Found Sounds: UNCG Musicology Journal

The Shape of Japanese Music Before, During, and After the Meiji Restoration

Christopher Girgenti


This paper explores the musical history of Japan, emphasizing the Tokugawa and Meiji eras.  While these are only two of Japan’s many eras, they had the most impact on the musical aspects of society.  As the Tokugawa shogunate forced the isolation of Japan from the Western World, it was during this time period that the Western World was expanding.  Tensions arose between Japan and the West during the 1850s and 1860s, eventually leading to the overthrow of the shogunate.  The result was the beginning of the Meiji era.

Why the Meiji era is highly critical to Japanese history is because once the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown, the new government reversed Japan’s isolation, stating that it should embrace Western ideals and practices in order to avoid colonization.  Not only did this change the fundamental aspects of Japanese society, but it also lead to many musical changes.  Western instruments and a formal music education were introduced, and as Japan became an imperial power military bands played a role in the shaping of Japanese society.

As the twentieth century progressed, so did the Westernization of Japanese music.  What this paper argues is that once Japan re-opened itself, its music became more Western and less Japanese.  In order to fully understand this argument, my paper includes a background of Japanese music history from its beginnings, so readers can examine how Japanese music has evolved over time.  Japanese music today is very much Western-influenced, causing the line that defines Japanese music to become blurred.  However, it is important not to make the assumption that all Japanese music is no longer Japanese in nature; there are still traditional elements that exist today, even though Western elements seem to have a stronghold.


Japanese music; Japan;


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