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Nakata Taizou rummages through Japan's cultural attic

by Tim Young

From SIF SATELLITE 52, Winter 1998-99

also appeared in Eye-Ai, February 1999

Nakata-san strums the biwaI had a music teacher in college who said that, in terms of culture, "Japan never throws anything away." That may be true, but it seems that a lot of Japanese are unaware of a lot of what's stashed in the attic.

Take gagaku, for example, a musical form based on Chinese music that has existed in Japan for at least 1400 years. I recently went to a large department store in search of a gagaku CD. My initial search among the traditional music CDs was fruitless, so I decided to ask one of the shop clerks.

I approached a young woman in her early twenties, slightly chubby, her hair dyed brown. When I asked her if they had any gagaku CDs, she looked puzzled.

"Gagaku...," she repeated. I wasn't sure if she was just thinking, or if she really didn't know what I was talking about.

"Old Japanese music," I added. Then the light went on in her face and she knew which section to look in. (They didn't have any in stock, though; I had to order one.)

To be fair, there aren't many people in any country who could tell you anything at all about their local forms of music in the year 598. The difference, however, is that, unlike most types of music from that era, gagaku is still regularly performed; it has been called, "the oldest continuous orchestral tradition in the world." And yet, there are Japanese who don't even know what gagaku is.

"What is my native music?"the biwa and sho

Nakata Taizou used to count himself among this number. As a college student in Osaka in the mid-1980s, he played in a rock band, and knew little about the traditional music of his homeland. However, perhaps unusually, this started to bother him.

"I was playing popular music," he says, "but one day I realized: I was Japanese, but I didn't know Japanese instruments. Rock music is native to America. I played rock. But I wondered, what is my native music? So then, as I was looking for the answer to this question, I discovered gagaku."

At age twenty, he quit university and moved to Tokyo to become a musician, in spite of his parents' opposition to the idea. But his persistence has paid off: he has learned to play the biwa and sho, two gagaku instruments, and calls himself a "freelance gagaku musician."

Gagaku was traditionally played only within the Emperor's Court; before the Meiji Restoration of 1868, commoners in Japan knew nothing of gagaku. The Imperial Household gagaku troupe is still "the" gagaku troupe (the CD I bought was recorded by them), but there are some, like Nakata, who choose not join the Imperial Household. For one thing, it's very restrictive: Imperial Household musicians cannot perform outside the Imperial Troupe. Nakata's teacher is from the Imperial Household, and Nakata could pass the test to join (which requires six or seven years of study), but prefers to play at religious ceremonies, school demonstrations of traditional instruments, and the like. (He spends the other half of his time as a freelance computer software engineer; "It's impossible to earn my living as a gagaku musician!" he smiles.)

Music for the Seasons

While demonstrating his instruments at schools, he met several other musicians doing the same on other instruments. As a result, in early 1997 he formed a band, called T's Color, with koto player and vocalist Hamane Yuka, bass kotoist Miyazaki Mieko, and Sakamoto Kazutaka on the melodica, a keyboard instrument that is blown by the musician playing it.

Along with the guitar, Nakata plays both of his gagaku instruments in the band, but the band's repertoire is a far cry from gagaku; where gagaku is ponderous and rather shrill, T's Color's music is made up almost entirely of soft pop ballads. Their concert October 13 at Minami Aoyama's Mandala live house consisted of gentle melodies, with layers of beautiful, flowing koto playing. Before playing a tune called "Oyasumi" ("Good Night"), Nakata told the audience, "It's OK if you fall asleep!"

"We play pretty much quiet songs," he told me, "but we do have some slightly more lively tunes." The liveliest one they played at Mandala was "Harumachi Uta" ("Song of a Village in Spring"), a waltz-but, well, a gentle waltz.

One of Nakata's compositions, Kiyose, is made up entirely of seasonal words from haiku and tanka, he says. Naturally, at the October concert, they played the "autumn version," - containing such words as "hanano", a field of flowers, which Nakata says is an autumn word from tanka - but there are different lyrics for the other seasons. When asked if he often writes tanka or haiku, he's quick to dispel that idea. "No, I don't!" he laughs. "Not especially. Just for this song." Check the T's Color web site ( for further information.

One for the money, two for the sho

Nakata-san blowing on the shoOne intriguing aspect of T's Color is that the melodica and sho have a similar sound quality, both having a reedy, somewhat nasal sound. The sho reminds me, in both sound and appearance, of a tiny pipe organ. The bamboo pipes of different lengths, clustered together, look like they belong within a tiny replica of a European-style cathedral. The sho is played by covering tiny holes, one at the base of each pipe, while blowing into the mouthpiece. Only the pipes whose holes are covered will make a sound, so many different combinations of chords can be played. This is something which is hard to do very quickly, but as the sho's function in gagaku is to simply play the same chords for long periods, as a canvas on which the oboe-like plainhichiriki paints its melody, dexterity is not something for which sho players strive.

Nakata disassembled his sho to, well, show me how it worked. Each piece of bamboo has a tiny reed, like a clarinet's reed, waxed to it. The reed may be removed, "but only for maintenance. It's kind of a pain to take it off," Nakata says.

"If the reed gets wet," he goes on, "it won't vibrate." This is a real concern, because moisture condenses easily inside the pipes. For this reason, sho players have long kept their instruments in pots atop charcoal braziers, to keep the instrument dry. Nakata, however, uses a more convenient electric sho warmer!

Nakata pointed out that the various versions of the sho around Asia have different sounds and are played differently. "The Japanese sho has a very clear sound, but the (Chinese) sheng is like a horn-like a trumpet, like the theme from Rocky!" Also, he points out, while Japanese sit still when playing the sho, "the Vietnamese sho is played while dancing!"

According to Bragard and deHen (see sources), the sheng originated in present-day Laos and Cambodia. Due to increased contact between Asia and Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the sheng found its way west, where it inspired Berlin instrument maker Buschmann in 1822 to develop both the mouth harmonica and the accordion. Less directly, she sheng also brought about the invention of the concertina, invented in England in 1844.

We got the lute

The biwa, too, has cousins in the West. The earliest lutes date back to at least 1700 BC, in Babylon or Egypt. A 3-string lute, resembling the Asian tanbur, is reported by Bragard and deHen as having been known in Europe in the 800s AD. An Arabian instrument called the oud evolved into the Chinese pipa, then the biwa, as it moved east, and became the lute, and later the guitar, as it was passed along through North Africa to Spain and the rest of Western Europe. Compared to the oud, however, the biwa is not as versatile, and especially not the kind of biwa used in gagaku. Nakata explains that the oud has eight strings, while the biwa has only three. Also, unlike the oud, the biwa has frets, and is much flatter than, say, the lute, whose back is a half-pear shape.

While the oud and its Western progeny are made of thin pieces of wood put together, a biwa is made by hollowing out a solid piece of wood, and then covering the hollow area with a separate piece. Although it is semi-hollow and rather thin, it is also surprisingly heavy. According to Nakata, his biwa weighs 6.5kg, while a non-gagaku biwa weighs 5kg. (The koto, a larger but more completely hollowed-out instrument, weighs in at 5 kg.) Nakata's biwa has a mahogany back with a covering piece made of a type of mulberry wood, but he says the type of wood used varies depending on the craftsman making the instrument.

Nakata demonstrated the way the biwa should be played in gagaku, using a bachi to pluck all three strings sharply, harshly, bringing the bachi to rest against the cowskin covering. "In gagaku, the biwa is a percussion instrument," Nakata points out. This seems clear from my CD, where the biwa never carries the tune; instead, the three strings are plucked at crucial points, in the same manner each time.biwa and sho sheet music

Nakata showed us his written music for the biwa and sho. However, he points out (as does Togi; see sources) that written music in gagaku is more like a memorandum than actual sheet music; "it is useless unless the performer has a solid background of training in the use of the instrument and has memorized the piece beforehand," Togi writes, going on to say that "the professional performer is required to memorize the whole repertoire."

Beauty in simplicity

Hundreds of years ago, gagaku was more improvisational, with more complicated parts being played, particularly on the biwa. However, since these parts were passed along by imitation and never written down, they were eventually lost, making gagaku more simple and minimalist. This may not have been completely accidental, however, since Japanese culture has often found more beauty in simplicity.

I showed Nakata my CD, and he said it had a good selection of gagaku compositions. He went on to explain that the titles of the pieces show which "key" the piece is played in, although this is not a "key" in the Western musical sense; two different "scales" may start with the same note, but follow with different notes. Each of gagaku's six keys has special meaning; for example, the key called Oshikicho means summer, the phoenix, the heart, and the color red. It also signifies south, and other keys are associated with west, east, and north; therefore, according to Nakata, the temple bells in southern Kyoto are tuned in Oshikicho, with the bells in western, eastern, and northern Kyoto tuned in the keys associated with those directions!

Besides the difference in key, it's hard for non-gagaku experts to find much difference between one gagaku composition and the next. There is a rather set pattern for each piece-the flute begins, then percussion. The sho then comes in playing a chord, and finally the hichiriki begins the melody, with accompaniment by biwa and koto.

Being a gagaku musician got Nakata a chance to play in a movie. The film, "Kaze no Katami," was set in Japan's Heian Era (794-857 A.D.) "It wasn't a very good movie," he recalls with a smile. "It was an interesting book, but the screenplay wasn't so good."

Nakata's wife is also a musician, playing the koto. He laughs, "since we got married, we never perform together!" They now live in western Tokyo with their one-year-old son.

I asked Nakata how people react when he tells them what he does for a living. "Most of them are surprised," he says. "Most Japanese don't know much about gagaku. They're surprised that there are any people who still play gagaku."

Sounds like it's time to do some rummaging in the attic.


Gagaku: Court Music and Dance, by Masataro Togi. Introduction by William P. Malm. Weatherhill, New York & Tokyo, 1971

Gagaku/Music Department, the Imperial Household. Nippon Columbia Co., Ltd. 1991.

Musical Instruments in Art and History, by Roger Bragard and Ferdinand J. deHen. The Viking Press, New York, 1968.

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Copyright 2003 This page last updated December 27, 2003 . E-mail Tim