Pre-war Japanese music reflects the developments and conflicts of Japanese society

May 3, 2018, University of Helsinki

Japanese-style composition before World War II was more diverse and complex than has been thought thus far. Modern European compositional techniques were used as Japanese expression, even though it has often been claimed that such expression didn't begin until after the war.

The character of Japanese has interested composers and audiences in Japan and beyond for decades. A doctoral dissertation by researcher Lasse Lehtonen examines the issue from the perspective of the writings and musical compositions of Japanese composers in the 1930s.

"Japan in the 1930s is a highly interesting research topic in this sense. It was a complex and contradictory society, with Western modernism and Japanese tradition overlapping each other, partially in conflict and partially in synthesis," Lehtonen explains. This is also apparent in the nationalism that arose around that time, and ultimately in Japan's participation in World War II. The period has previously been studied a great deal from the perspective of society, culture and many fields of art to understand the overall situation, but music has received less attention.

The study focuses on the pioneering composer group Shinkō sakkyokuka renmei (Federation of Emerging Composers), active between 1930 and 1940, and its founding members. Focusing on modern modes of expression, the group became a prominent force: it organised several performances of contemporary music while promoting young composers and composing as a career in Japan.

Members of the group such as Yasuji Kiyose, Kunihiko Hashimoto and Yoritsune Matsudaira are particularly well known for being among the first to take influences from traditional Japanese music. Later, the group grew into Japan's biggest association of composers and the Japanese chapter of the International Society of Contemporary Music. As such, it is the predecessor of the current Japan Society for Contemporary Music. Japanese-style composition means music which is influenced by traditional Japanese music and culture.

Identity in an international context

"In the writings and musical works of the composers, Japanese-style composition is seen as an act of seeking and creating a Japanese identity in an international context," explains Lehtonen. In this sense, Japanese-style composition is a reflection of its era. Musical works of the time also reflect conflicts and developments in society. According to Lehtonen, motivations for using traditional influences varied from one to the next, for example, from emphasising the older Japanese culture to methods that were used to generate a modernist form of expression. To understand these influences, it is important to study the writings of the composers in addition to the music.

"Yasuji Kiyose emphasised the importance of tradition in the modernised by basing his compositions on elements from traditional music, such as the typical scales. Kunihiko Hashimoto, meanwhile, saw Japan as a permanently changed nation and viewed jazz as the 'folk songs for city-dwellers.' He also utilised influences from traditional Japanese music as modernist expression, which in 1930s Japan was thought of as avant-garde."

Japanese-style composition only became common enough to be used in governmental nationalism in the late 1930s. This means that Japanese-style music was not originally nationalistic, even though this has sometimes been claimed.

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