This article explores the music, performing arts, cultural arts, martial arts, and visual arts of Japan.
The Japanese love music (音楽 ongaku) in all styles. Not just an artistic pleasure, Japanese use music as part of the social expectations to make everyday experiences familiar and comforting. It can be quite soothing, as pleasant melodies chime from almost every domestic appliance, train platform, elevator, and more, a welcome alternative to harsh electronic buzzers and verbal announcements. At other times, you may desperately wish for a silent respite from the insidiously repetitive branded tunes played in many stores, or the cacophony of adjacent shops blaring pop songs on top of each other.
Exposure to music in Japan comes early and often, with compulsory music education in elementary and middle school (not to mention the routine set by school bells that universally play Westminster chimes). Choirs and orchestras are much appreciated for the group unity they embody, and it's not uncommon to begin the workday by having everyone sing the company song.
Traditional Japanese music (邦楽 hōgaku) uses a variety of instruments, many of which originated in China, but developed into unique forms after being introduced to Japan. The most common instruments are
- the shamisen (三味線) — a 3-string picked or plucked instrument, similar in some ways to a banjo
- the shakuhachi (尺八) — a bamboo flute
- the koto (箏) — a 13-string picked zither (like a dulcimer)
Taiko (太鼓) are Japanese drums. Taiko drums are unique to Japan, and range in size from small handheld drums to enormous 1.8-metre (71 in) stationary drums. Taiko also refers to the performance itself; these physically demanding instruments can be played solo or in a kumi-daiko ensemble, and are very common at festivals. (In Japanese, taiko just means "drum", but is usually understood to mean "Japanese drums" as it does in the rest of the world. A Western drum kit would be called doramu setto, doramu kitto, or doramusu.)
Traditional Japanese music can be divided into several categories. Gagaku (雅楽) is instrumental or vocal music and dance that was played for the imperial court. Several forms of Japanese theater use music. Jōruri (浄瑠璃) is narrative music using the shamisen, and min'yō (民謡) is folk music such as work songs, religious songs, and children's songs.
Outside of traditional Japanese music, these instruments are not frequently used, and the more obscure ones are slowly dying out. However, a few popular artists like the Yoshida Brothers and Rin' have combined traditional instruments with modern Western musical styles.
Western classical music (クラシック[音楽] kurashikku [ongaku]) is popular in Japan with people of all ages; while it's not everyday listening, it's certainly more popular than in many Western countries. There are 1,600 professional and amateur orchestras (オーケストラ ōkesutora) in Japan; Tokyo is home to nearly half of them, including eight full-time professional orchestras. There are also well over 10,000 choirs (合唱 gasshō, コーラス kōrasu or クワイア kuwaia); the Japan Choral Association has more information including an extensive list of upcoming concerts (available in Japanese only). Concert dress is casual except for businessmen coming straight from work.
With the arrival of Western pop music in the 20th century, Japan created its own unique forms of pop music. These have largely died out except for enka (演歌), sentimental ballads in Western pop styles composed to resemble traditional Japanese music, typically sung in an exaggerated emotional style. Enka, too, is on the decline; it's often sung by older people at karaoke, but it's rare to find a young person who enjoys it.
Jazz (ジャズ jazu) has been very popular in Japan since the 1930s, except for a brief gap during World War II. There are often Japan-only recordings that can't be found in other countries. Jazz coffee shops are a common way to listen to jazz. Decades ago, most jazz cafes prohibited talking, expecting only serious enjoyment of the music, but today most jazz cafes are more relaxed and less moody.
Of course the most popular kind of music today is pop music. J-pop and J-rock flood the airwaves, and are sometimes even popular internationally: L'Arc~en~Ciel and X Japan have played sold-out concerts in Madison Square Garden, while The 184.108.40.206's cover of "Woo Hoo" found its way onto the UK Singles Chart after it was used in Kill Bill: Volume 1 and quite a few TV commercials. Punk, heavy metal, hip hop, electronic, and many other genres also find niches in Japan where they get their own Japanese interpretation.
J-pop is often associated with idols (アイドル aidoru), young music stars manufactured by talent agencies. Typically marketed as "aspiring" artists, most idols achieve only brief fame with a lone hit song, which are typically ghostwritten in advance to be repetitive, catchy, and to require no great skill from the performer; still, the public welcome each new idol eagerly, just as they did last month and will again next month. Quite a few idol groups do turn into long-lasting acts, though: SMAP and Morning Musume have been popular for decades, with more than 50 Top 10 singles each, while AKB48 has rocketed to the top to become the best-selling female group in Japan.
Concerts in Japan
Concerts (ライブ raibu, "live") are plentiful, although very often information is only available in Japanese. Music festivals (ロック・フェスティバル rokku fesutibaru, shortened to ロックフェス rokku fesu or just フェス fesu) are also popular, drawing tens of thousands of people. Fuji Rock Festival is Japan's largest festival, and actually covers many genres. Rock In Japan Festival is the biggest festival where only Japanese artists are allowed to perform.
Depending on the event, you may be able to buy tickets at convenience stores (using a numeric code to identify the right concert), online, at record stores, or in various pre-sale lotteries which is usually where big concerts sell most of their tickets. (Some sellers may require you to have a Japanese credit card with a Japanese billing address, so you may need to try multiple methods to find one you can use. Buying from overseas is even more difficult, as all ticket websites require you to register with a Japanese phone number for text messages, and sometimes even block non-Japanese IP addresses.) You can buy day-of tickets at the venue, assuming the concert isn't sold out, but large venues may not even sell tickets at the door. Resale tickets are also available, but large popular concerts may be strict about checking that your ID matches the buyer's initials printed on the tickets; check for an announcement of this before buying a ticket. Rather than doing general admission, standing tickets may be numbered to divide the audience into smaller groups which are admitted in order.
Japanese fans can be just as fanatical as music lovers elsewhere. Devotees follow their favorite bands on tour, and collaborate to get front row tickets; they may have spent more than you did to attend the same concert, so don't feel as though you "deserve" a good seat just because you paid to come from abroad! When there are multiple bands on the schedule, and you don't care for the one playing, Japanese fans think it's natural to leave your seat so others can enjoy up close; staying in your seat just so you can save it for later is inconsiderate. Many songs have furitsuke, choreographed hand gestures the crowd performs along with the music, these days often with handheld lights. The band may create some of the movements, but most of it is created organically by fans (usually the ones in those front row seats). The movements are unique for every song, which makes for an impressive sight when you realize the whole audience learned them by rote; you can try to learn a few movements by watching closely, or just relax and enjoy the show.
The most well-known types of traditional Japanese performing arts — bunraku puppetry, kabuki drama, and noh opera — originated and are set in medieval or pre-modern Japan. All feature melodramatic period stories (familiar to Japanese audiences) of historical events, romance, or moral conflicts. Don't feel excluded by the text and songs in stylized old Japanese, as an important part of these art forms is the intricate visual aspects of their traditional costumes and emotional expressiveness. In all of these, playbills will have an overview of the story, and some theaters provide English translations and commentary via headsets. However, despite also having a language barrier you may find the modern art of comedy more approachable, such as rakugo solo storytellers and extremely popular manzai stand-up duos. You can also seek out taishū engeki ("pop theater"), similar to but more approachable than the traditional arts, or find Western-style comedy in English.
Bunraku (文楽) is a type of puppet theater. Three actors — one in full view, the other two hidden in black hoods — deliver precise control over the head, hands, and legs of each puppet, while a narrator sings and speaks the exposition and all dialogue in a stylized cadence, with shamisen playing improvised accompaniment for effect. Some plays can take a whole day to perform, but acts are designed to stand alone, and this is how they're often performed today.
Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a popular type of traditional dance-drama, with stars often getting TV or film roles. It's known for the elaborate costumes and makeup that performers wear. While the language used for these tales is an old form of Japanese, kabuki tells its stories through the expressions and dances. Actors fly above the audience on wires and make dramatic entrances and exits via aisles down the middle of the audience, complex revolving stages, and trap doors, while fans cheer their favorite actors by shouting their stage name during climactic moments. For several centuries, only male actors were used, with some specializing in playing female roles, but today some local troupes do use female actresses. As traditional plays are many hours long, a performance today may include only the highlights from a play (and even so, during intermission they may still sell bentō box lunches that are traditionally eaten during longer plays).
Noh (能 nō or 能楽 nōgaku) is an older type of musical drama. While the costumes may seem superficially similar to kabuki, noh is otherwise very stark; its minimalist form developed at the same time as tea ceremony and ikebana flower arranging. To be honest, most visitors will probably find its plodding subtlety to be rather boring. Most noh characters wear masks which represent ghosts, deities, demons, or animals, plays are always set on identical bare stages with almost no props, and noh tells its emotion-driven stories through the lyrics, which are in an even older form of Japanese (difficult for even native speakers to understand). It's sometimes described as "Japanese opera", although it's closer to chanted poetry rather than actual singing. In modern times, noh has also been used to "translate" some of Shakespeare's tragedies, ancient Greek plays, and other classical Western works.
Traditionally used as comic intermission between acts in a noh play, kyōgen (狂言) consists of short (10 minute) plays, often using stock characters such as servants and their master, or a farmer and his son. These are much more accessible than noh or kabuki, as they use more of a speaking voice and are typically in Early Modern Japanese, which is easier for modern listeners to understand (akin to Shakespearean English).
Much less well-known is taishū engeki (大衆演劇), a vague term meaning "theater for the masses" or "popular theater". While kabuki and noh have come to be seen as highbrow hallmarks of Japanese performing arts, taishū engeki is the lowbrow cousin for light entertainment. Superficially, it's similar to kabuki, with elaborate Edo-period costumes and men playing some (but not all) of the female roles, but the melodrama is turned all the way up. Performances are usually in two halves: the first is a simple play set in "ye olde Japan" that usually combine period themes, romantic personal stories, and dramatic sword fights. Every performance is a new tale, as these plays are not scripted, but invented from scratch during the morning's rehearsal; the simple stories are easy to understand even without a translation, with the good guys obviously triumphing over the bad guys. The second half is unrelated to the first, and showcases actors mostly solo performing traditional dances with modern flashing stage lights and fog machines. You may find these accessible shows to have cultural similarities to variety shows, revues, or even drag shows. Troupes travel the country, and the actors' children and toddlers often make an appearance on stage. Actors are very approachable, selling merchandise in the aisles during intermission and greeting fans after the show, while fans shower their favorite actors with letters and sometimes multiple ¥10,000 bills during dances. Shows are much cheaper than kabuki or noh, around ¥2,000.
Comedy in Japan is markedly different from the Western style. Japanese are very sensitive about making jokes at the expense of others, so Western-style stand-up comedy isn't very common. Most Japanese comedy relies on absurdity, non sequiturs, and breaking the strict social expectations. Most Japanese also love puns and wordplay (駄洒落 dajare), although these can cross the line into groan-inducing oyaji gyagu (親父ギャグ "old man gags/jokes", or in other words, "dad jokes"). Don't bother attempting irony or sarcasm; Japanese rarely use these, and they're likely to take your statement at face value instead.
The most common and well-known type of stand-up comedy in Japan is manzai (漫才). This typically involves two performers, the funny man (boke) and the straight man (tsukkomi), delivering jokes at a breakneck pace. Jokes are based on the boke misinterpreting lines or making puns, provoking the tsukkomi into a rage until they often retaliate by smacking the boke on the head. Manzai is typically associated with Osaka, and many manzai performers use an Osaka accent, but manzai acts are popular all across the country.
Another traditional type of Japanese comedy is rakugo (落語), comedic storytelling. A lone performer sits on stage and tells a long and usually complicated funny story. They never get up from the seiza kneeling position, but use tricks to convey actions like standing up or walking. The story always involves dialog between two or more characters, which the storyteller depicts with vocal inflections and body language. Rakugo translates very well; a few performers have made a career of performing in English, but they mostly perform at special events as a sort of cultural education, and in videos online. Still, you may be able to find a performance in English that you can attend.
A few troupes do Western style stand-up and improv comedy in English. These attract an international audience: foreign visitors, expats, and even a lot of English-speaking Japanese. In Tokyo, major groups include Pirates of Tokyo Bay, Stand-Up Tokyo, and the long-running Tokyo Comedy Store. Other groups include ROR Comedy and Pirates of the Dotombori in Osaka, Comedy Fukuoka, NagoyaComedy, and Sendai Comedy Club.
Japan is famous for geisha, although they're often misunderstood by the West. Literally translated, the word 芸者 (geisha) means "artist" or "artisan". Geisha are entertainers, whether you're looking for song and dance, party games, or just some nice company and conversation. While some geisha may have been prostitutes more than a century ago, today this is not part of their profession. (Adding to the confusion, around World War II some prostitutes called themselves "geisha girls" to attract American troops.) Geisha train from a young age to be exquisite, high-class entertainers. Apprentice maiko have it the hardest; they wear colorful layered kimono and extravagant obi sashes, and always wear the labor-intensive all-white face makeup. As they mature, geisha wear more subdued clothing and makeup except for very special occasions, instead letting their natural beauty and charm show through.
Geisha are often employed today by businesses for parties and banquets. Traditionally you need an introduction and connections to hire a geisha, not to mention ¥50,000 to ¥200,000 per guest. These days many geisha are making more of an effort to share their talents in public performances; you may be able to see geisha perform for as little as ¥3,000, or for free at a festival. Or, with some research, you may be able to book a private or semi-private party with a geisha (in some cases even over the Internet) in the range of ¥15,000-30,000/person.
In the largest Japanese cities, it's easy to spot a geisha if you look in the right part of town. Kyoto is home to the oldest and most widely-known geisha community in the world; Tokyo and Osaka have their own as well, of course. Yamagata and Niigata are known for their historically prestigious connections to geisha, although the scene is less active these days. You can also find geisha in a few cities like Atami and Kanazawa, where they tend to be less exclusive and cheaper to book.
Hostess clubs , in some sense, are a modern take on the same role that geisha filled. At a hostess club (キャバクラ kyaba-kura, short for "cabaret club", or スナックバー sunakku bā, "snack bar", or "snack" for short), a female hostess will provide conversation, pour drinks, entertain, and to some degree flirt with her male clients. (At a host club (ホストクラブ hosuto kurabu), roles are reversed with male hosts serving female clients, typically with a bit more overt flirting.) Hostesses work in bars and sing karaoke to entertain, compared to geisha coming to tea houses and restaurants to perform traditional Japanese arts. Keep in mind though that the hostesses are professional flirts, not prostitutes, and many hostess clubs have a prohibition on physical intimacy or sexual conversation topics. A more distant incarnation of the same idea are maid cafés (メイド喫茶 meido kissa or メイドカフェ meido kafe) and other cosplay restaurants. Catering mainly to otaku (nerds), employees dressed as French maids pamper their clients while serving them beverages and food, all usually decorated with syrup (except entrées like the popular omelette rice, which is decorated with ketchup).
Tea ceremony (茶道 sadō or chadō, or 茶の湯 cha-no-yu) is not unique to Japan, or even to Asia, but the Japanese version stands out for its deep connection to Japanese aesthetics. Indeed, the focus of a Japanese tea ceremony is not so much the tea as making guests feel welcome and appreciating the season. Due to the influence of Zen Buddhism, Japanese tea ceremony emphasizes a uniquely Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi (侘寂). A very rough translation might be that wabi is "rustic simplicity" and sabi is "beauty that comes with age and wear". The rustic bowls used in tea ceremony, usually in a handmade not-quite-symmetric style, are wabi; the wear in the bowl's glaze from use and the nicks in the pottery, sometimes made deliberately, are sabi. Seasonality is also extremely important; a venue for tea ceremony is typically small and plain, with sparse decorations chosen to complement the season, and usually a picturesque view of a garden or the outdoors.
The tea used in tea ceremony is matcha (抹茶). During the ceremony, the host will add this tea powder to water, whisking vigorously to get a frothy consistency. The lurid green matcha is fairly bitter, so tea ceremony also includes one or two small confections (菓子 kashi); their sweetness offsets the bitterness of the tea, and the snacks too are chosen to complement the seasons. Both the tea and food are presented on seasonal serving ware that is as much a part of the experiences as the edibles.
There are tea houses across Japan where you can be a guest at a tea ceremony. The most common type of "informal" ceremony usually takes 30 minutes to an hour; a "formal" ceremony can take up to 4 hours, although it includes a much more substantial kaiseki meal. It might be worthwhile to seek out a ceremony that's performed at least partially in English, or hire a local guide, otherwise you may find the subtle details of the ceremony fairly inscrutable. While casual dress may be acceptable today at informal ceremonies, you should check if there's a dress code, and probably try to dress up a little anyway. Slacks or long skirts would certainly do nicely, but more formal ceremonies would call for a suit; subdued clothing is best to not detract from the ceremony.
The art of the way of the clan of… being made up
Thinking of squeezing in some ninja training while you're in Japan so you can amaze your friends and confound your enemies? While there are some places in Japan that offer training in ninjutsu, it's largely a modern gimmick for foreigners and Japanese alike.
Historical ninja acted as spies more often than assassins, and many were relatively untrained guerilla fighters. Ninjutsu was not a school of martial arts, but an amalgamation of simple but effective techniques that amounted to things like "getting a fake ID", "distracting people", "hiding", and "running away really well". The effectiveness of their techniques came in part because they were up against samurai whose codes of honor expected them to fight openly and fairly.
Well before modern times, period dramas had already romanticized ninja into a popular culture portrayal with many exaggerated abilities and attributes. The all-black outfits are a convention borrowed from bunraku and noh theater (where stagehands wear all black and are treated as "invisible" by the audience); real ninja would have dressed as civilians in a variety of plainclothes disguises. They did use weapons like shuriken throwing stars, caltrops, and irritating powder blown into the eyes, but only because these were simple improvised weapons that could effectively distract someone, usually so the ninja could escape. Any supernatural powers are pure fiction, believe it!
There are some schools today which claim to teach ninjutsu, but aside from ninjutsu never being a formalized discipline, modern schools' claims to authenticity (having only been founded since the 1970s) are dubious. However, if a school is teaching what you want to learn, the knowledge is as real as anything else, regardless of whether it's ancient or modern. If nothing else, taking a "ninja class" for an afternoon is a fun way to pass the time with a bit of Japanese pop culture.
With a long history of samurai and warring feudal lords, Japan developed many systems of martial arts. In the modern era, these methods of combat have been refined into competitive sports and training systems for self-improvement and health. Quite a few of these today are well-known and practiced all around the world.
Within each discipline, most have been repeatedly codified by influential teachers into a family tree of "schools" which each emphasize different elements or techniques, and are organized by a variety of national and international federations. Members of cooperating federations can typically attend practices at schools in Japan. If you're a newcomer to the sport, note that attending just a few practices isn't useful, as you have to train for many months or years to become proficient; instead, consider being a spectator at a competition or exhibition.
- Judo (柔道 jūdō, literally "the gentle way") focuses on grappling and throws, and was the first martial art to become a modern Olympic sport. There are many schools all over the country in which you can study it. If you are a member of a judo federation in any country, you can take part in a randori training at the Kodokan, the headquarters of the worldwide judo community.
- Karate (空手 karate, pron. kah-rah-teh not kuh-RAH-dee, literally "empty hand") is a striking martial art — using punches, kicks, and open-hand techniques — that is popular all over the world, and also has an influence on Western pop culture as can be seen in the Hollywood movie The Karate Kid (1984). There are schools all over the country in which you can study various styles. It will be featured at the Olympics for the first time in 2020.
- Kendo (剣道 kendō) is competitive swordfighting using bamboo or wooden swords, akin to fencing. While judo and karate are better known in much of the Western world, in Japan itself, kendo remains an integral part of modern Japanese culture, and is taught to students in all Japanese schools.
- Aikido (合氣道 aikidō, literally "the way to harmony with ki") is another grappling form, designed to prevent harm to both the defender and attacker. Due to the beliefs of its founder, it also emphasizes the personal development of its students.
- Jiu-jitsu (柔術 jūjutsu) is a method of close combat either against someone who's unarmed or using short weapons like knives, truncheons, and knuckledusters. Created during the Warring States Period from a combination of existing martial arts, jūjutsu is a practical method of defense using throws, joint-locking, and potentially lethal strikes. It eventually gave rise to many other codified derivatives including judo, aikido, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
- Kyūdō (弓道) is Japanese archery. It uses very tall traditional longbows, and stance and technique are an integral part of the practice. Some schools emphasize it as contemplative practice, while others practice it as a competitive sport.
- Origami (折り紙 "paper folding") is known around the world for the complex shapes that can be made, which have found many cutting-edge applications in science and mathematics, such as folding solar panels on spacecraft. Many Japanese schoolchildren have folded origami cranes to be placed at the Sadako Sasaki memorial in Hiroshima, and most Japanese probably know one or more ways to fold the wrapper of their chopsticks into a chopstick rest.
- Ikebana (生け花 "flower arrangement") is rather different to floral design in the West; rather than simply putting pretty flowers in a container, ikebana is more of an artistic expression, using a few carefully-chosen elements including leaves, stalks, and twigs to make a statement. Many young Japanese women practice it, as it's one of several arts seen to convey an air of sophistication.
- Calligraphy (書道 shodō) is practiced in many countries. Japanese calligraphy, like Chinese, uses ink brushes for writing and employs a variety of styles: semi-cursive styles look like flowing simplified versions of the characters, while artistic cursive versions often merely suggest the characters and are unreadable without quite a bit of practice.
- Bonsai (盆栽 "tray planting") is the art of cultivating small potted trees that imitate the size and proportions of full-size trees. This isn't done by using genetic "dwarf" species, but by carefully pruning the tree for decades (or even centuries) to create realistic miniature branches and leaves. As with many other Japanese art forms, bonsai typically eschews symmetry, and bonsai trees may be misshapen, grown atop a rock, cascading out of the pot, and even have dead branches and scarred trunks.
- Furoshiki (風呂敷) are wrapping cloths used to carry things. Over the years, the Japanese have figured out clever ways to wrap things of all shapes and sizes: small and large boxes, watermelons, wine bottles, long skinny objects, and more. Although disposable plastic and paper bags have largely displaced many of its uses, all it takes to revive this practical art is an appropriately-sized cloth (which you could find or make at home, or buy from any Japanese department store) and an instructional guide or video.
- Japan has a long tradition of bentō (弁当), boxed lunches made with a variety of dishes artfully arranged in a container, but for several decades many Japanese mothers have been making their kids' lunches into character bento (キャラ弁 kyaraben) and picture bento (おえかき弁) by decorating the food to look like animals, cartoon characters, and more. To some people, it's practically become a competition to out-decorate other mothers' bento. Japanese department stores sell bento boxes in many sizes and with various compartments, as well as dividers, accessories, and many specialized tools for shaping and decorating ingredients. You can take classes to learn how to prepare and pack bento, whether you want to learn some decorating tips or just how to pack a healthy lunch for a working adult.