Gagaku – Bugaku

In Japan in ancient times, a number of songs and singing styles such as Kagura, Yamato-Uta, and Kume-Uta existed, and these were also accompanied by simple dances. From approximately the 5th century, music and dances were brought to Japan from the ancient civilizations of countries such China and Korea at around the same time that Buddhist teachings and cultures were permeating the country. Gagaku, a fusion of these music and dances, was completed in its artistic form by about the 10th century, from whence it has been passed down from generation to generation under the patronage of the Imperial Family. The Japanese singing style and vocal arrangements for Gagaku are composed of advanced musical techniques, and Gagaku has not only contributed to the creation and development of modern-day music, but also has by itself the potential to develop in many aspects, as a global art form.

In addition to the Kuniburi-no-Utamai, which are native-style songs and dances based on the music of ancient Japan, including Kagura, Yamato-Mai, Azuma-Asobi, Kume-Mai, and Gosechi-no-Mai, songs and dances from continental Asia, such as Tōgaku from China, and Komagaku from Korea, were merged together during the Heian period in Japan to form vocal forms such as Saibara, and Rōei. There are three forms of performance of Gagaku, which are Kangen (Instrumental), Bugaku (dances and music), and Kayō (songs and chanted poetry). The instruments used include Japanese instruments, such as Wagon and Kagura-bue, and such foreign instruments as the Shō (mouthorgan), Hichiriki (oboe) and Fue (flute) as wind instruments, the (Japanese harp, or Koto), and Biwa (lute) as string instruments and the Kakko (drum), Taiko (drum), Shōko (Bronze gong) and San-no-Tsuzumi (hour-glass drum) as percussion.

Gagaku is performed at several court functions at the Imperial Palace, at State Dinners and on the occasion of the Spring and Autumn Garden Parties. In addition, in 1956, in order to open Gagaku to a wider cultural audience and wider cross section of the public, a bi-annual spring and autumn Gagaku recital was instituted by the Music Department of the Imperial Household. In the spring, cultural groups and resident diplomatic corps, and in the autumn, applicants through newspaper, radio and other media attend performances for three days at the Imperial Palace. In addition, the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the local government (and so on) request a bi-annual performance around the regions of Japan, and there is also a performance of Gagaku almost once a year at the National Theater of Japan.

In 2009, UNESCO placed Gagaku on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, which protects traditions, not places, from disappearing.

Bugaku (court dance and music) is the Japanese traditional dance that has been performed to select elites mostly in the Japanese imperial court, for over twelve hundred years. In this way, it has been known only to the nobility, although after World War II, the dance was opened to the public and has even toured around the world in 1959. The dance is marked by its slow, precise and regal movements. The dancers wear intricate traditional Buddhist costumes, which usually include equally beautiful masks. The music and dance pattern is often repeated several times. It is performed on a square platform, usually 6 yards by 6 yards.

Amaterasu, the sun goddess had hidden herself in a cave because she was hurt by her brother Susano-o‘s unacceptable behavior. Near the cave entrance, the goddess Ame-no-uzume, turned a tub over and started to dance on it in front of the worried assembly of gods. As Ame-no-uzume was half naked already, with clothes falling off, the gods started laughing loudly. When Amaterasu heard the commotion, she came out to see what was happening. Thus the world had sunlight again. The imperial family of Japan is said to have descended from Amaterasu and Ame-no-uzume is considered the patron goddess of music and dance. This story comes from Japanese Shinto mythology. It could be said to be the start of dance as entertainment for the gods. As Japanese emperors where descended from Amaterasu, royalty and divinity often are closely associated. When Buddhist culture came over to Japan from Korea and China in the seventh century, it brought dance-drama traditions that involved intricate costumes and processions. Bugaku court dance draws heavily from the Buddhist imported culture, but also incorporates many traditional Shinto aspects. These influences eventually mixed together and over the years were refined into something uniquely Japanese, bugaku.

Gagaku is the court music that goes beside the bugaku court dance. Tadamaro Ono is a palace musician whose family has been performing for the emperors of Japan for almost twelve hundred years. This makes him the thirty ninth generation in an unbroken family line of gagaku court musicians. Musicians have to be thoroughly involved with focused minds and bodies so they are engaged in the same way the dancers are. The traditions of gagaku and bugaku are the oldest known surviving court dance and music in the world. Other court dances/musics, including the original influences on bugaku, have long since died out. With all of the new, modern culture flourishing in Japan, one may be surprised that such an ancient and slow tradition has survived. Some people note that Japanese culture is ever accommodating and expanding. So while accepting new culture, Japanese people feel a sense of duty to keep such traditions alive.