The Small Print
Faces & Places
The Goods
Tech Know
Cars & Bikes
Arts & Entertainment
Japan Beat
The Agenda
Dining Out
Table Talk
Local Flavors
International Dining
Restaurant Review
Bar Review
The Last Word
Photo of the Week
About Us
Distribution Points

775: The M-List
774: Compatriotic Spirit
773: The Naked Truth
770-71: It Ainít Easy Being Green
769: íTwas the Night Before Christmas in Japan
768: Japanese Lessons
766: Bad Credit
765: Chew on this
764: Red faced
763: Down and Out in Tokyo
761: Kicking the bucket
760: Thumbing It
759: Fixing the System
757: Smoke rings
756: Stalking the Predators
755: Banding Together
753: No Competition
752: Sex and This City
751: Letís Shogi
750: The Yasukuni Follies
748: Loud and Clear
747: Iíll be back
746: Raiders of the lost SMAP
744: Magical Mystery Tour
743: Murder in Lotus Land
742: Stereotypes íRí Us
740: The Mother of all Mothers
739: Crimes of Fashion
738: The Hafu Dad Brigade
737: The Green Team
736: Fight Club
735: The Paper Chase
734: The Wind-Up Writer Chronicle
733: Food For Thought?
732: Home and Away
731: The 2008 Nazi Olympics
730: The Two-Wheel Revolution
729: Gimme a Break
728: Power Play
727: Dying for a doctor
726: Footloose Revisited
725: Little Fish, Bigger Pond
724: Japanís Peace Monster
723: Language Abuse
722: Scumbusters ďRĒ Us
721: First Action Hiro
720: The Return of Asashoryu
718-719: A Time to Give
717: My Homelessness Dilemma
716: The 30 Percent Solution
715: Past Imperfect
714: Killing the Kimono
713: The trouble with Tibbets
712: Surfing the Shinto-net
711: Falling Stars
710: Macho Man
709: Bad Impressions
708: Bloodsport
707: Our Last Word
706: Anonymocracy
705: The Air Up There
704: Read the Signs
703: The sky should not be the limit
702: My Year Zero Proposal
701: The Joys of Freeganism
700: Prada for the People
699: The Parasite Country
698: Washed up in Tokyo
697: Birthingís Not for Babies
696: On the Handlebars of a Dilemma
695: My So-Called Poverty
694: Get Out the Vote
693: The Ishihara Mystery
691: Let it Flow
690: Cafť Culture
689: Oyaji Fashionistas
688: The Democracy of the Dysfunctional
687: Polite Disregard
686: Venting on Climate Change
685: Silent No Longer
684: To protect and serve?
683: Save the Sanshin building!
682: In the Realm of the Pond God
681: The Open Society and Its Enemies
680: Five-Ring Circus
679: Topic of Cancer
678: Pet Peeves
677: Why I am Banned in Japan
676: A long way to the top
675: Euro-vision
674: Childís play
673: Why I did it
672: I Love Japan
671: Running Crazy
670: Planet Apology
669: A peek behind the curtain
668: Opening Up
666: Pitching a fit
665: All wrapped up
664: Yule Rules
663: Field of Dreams
662: Save Lives, not Face
661: Why Do I Buy a Ticket?
660: Dying for a Nap
659: We, the jury
658: Grain of truth
657: Remembering The Maverick
656: A Rose by any Other Name
655: Heir today, gone tomorrow
654: Manhandled on the Metro
653: The bodyguards of the road
652: Separate but equal
651: Going for the gold
650: Being Audrey Hepburn
649: Not Sitting Pretty
648: Get Smart
647: Through foreign eyes
646: A failing grade in cute
644: Club Lands
643: Sayonara, Hide
642: The JET SET
641: What, me worry?
640: The Da Vinci Load
639: Making Waves
638: Final Cut
637: Resave the whales
636: Soccer Silliness
635: I, Smoker
634: The Ultimate Loss
633: Shoot the Messengers
632: The second sex
631: A Maverick Moves On
630: The curse of Baron Mitsui
629: Waiting for Heidi
628: Memoirs of a fake celebrant
627: Take it Outside
626: Wa? What wa?
625: A well-drawn life
624: St. Patrick the abducted
623: Bend over
622: The (Un)Late show
621: Oil spill
620: Ice Follies
619: Pride Goeth
618: Lost roles
617: Saying it with Cookies
616: Wrestling with foreigners
614-615: Blank Pages
613: Fretting Over Freeters
612: Farewell, Sensei
611: Sympathy for the wild ones
610: Back in Black
609: Out of many, one
608: Youth culture
607: The Russians are coming!
606: Meddle Detector
605: Tokyo, Mon amour
604: The Wailing Wall
603: Getting Abreast of Cancer
602: Willing Ally
601: New war,same story
600: The Big Chill
599: The Gray Zone
598: Jail break
597: Extremely Lost in Translation
596: Wounded Despot
595: History Lessons
594: Valhalla of the Imperial Army
592: Culture crash
591: Complaints Department
590: What lies beneath
589: Strange Games
588: Junk Science
587: The day the invaders came
586: The Test that Drove Me Crazy
585: Smile and say “lesbian”
584: Keep Article 9
583: The Great Divide
582: An ad for all seasons
581: Killing the Golden Goose
580: The other half
579: Give me back my bye-bye
578: Araki in Focus
577: Head out on the Highway
576: The hate that won't go away
575: Here's the beef
574: Yukking it up
573: Squatter’s rights and wrongs
572: The Trouble with Yokoso
571: Fire from the sky
570: Invasion of the gairaigo
569: Good company
568: Find Out What it Means To Me
567: Field of schemes
566: In the Name of Justice
565: Winner or Loser?
564: Staying Foreign
563: The Scare after Tomorrow
561-562: The Spirit of Things
560: War for remembrance
559: Storm damage
558: The Meaning of Godzilla
557: Who’s left to listen?
556: Paying respects
555: Gender Trouble
554: Coming clean at last
553: Go our own way
552: Hits of yesteryear
551: Heir apparel
550: Personal Reflections
549: Nuclear Reactions
548: Article of faith
547: Martyrs for the firm
546: A different anniversary
545: We, the jury
544: Wrongs & rights
543: Moore or less
542: Fair games
541: Developmentally challenged

By Janet Pocorobba

Who’s left to listen?

Traditional Japanese music is in danger of dying a slow death

Janet Pocorobba is a writer living in Boston

On returning to Japan this autumn, I see that traditional performance has not changed. I went to a recital recently of nagauta, a style of music originated in 18th-century kabuki theater, because its subtle rhythms and use of ma (space), its aching vocals and crisp shamisen solos are what I have been studying for the past eight years—and the reason I keep coming back to Japan.

The stage at the Nihonbashi Gekijo is set with the same black-trimmed gold screen whose warm, earthy glow contrasts with the cool sky-blue backdrop. Two tiers of red carpet offset the formal black kimonos of the performers, the honeyed wood of the shamisens and the tangerine shirabe of the drums in a feast that is visual as well as aural. But the faces onstage are mostly crinkled with age, and the expressions bored and lifeless even as they reach feverish climaxes, as if they are disconnected from the sounds they are creating. The audience, too, is disappointing: a 400-seat hall sprinkled with a handful of friends and relatives who leave once their loved one is off stage, hurrying to the gakuya or lobby to shower them with money and gifts. Everyone here today is part of an inner circle; there is no general public. Word does not get around. Hogaku (traditional music) is not popular. It is old, boring, slow. “Muzukashii,” the Japanese tell me.

What seems to be muzukashii is any desire to move this musical form beyond its secret sanctuary of doting deshi (apprentices), all-powerful masters, and the endless money required to rise through the ranks. On the stage, the students, mere amateurs, stand out from the professionals by their robes. Their inexperience is highlighted and their mistakes scrutinized under the hot lights. The pressure is enormous. Forced to memorize the music, they tremble visibly. Next to them, the pros are confident and assured. For them, it is a good day’s work, possibly thousands of dollars earned on this one recital, where their students will pay handsomely for the privilege to perform with them. Without amateurs, like latter-day patrons, the pros could not support themselves. And what does the amateur get out of it? The status of association. “I am in the Kineya ryu, I belong to so-and-so.” The privilege of belonging, or if they’re lucky, being “adopted” with a stage name, into an elite family tradition. And what of the amateur with no money? Forget about it.

An old woman is playing lead shamisen. She is a student, I can see by her pale blue robe. I estimate she’s been playing most of her adult life. She has an ease with the shamisen, a mellowness in her playing achieved only over time. Maybe she could have gone pro. Who knows? But here she is at her student recital, and I ask myself, Why does this person spend over $10,000 for 20 minutes in the limelight? Why continue expensive lessons that she will have to pay for even if she decides to go on vacation or gets sick and cannot attend? Why does she practice alone, year after year, song after song? Who, out there, is listening?
It must be something inside that makes her feel good. Elegant. Poised. Beautiful. Like this stage, like these kimono and these delicate and beautiful instruments and the heartbreaking sounds they make. The music humanizes her, expands her. Or maybe I am projecting. Maybe she has too much time and money on her hands. She probably she doesn’t think about it all. Too muzukashii.

And why do I study it? Because my instructor is an unusually open-minded woman who teaches Japanese music to foreigners. They’re more interested, she says. What she means is more passionate. They respond to what they hear as music, not as empty ritual or a status-seeking gesture. They sigh at a final cadence, thrill at a solo, sometimes cannot hold their limbs still as they take in the new scales and rhythms, the endless spaces between the sounds.

And I find, again, on return, that my teacher is alone in her efforts to not only expand hogaku in the world, but to make it alive again, not stuffed and mounted on a stage, a symbol of Japanese-ness that has no connection to its audience. She is trying to breathe life into it. I am one of the few who have been resuscitated by her efforts, and it has enriched my life.

I wonder how many young people today, here and abroad, will take an interest in this music. Not many, if the insular scene I witnessed today is any indication. Japanese music will remain a closed club, a secret society, and these performances nothing more than self-indulgent, childish pageants, mere masturbatory exercises, unless more people open the door to let in some fresh air. It is music, after all. When there is no one left to play, it will be gone, its sounds irretrievable, leaving only a deafening silence, a permanent ma.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.