed
Grandma married crying, crying // Having not told her beloved* of their parting

I heard the stories of long ago // Sparks fell like rain
Even so Grandma ran // Worried about the life of her beloved

Her bent back, her thin legs // The evidence that Grandma had lived [to the fullest] up to this point
That smile, those words // There were also things that never changed

Engrave it upon your heart // Your heartbeat [thinking of this]
This life, connected to long, long ago // Live with importance**

I heard the stories of long ago // She worked from the age of 14
Separated from family, living alone // In order to live without tears flowing

Telling of that time // I heard Grandpa’s stories
Even his wrinkled face // was filled with pride

His cheeks softly tell // Seeing warm tears, I thought
Someone has to tell it // We need to tell it

Family first // People of the past said
The phrase “Life is a Treasure” especially // is something that cannot be forgotten

Today one more // forgotten memory
Therefore we // placed into this song // that which must be conveyed, to you

I heard the stories of long ago // Next to Grandma who was laughing
The glistening tears of Grandpa // I discovered something for which there is no substitute

*Ano hito literally just means “that person,” but most often implies the idea of “his/her beloved”.
**Taisetsu ni, literally means something like “take it as important,” “treat it like it is important.” It’s one of my favorite phrases in Japanese that I wish we had something direct and easy for in English.

(I tried to put the lyrics & translation next to one another in columns, but it got too skinny and just didn’t look right. I hope this arrangement is to people’s liking…)

Read Full Post »

I don’t know when I’ll get around to reading any of these – it may be quite some time – but so long as I am in Japan and have access to cheap used books on Japanese history and the like, I just can’t help myself.

Oh, geez. Putting all my newly acquired books into a pile in order to write this post, I realize just how much I’ve bought. I’m going to have a lot of things to ship home.

*名城を歩く mook (magazine-book) series, volumes on Matsue and Matsuyama Castles

I quite enjoyed the Kanazawa Castle volume from this series and so was happy to come across two more volumes on castles I am interested in. Granted, I don’t know much about, for example, Osaka or Himeji Castles, and haven’t been to them, but for whatever reason I am much more interested in the slightly more obscure and more out of the way ones. Matsue (in Shimane) is one of only a few castles remaining today not reconstructed after the end of the Edo period; Iyo-Matsuyama (on Shikoku) is just interesting for being on Shikoku…

In addition to providing details about the individual buildings and distinguishing features of each castle, as well as map/pictures of the castle at its height and fairly solid narrative overviews of the history of the castle’s lords, one feature I quite enjoy is that each book in this series includes very brief descriptions of other castles in the area (generally ruins or even empty sites without even ruins). Where else would you learn anything about Uwajima castle (宇和島城) and Ôzu castle (大洲城)?

(Purchased at a used book store 井上書店 across the street from Kyôdai, for 200 yen each.)

*「琉球と日本・中国」 (Ryukyu and Japan & China) & 「琉球の王権とグスク」 (The Ryukyuan Royalty and Gusuku Fortresses)

Two books from the 日本史リブレット (Japanese History Libretto) series. I haven’t yet read anything from this series, but upon a quick glance, these seem to be relatively easy to read (i.e. not formal, dense academic prose), and at only 100 pages each, they’re not too intimidating, and won’t take too long to read (though it’ll still take some time). They’re published by Yamakawa Shuppansha, a publishing company which specializes in history books, which I think can be taken as a good indication that these are of a certain level of quality and reliability. Each has notes in the margins explaining names of people and places, and other terms one might not be familiar with, and both address topics very directly related to my interests and my research, meaning I’m not wasting my time by reading these, looking for, hoping for, elements that might be relevant. Both should prove to be useful additions to my foundational knowledge of these subjects.

(Purchased new in the Dôshisha Fusôkan bookstore for 800 yen each)

*Three volumes of 再現日本史 mook series, specifically on the years 1863-64; 1867; and 1877-1880

These magazine-books seem quite scattered, devoting only a single page at most to any given topic, but a quick glance would seem to indicate that they cover a fairly broad range of topics, thus providing a good overview of the events of each year; and of course since each volume covers such a short period, the topics addresses are not too general, but actually delve into some degree of detail and to some extent the more obscure events. The last volume devotes a whole page (and a whole other page of just image) to the subject of Shô Tai, last king of Ryûkyû, and to the overthrow and annexation of his kingdom. I am particularly curious to read this section, as well as whatever little bits there may be on Pres. Grant’s visit to Japan in 1879.

(Purchased at a BookOff for 105 yen each)

*Power of Okinawa

Presumably the only book out there in English on Okinawan music (especially on more contemporary music, not just traditional/classical music), the book, I must admit (sorry, sir) seems less academic, less dense than I might have hoped (Academic language is good in English; not good for my Japanese language level). Just judging from the size of the text, the feel and look of it, I get this impression. And, yes, I know I’m jumping to conclusions, but I am very much hoping that the content of the text proves me wrong.

I grew interested in Okinawa largely through the music, and am particularly eager and interested to read this, and learn more about this wonderful phenomenon that creates lively, contemporary, fun, entrancing music that incorporates traditional instruments (sanshin), themes and lyrics, and conveys the feel, the atmosphere of the islands. Perhaps I am too quick to use the word “perfect,” but I feel that much of the Okinawan popular music I have heard is an excellent combination of traditional elements and new, contemporary influences, conveying the traditional culture, identity, and atmosphere/feel, not tossing it away, while remaining quite current.

I am also eager to start learning sanshin myself, and so, reading up on Okinawan music is essentially a must. Can’t play the music without a fuller appreciation and understanding of the background, the culture, etc.

(Purchased directly from the author, through his website, for 2300 yen incl. shipping within Japan)

*Three volumes of 別冊太陽 (“The Sun”) from the 1970s, each a sort of mini-encyclopedia, 100 Merchants, 100 Daimyo Houses, and 100 House Elders (karô) respectively

This seems an amazingly good series. They’re still putting them out, and if you look at the website, you’ll see they cover a wide range of topics, one topic per volume, presumably in amazing detail. Each of the volumes I bought is a nice solid 200 pages, and sold originally, in the 1970s, for 1500-1600 yen.

They don’t devote a particularly great amount of text to any one topic – most get only a paragraph, sadly. But there are lots of pictures, and I am hoping these will prove quite useful for my exploits in compiling encyclopedia entries for the Samurai-Archives Wiki of Japanese History. I’ve never seen any book in English that devoted more than a passing reference to Suminokura Ryôi, one of the most prominent merchants of Edo period Kyoto, let alone to any of the 90+ lesser-known merchants included in this volume.

(Purchased for 500 yen each at the Kitano Tenmangû Flea Market)

*Four volumes of 古寺をゆく mook series, on Eiheiji; Kanzeonji; Byôdôin; and Kenchôji & Engakuji respectively.

Like the castles series listed at the top of this post, I think that these volumes could be quite interesting, and useful for the Samurai Wiki. Each focuses on a single temple (or two), providing good details on the history of the temple, its individual buildings, and famous or important Buddhist sculptures and other artifacts and art objects in the collection, as well as (like the castle mooks) providing smaller, brief descriptions of other major temples in the area.

The shop had an entire box of them, quite possibly the whole series. I wish I might have bought them all, especially at this price, since they go for 560 cover price, but I had to stick to picking just a few. As with the castles, I could have picked up volumes on Kiyomizudera, Honganji, Sensôji, Daitokuji, Hôryûji, but I decided to go with slightly less major temples of particular interest to me. Eiheiji is a Zen temple founded by Dôgen, whose story is told in the 2009 film ZEN, which I quite enjoyed. Byôdôin, of course, is the former villa of Fujiwara no Michinaga, one of the few surviving examples of something hinting at a fuller shinden-zukuri compound, and related therefore, though today a temple, to the exciting political intrigues of the late Heian period. Kenchôji and Engakuji, of course, are major Zen temples in Kamakura, a bit off the beaten path when it comes to the Kinkakuji/Ginkakuji-going masses. I’ve always liked Kamakura, and though I’ve only visited a handful of times and never lived there, I do feel something of a special connection to the place, and a desire to expound upon its temples, informing others who might only be aware of the big name ones in Kyoto and Tokyo. Kanzeonji, finally, was once the chief temple in Kyushu, and is connected to the history of the Dazaifu, and to that period and atmosphere. Despite its ancient importance, the temple is today quite obscure and largely unknown. Even a friend specializing in that period who once lived in Fukuoka told me he’d never heard of it.

(Purchased from a used book store across the street from Kyôdai, for 100 yen each.)

Read Full Post »

As I mentioned a few posts ago, a group of expert musicians from Japan is in residence here in Hawaii this week. I thoroughly enjoyed their concert of new pieces (including some world premiere performances) for traditional Japanese instruments on Saturday, and went back for more on Sunday.

Sunday’s program included more genuinely traditional pieces, interspersed with new compositions. I was eager to see (hear) some of these traditional pieces, and was certainly not disappointed.

Kawabata Ryûshi – “Autumn Deer Call” (1928), a Nihonga painting on the same theme as the traditional shakuhachi piece.

Daisuke Abe on the shinobue (not the shakuhachi, which he played in Shika no Tône).

The program began with “Shika no Tône” (鹿の遠音, Distant Cry of the Deer), a traditional piece performed by two shakuhachi, echoing each other. Normally, I’ve always found the sound of the shakuhachi to be difficult to grab onto, difficult to really sit and listen to. It can sound more like the wind in the grass than music one can focus on. But with these two playing as powerfully and expertly as they did, and with everyone perfectly quiet, real music could be heard, while maintaining that (actually, beneficial) very natural sound.

Right: Akiko Sakurai on biwa, performing “Byakkotai.” I apologize for my poor photos.. when there are heads in front of you, you make do as best you can.

After a few other pieces came a biwa piece entitled “Byakkotai“, a chanted piece telling the tragic and true story of a number of brave warriors who, seeing black smoke rising from their lord’s castle, mistakenly believed it had fallen, and committed honorable suicide. Being that this piece is inspired by, and ostensibly “about” an event that happened a mere 150 years ago, at the beginning of the modern period, the question arises whether this can truly be called a “traditional” piece. If so, that’s fine, but where do we draw the line? Are pictures of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War “traditional” or “modern”? What about 1920s songs? 1930s? 1940s?

Still, it was played, and chanted, beautifully, by biwa player Akiko Sakurai, who chanted the story of the Byakkotai (“White Tiger Team”) in classic traditional form. Whether this is how biwa hôshi chanted the Tale of the Heike 500 years prior, I don’t know; I’m not expert enough to really recognize the difference between jôruri (bunraku) and Kabuki chanting either, but it certainly falls into one of those camps. Does being so completely in traditional forms, while drawing upon traditional themes (that of the honorable warrior, of the pathos of the tragic but honorable suicide) make a piece “traditional”?

Right: An Edo pd copy of the Nagato version of the Heike, opened to the first page, displaying the same lines written below. Image rights and object property of National Diet Library of Japan.

Ms Sakurai would go on to perform a similar piece later in the program, that of the introduction to the Tale of the Heike, one of the most famous series of lines in Japanese literature, and something I was most eager to hear, given that this is how the Tale of the Heike was passed down – by biwa-wielding storytellers – long before it was ever put to paper.


Gion shôja no kane no koe, shogyô mujô no hibiki ari. Shara sôju no hana no iro, shôsha hissui no koto wari wo arawasu. Ogoreru hito mo hisashikarazu, tada haru no yoru no yume no gotoshi. Takeki mono mo tsui ni horobinu, hitoe ni kaze no mae no akuta ni onaji.

The sound of the Gion Shôja temple bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that to flourish is to fall. The proud do not endure; the mighty fall at last, to be no more than dust before the wind.

Every piece in the program was wonderful, and I do not mean to make light of them. It was a truly rare pleasure to attend such an event, and many of the pieces were truly moving, all of them most masterfully performed.

I would like to mention just one more, however. Ame no Uta (“A Poem of the Rain”), composed by AURA-J member and fellow UH grad student Yoko Satô, is a beautiful composition for the koto. But it is more than that. It has a rather interesting and surprising intention and meaning behind it. Satô describes the piece as “a tribute to Min-pi, one of the last Empresses of the Korean Yi Dynasty, who was brutally executed by the Japanese military in 1895 during their colonization of Korea. The music is quiet and translucent, the ‘rain’ of the title referring not only to the beauty of rain literally, but also to Min-pi’s tears. [Performed today,] one hundred years after the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty of 1910…”

Right: Queen Min, aka Empress Myeongseong of Joseon.

With that knowledge in mind, one absolutely can imagine the rain, and the Queen’s tears, in the piece.

With apologies for grouping all Japanese composers together as if they don’t have individual backgrounds, interests, influences, desires, etc, Satô-san’s composition chooses a particularly surprising theme. Much Japanese art and music produced since the end of the war has been produced and performed in a spirit of peace, and of pan-Asian togetherness, for a peaceful future, and with other similar themes. However, while acknowledging and expressing sympathy for such terrible events is rare enough, to focus on and sympathize with a figure such as Queen Min, who has been so taken up by Korean anti-Japanese nationalists, is really a particularly complex statement. I am not even sure what to compare it to, or what to say about it. Nationalism is a complex thing, as is the use of symbols. What does it mean to those who champion Queen Min’s name in the cause of angry, violent, flat-out racist and disgusting anti-Japanese hate speech and hate crimes for someone who they revile so much purely on the basis of her nationality & ethnicity to come forward and express sympathy for her? What do they do, what can they do, when the object of their hatred claims to be on their side?

The full piece can be heard here. Thanks to Satô-san, Marion, and Chris Rice for the link.

“Ame no Uta”, along with “Higashi kara” (mentioned in my previous post on AURA-J), and other pieces performed by Reiko Kimura on koto, can be found on this CD: Amazon.com.

The members of AURA-J do not seem to release albums together, but can be found separately on a number of different albums. If you are interested, keep your eye out for them; I will be.

Read Full Post »

I’m really glad my friend Jake called me and reminded me about this concert going on last night on campus.. actually, the group is doing a sort of residency for a week or two or three, doing all kinds of workshops and stuff within the Music dept, and playing a full three concerts. Last night was so good, I went again today. There is one more performance, on Tuesday March 9. If you’re in the area, and like music, I strongly recommend it.

I’ll admit I’d never heard of AURA-J before, but they’re an amazing ensemble/troupe of musicians who perform modern compositions for traditional Japanese instruments. Sure, some of the pieces were too experimental, too “modern” for my taste, and some, I think, (because, really, what do I know about music?) did indeed feel too much like they were written by Western composers, or for that matter by Japanese composers working too much in a Western mode.

But a lot of the pieces were really great – sounding and feeling like the kind of thing that instrument should be used for, not too experimental, but also not rehashing the same old themes. Like new traditional music – not old traditional music, not new new music or new modern music.. and not something that sounds like it was written for guitar and piano but played on shamisen and koto. These pieces, most of them, really took advantage of the strengths and character of each instrument, and sounded like they were really written for that instrument, something you don’t see (hear) all that often. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love hearing Western rock/pop hits played on shamisen, or stuff like that, for novelty value, and for the genuinely interesting, different sound it brings to it. But all too often, I feel (as if I’ve been to this kind of event all that often; I haven’t), people write for these instruments in a sort of generalized “Western music composition” kind of way, without really understanding what kinds of sounds sound best, work best, with these instruments.

The first piece of the night was a koto piece entitled Higashi kara (“From the East”), and was based on a five-note Indonesian scale. Well, the first half of the piece was, at least. I don’t know enough about music to say anything more about how it was structured or what, but somehow, whether purely because of that scale, or because of the actual themes and motifs and melodies included in the piece, it really strongly reminded me of Okinawan sanshin music. The five-tone sanshin scale happens to be the same as one of the two key scales in Indonesian gamelan, which differs from the scale of most Japanese music. So, playing something in this five-tone scale, somehow, just really brings forth that sound, that feeling of it being Okinawan “island” music. I love it.

The next piece, Toki no Majiwari (“The Intersection of Time”), was a piece for shamisen and biwa, and was also quite incredible. I’d never seen biwa played before outside of gagaku, in which it is more of a percussion instrument, played extremely slowly, totally lacking in anything resembling melody, and barely if at all playing according to a beat. … This was different. The two string instruments, very similar in a lot of ways (I’m always surprised to rediscover how big the bachi, the plectrum, is on a shamisen, at least ten times the size of a guitar pick, something like that, and the one for the biwa is much larger), and yet quite different, interact beautifully in this piece. Sometimes they play together, or repeat one another, and sometimes they just sort of bounce off one another in the way two different, separate instruments, generally do, playing different parts of a piece which in the end come together to form a whole musical piece. There’s something about shamisen that resonates with me, that I somehow identify more with it, than with other Japanese traditional instruments, but I’ve definitely gained a newfound respect for the biwa after this performance.

The next, entitled Porotokotan, and inspired by Ainu culture and music, was also played on koto, like the first. Admittedly, if I’d not been told it had an Ainu inspiration, I might never have imagined or sensed that, but having read that, I certainly could sense it. It’s exciting to see them drawing upon different traditions – not just the Kyoto schools of traditional music, and not just the “mainland” Japanese schools from other regions, but from Ainu and other influences as well.

The koto is a most interesting instrument. While it doesn’t call to me in the way shamisen does, perhaps largely simply because of its gendered associations (koto being generally played by women, and shamisen, though certainly played by women in many contexts, generally played by men on the kabuki and bunraku stages), it is interesting chiefly in that the way it is played does not resemble any major type of Western instrument. A shamisen is kind of like a banjo, or a guitar if you’re stretching the comparison. A shakuhachi or nôkan is a flute. Taiko are drums, and biwa is a lute (again, not too different from a guitar, if you’re stretching the comparison). But playing koto is like playing piano by ignoring the keys and reaching in and plucking the strings by hand (which I have seen done). It’s bizarre. It resembles peering over a machine and methodically plucking, picking, pulling, all the right spots, here and here and here and here, to methodically get the right sounds to come out. The music can be amazing, the movements beautiful, the kimono elegant, but it’s pretty much impossible to rock out on koto, or to otherwise really express your emotions (as can be seen in most videos of the band Rin’, which has sadly disbanded; incidentally, some good biwa and shakuhachi in that video too). … I can’t quite put it into words, but there’s just something about the plucking motion that’s really aesthetically interesting, and pleasing. That, and the fact that pretty much all Japanese string instruments – koto, shamisen, biwa – can, and often do, incorporate into pieces the sound you get by sliding the pick or plectrum along the strings, something which I think Western music (specifically guitar) does only as a sort of rock music trick, and which proper orchestra music never does so far as I’m aware. Another neat aspect.

Most of the rest of the pieces performed the rest of the night were, to my ear, too experimental or too typical & Western, not really evoking the aesthetic of it being Japanesey. But all were played masterfully and beautifully. About half the pieces were composed by UH faculty or grad students, which was pretty damned cool, too. Plus, as a sort of side note, I was very pleased to see the performers in traditional Japanese costume – gorgeous colorful kimono for the ladies, and dapper black and grey hayashi-style kimono and hakama for the men. These may be modern compositions, but they’re still traditional Japanese instruments, and I think the costume plays an important part in creating and maintaining that Japanese atmosphere – just because this is cross-cultural does not mean it has to be a-cultural, in artsy black tshirt and pants, or in pan-global modern formalwear, i.e. button-down shirt, suit & tie or whatever.

Today’s concert included some genuinely traditional pieces, where last night’s was just new modern pieces alone; and then yet another concert is being held Tuesday, featuring larger ensembles, where more than two or three instruments will play together. I’d be curious if it looks and feels and sounds more like a band or orchestra, or like a hayashi, which is what it really ought to be.

(One of the songs played last night, “Song of Autumn”. Easily the most traditional-sounding of light night’s pieces, so it doesn’t actually give a fair taste of what the rest was like, but it’s something ^_^)

(A piece not from last night’s performance, but with the shamisen player who was here. Gives a bit more of a taste of the kind of thing… Though I really wish I could find Higashi kara, Toki no Majiwari, or Porotokotan. Actually, the latter, along with two other pieces last night, were premiered at that time, having never been formally performed before. So that was quite a special privilege, in a way.)

Read Full Post »

Just felt I had to share this.

It’s amazingly corny, in typical Chinese popular music fashion, a very nationalistic, patriotic sort of heart-warming “everyone together” sort of song. One could obviously write pages and pages about the political implications and such. But it still makes me feel good, makes me smile listening to it.

Blog IfGoGo.com has graced us with a translation.
I first heard this song, saw the video, at Electric Sinophile, in a post brilliantly titled by manchuka.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts