Music: Music and Religion in Japan

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Authors: Kishibe Shigeo and Ogi Mitsuo
Editor: Lindsay Jones
Date: 2005
From: Encyclopedia of Religion(Vol. 9. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,475 words

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Traditionally, religious music in Japan consisted of songs and dances that were performed as offerings to various gods.Page 6300  |  Top of Article Songs and dances also served to work performers into trances in kamiasobi (singing songs and dancing for gods) in order to call a god or gods into attendance. During the Tumulus period (third to seventh century CE), songs and dances were performed by virgins consecrated to deities, continuing a tradition of shamanistic music from the Yayoi period (fourth century BCE to third century CE). Such performances were accompanied by koto (a long four- or eight-stringed zither) and tsuzumi (a hand-beaten drum). These instruments appear in clay figures of consecrated virgins and the songs and dances are described in several ancient texts, including Kojiki (712 CE), Nihonshoki (720 CE), and Fudoki (first half of the eighth century). The songs incorporated into these works were probably sung for feasts, funerals, and similar occasions.

Kagura (music of the gods) refers to the music and dance used in Shintō ceremonies. Kagura, called kamiasobi in old times, originated in the song and dance of ancient religious services. Kagura can be divided into the two forms: mikagura and okagura (satokagura). Mikagura is performed at the imperial palace, whereas okagura is performed at local shrines. Mikagura originated in kinkashinen (religious feasts), which were held in Seishodo Palace during the reign of Emperor Seiwa (r. 858–876) of the Heian era. Singers were accompanied by a type of koto (probably a wagon, a long six-stringed zither). In the reign of the Emperor Ichijyo (r. 986–1011), mikagura was performed in the Naishidokoro (Kashikodokoro) Palace to the accompaniment of kagurabue (a bamboo transverse flute), hichiriki (a double-reed pipe), and wagon.

Mikagura performers sang several types of songs, including: (1) niwabiuta (songs of the garden bonfire), consisting of chants of niwabi and ajimesahō; (2) torimonouta (songs of holding hands for dance), consisting of sakaki, mitegura, tsue, sasa, yumi, tachi, hoko, hisago, kazura, and karakami; (3) saibaraburi (songs of saibara), which are folk songs collected from various regions and which includes forms known as ajime, oosaibari, kosaibari, senzai, and hayauta; (4) hoshiuta (songs of stars); and (5) zōka (songs of various kinds), including akaboshi, tokuzeniko, yuuzukuru, hirume, yutate, kamiage and asakura, sonokoma, hetsuiasobi, and sakadono. The chant, sung in slow tempo, is rich in melismatic style. Singers were divided into two groups called motokata, which faced the shrine from the left, and suekata, which faced the shrine from the right. Each one of the principal singers, called ondō, beat a shakubyōshi (a wooden clapper). The ninjyō (a male dancer) performed in the evening at the small shrine in Kashikodokoro Palace with the emperor in attendance.

Okagura has been performed at shrines during folk ceremonies since the modern period. There are several forms of okagura: mikokagura (dance of a maiden in the service of a shrine); izumokagura (dances using mats, bells, sacred trees, swords, and other objects with mythical significance); isekagura, which consists of yudateshinji (sprinkling hot water of an iron pot) and dances illustrating various stories; and shishikagura (dances with lion's mask). In ōmotokagura (worship of ancestors called Ōmoto), which is performed in Shimane prefecture, a spiritualistic male medium works himself into a trance and reports the oracle of the god concerning that year's harvest.

Some shamanistic practices persist among shamans called itako (Aomori prefecture) and yuta (Amami Island and Okinawa). Here the spirit of the dead possesses a miko (female shaman) and speaks through her in simple chanting.

The authentic music of Chinese Confucian ceremonies was never performed in Japan, but the spirit of Confucianism can be found in the music of the ch'in (a long seven-stringed zither), an instrument favored by the intelligentsia interested in Chinese philosophy and literature during the Edo period (1603–1867).

When Buddhism was introduced from Kudara on the Korean peninsula by King Kinmē in the early sixth century, dances called gigaku, which originated in China, were performed in order to dedicate temples to the Buddha. The masked characters of gigaku performed to the accompaniment of a yokobue (a bamboo transverse flute), a shōban (a gong), and ten yōko (hand drums hung at waists).

Kenzuishi and Kentoshi, Japanese envoys to Sui and Tang dynasty China, introduced Buddhist chanting (shōmyō) and gagaku (court music and dance) to Japan. In 752, to celebrate the completion of a colossal bronze statue of Vairocana Buddha at Tōdaiji, the principal national temple in Nara, a magnificent Buddhist service was held. A thousand or more monks sang shikahōyō, composed of four Buddhist chants (bonnon, shakujyō, bai, and sange), and performances of gagaku, gigaku, and other types of music and dance were presented. Eighteen types of instruments, gigaku masks, and a number of the costumes that were used in this service have been preserved in the Shōsōin (the treasure house of Tōdaiji) in Nara. In 861, mushataie (another type of Buddhist service) was held in Tōdaiji to celebrate the completion of repair work on the head of the Vairocana Buddha, which had been damaged during an earthquake. On a stage in front of the Daibutsuden (the large building housing the statue of Vairocana Buddha) gagaku and bonnbai (a form of shōmyō) were performed, and Buddhist chanting called narashōmyō or nantoshōmyō was conducted in several Nara temples.

When in the early years of the ninth century the Tendai and Shingon sects were introduced by the monks Saichō, Ennin, and Kūkai from Tang dynasty China, shōmyō was newly reformulated as the tendaishōmyō and shingonshōmyō. The goenembutsu—repeating the nembutsu (chanting of the name of Amida/Amitabha Buddha) in five kinds of voice—that Ennin brought to Japan from China was performed as inzēnembutsu (drawing voice nembutsu) on Mount Hie, the headquarters of the Tendai sect. The fudannembutsu (nembutsu ceremony) was developed by the monk Sōō in the Mudōji temple and handed down by the monks Sengan and Genshin, who also developed a form of chant praising the Buddha called wasan. In addition, Shōrinin, which the monk Jakugen set up in Ōhara (Kyoto), and Raigoin, founded byPage 6301  |  Top of Article the monk Ryōnin in Ōhara, served as shōmyō fundamental schools. Ryōnin contributed to the reunification of tendaishōmyō, which had split into branches after Ennin. Gyozan shōmyō rokkanjyō, a book expounding the theoretical and practical principles of the music, was edited by the monk Kekan, a pupil of Ryōnin. Shōmyōfyojinshū, a work edited by the monk Tanchi, established the basis of modern shōmyō by applying the musical theory of gagaku. The monk Kanchō established the basis for shingonshōmyō, although this style later developed into several schools, including ninna-jisōōinryū, nakanokawadaijyōshōninryū, and daigoryū.

Various Buddhist sects that were opened to membership from the wider public were formed during the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Hōnen, the founder of the Jōdo sect, emphasized the importance of the nembutsu: "Namu Amida Butsu." Ippen, founder of the Ji sect (a branch of Jōdo), propagated nembutsu through the odori-nembutsu (dancing nembutsu). The forms of chanting practiced by the Jōdo, Jyōdo-shin (founded by Shinran, a pupil of Hōnen), and the Ji sects were influenced by Tendai Buddhism. On the other hand, the chants of the Rinzai and Sōtō Zen sects, newly transmitted from China by Ēsai and Dōgen respectively, were influenced by Chinese practices.

The general term for Buddhist chanting is shōmyō, or bonbai. Shōmyō texts can be classified into three types based on the language used: Sanskrit, Chinese, or Japanese. Bongosan are Sanskrit chants. Several types of chants are performed using classical Chinese (kangosan). Chinese-language chants include bai and kada (verse chants praising a blessing of Buddha); nyoraibai (a tathagata chant); gobai (a later chant); sōrēkada (all-praising chant); ekōkada (chant to hold a memorial service); sange (verse chant performed while scattering flowers); bonnon (verse chant for a memorial service before the principal image of Buddha); shakujyō (verse chant involving a priest's staff); and sange (chant to repent sins). Japanese-language chants include wasan (verse chant praising a blessing of Buddha); saimon (prose chant repaying Buddha or the founder of a sect); hyōbyaku (prose chant explaining the purpose of a Buddhist service); kyōshaku (prose chant explaining the content of a sūtra); kōshiki (prose chant praising the Buddha), and rongi (prose chant summarizing content of a sūtra).

Bongosan texts are written in Chinese characters that yield phonetic approximations of the Sanskrit. Kangosan is a system of chanting Chinese texts according to their kan reading (i.e., according to the Japanese equivalents of the sounds of the Chinese graphs). Wasan consists of Chinese texts translated into Japanese.

Shōmyō influenced various forms of chanting directly or indirectly. Kōshiki and Rongi, forms of narrative shōmyō, musically influenced Heikyoku (the recitation of the Tale of the Heike). Musical terms associated with shōmyō include shojyū (the lower set of notes), sanjyū (the upper set of notes), chūon (the middle set of notes), sashigoe (the chanting of syllables smoothly), shiragoe (chanting in conversational style), and yōkyoku (the chanting of Nō dramas). Shōmyō also includes sashi (chanting in rhythm as speech), sanjyū (the opening style), yōkyoku (the chanting of Nō dramas), and jyōruri (a dramatic narrative chant). Jyōruri was originally the recitation of the romance of Minamoto Yoshitsune (a military commander) and the princess Jyōrurihime, chanted to time kept by tapping a fan or by biwa (a four-stringed lute) accompaniment. Jyōruri was accompanied by the shamisen (a three-stringed plucked lute) after that instrument was introduced to Japan from the Ryukyu Islands in the sixteenth century. This style was later adapted to the puppet theater.

Another chant form called fushidansekkyō was developed from sekkyō (sermons or discourses). Such sermons were chanted in singsong tones in order to more easily educate the people. Iterant chanters and performers also recited sekkyōbushi (a parable or story of karmic destiny). These popular performers used sasara (a scraper), kane (a small gong), and kakko (a small horizontally-held drum). During the Edo period, itinerant troupes performed sekkyōbushi with puppets.

During the Heian period (794–1185), gagaku and shōmyō were adapted to Japanese styles. In the court, saibara (folk songs collected from various regions) were performed to the accompaniment of the instruments used in gagaku, including ryūteki (a bamboo transverse flute), hichiriki (a double-reed pipe), shō (an wind instrument with seventeen bamboo pipes), (a long thirteen-stringed zither), biwa, and shakubyōshi (wooden clappers). The court chant known as rōei (chanting a Chinese and Japanese poem) was accompanied by ryūteki, hichiriki, and shō in a free rhythm.

During the Heian period, imayō (modern chanting or songs of the present age) were performed by asobime. Asobime or asobi were itinerant female singers and dancers, sometimes associated with prostitution. Kugutsume were similar performers who used puppets beginning in the middle of the Heian era. The retired emperor Go Shirakawa (1127–1192) and his vassals were taught imayō by asobime. This is remarkable in that members of the highest elite apprenticed themselves to gypsy-like women. The asobime practice of singing imayō was held to be an efficacious means of achieving enlightenment. Go Shirakawa compiled Ryōjinhishō, an anthology of zōgē (various chants) and oral instructions on imayō. There were broadly several kinds of songs: imayō in the narrow sense; hōmonka (songs influenced by Buddhist chanting); kamiuta (songs of the kami), chōka (long chants), and koyanagi (free-form chants). These were sometimes performed to the accompaniment of a fan beat or a hand drum. According to the Ryōjinhishō, Go Shirakawa received twelve years of training in imayō from Otomae, an asobime from Aohaka in Mino province. Imayō chanted by monks to the accompaniment of (the zither used in gagaku) in temples were called etenrakuimayō or etenrakuutaimono.

In the late Muromachi era (mid-sixteenth century), the monk Kenjyun of Zendō temple in northern Kyushu developed tsukushisō, a solo chant performed while accompanying oneself on the . Yatsuhashi Kengyo (a high-ranking blindPage 6302  |  Top of Article performer) reformed tsukushisō into sōkyoku (koto music). In the Edo period, sōkyoku consisted of kumiuta sung to the accompaniment of .

During the Kamakura period, the fukeshakuhachi (a vertical bamboo flute) was played as part of the training of monks called komusō of Fukeshū, one of the Chinese Zen sects. In the Edo period the Tokugawa shogunate authorized Fukeshū and made use of komusō as secret agents, who toured the country during their training.

Heikyoku was a narrative form of vocal music performed by biwahōshi, blind monks who performed with the biwa. They chanted the military epic Heike monogatari, describing the famous history of the Heike (one of two great political families of twelfth-century Japan). Another group of blind biwa-playing monks were jijinmōsō in Kyushu. Jijinmōsō performed mōsōbiwa (a genre of biwa music) as they visited individual houses to calm the violent dokōjin (gods of the earth) and pray for bountiful harvests.

Most songs were sung in unison, with occasional use of the intervals of the fourth or fifth separating two voice parts moving in parallel. The scale, consisting of twelve tones, varied according to the period and the genre. Generally, intervallic skips of the fourth and fifth characterize the melodic pattern. The singing could be either melismatic in free rhythm, or it could consist of one tone sung in metric rhythm. Noteworthy is the fact that the melodic structure of shōmyō influenced other forms of Japanese music. For example, both Heikyoku and the singing in Nō drama were influenced by chant forms.

The notation of Buddhist chants falls into three categories. The oldest is called ko hakase (old hakase; musical notation), which indicates the melody with marks representing the four Chinese tonal accents. The second system, called go-on hakase (five-tone hakase), is represented by short vertical and horizontal bars, one for each letter of the text, showing five tones. The newest category of chant notation, meyasu hakase (literally, "hakase for easy understanding"), presents the melodic line in more detail by drawing curved lines in addition to the marks for tone pitches. This system resembles the neumic system of medieval Europe. Meyasu hakase is preserved in a manuscript dated 1311 written by Ryōnin, the founder of this chant notation.

A comparison between Buddhist music in Japan and other Asian countries reveals both similarities and differences. A chanting style based on one tone and the use of percussion instruments is common to all, but the use of the double-reed pipe and trumpet is not found in Japan. Vocalization in deep voice is also common to many Asian Buddhist societies. The biggest difference is in regard to melody. Chinese chants, more popular in character than Japanese chants, tended to adapt the melodies of folk and popular music. By contrast, Japanese chant has preserved the older style of Buddhist music.



Giesen, Walter. Zur Geschichte des Buddhistisches Ritualgesangs in Japan. Kassel, Germany, 1977.

Harich-schneider, Eta. A History of Japanese Music. Oxford, 1973.

Hirano Kenji, Kamisango Sukeyasu, and Gamo Satoaki, eds. Nihon Ongaku Daijiten (Encyclopedia of Japanese Music). Tokyo, 1989.

Kikkawa Eishi. Kamigami no ongaku (Music of Shintō). Toshiba TW–8004–7. Tokyo, 1976. Sound recording in Japanese, with English summary.

Kikkawa Eishi, Kindaichi Haruhiko, Koizumi Fumio, and Yokomichi Mario, eds. Nihon Koten Ongaku Taikei (An Outline of Japanese Classical Music), vols. 1–8. Tokyo, 1982.

Malm, William P. Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. New ed. Tokyo, 2000. Originally published in 1959.



Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Shigeo, Kishibe, and Ogi Mitsuo. "Music: Music and Religion in Japan." Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Lindsay Jones, 2nd ed., vol. 9, Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pp. 6299-6302. Gale In Context: U.S. History, Accessed 16 Sept. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424502150