The Evolution of Japanese Songwriting in Western Genres

Conference paper abstract

Since Japan was opened to Western influence in the late 19th century, the Japanese have adopted many Western musical genres, prompting The Rough Guide to World Music to deride this music as “watered-down Western pop set to Japanese lyrics.” Contrary to such dismissal, Japanese composers have had to theorize and adapt in composing music in Western genres precisely because of the differences in the Japanese language. While stress accents in European languages define meter and rhythm, Japanese lacks such accents; with syllables spoken evenly, rhythms can become repetitive. Furthermore, Japanese contains pitch accents; if the melody veers from them, the words can become unintelligible. Traditional Japanese song incorporates these factors through melisma, heterophony, and free rhythm, which are often not compatible with Western genres. Hence, the Japanese engaged in a learning process to set texts syllabically in metered music.

This paper outlines this evolution of Japanese songwriting in Western idioms through analyses of the text-music interrelationship and of the theoretical essays of the day. Early translations of “Amazing Grace” and “Auld Lang Syne” (1881) preserved phrasing and used the 7-5 or 8-6 syllable scheme of Japanese poetry but were not sensitive to accent placement—an aspect improved upon by Taki (“Kōjo no tsuki,” 1901). Yamada (1922) noted the importance of pitch accents in melody, whose significance in traditional Japanese song was confirmed by Kanematsu (1938) and Kindaichi (1943); meanwhile, Takahashi (1932) developed theories on Japanese language and rhythm. By the 1930s, Japanese text-setting technique had settled into a pattern that persisted into 1950s enka and 1970s rock. My study will demonstrate these continuities in style from traditional to Western-style musics over several decades.

Noriko Manabe nmanabe at gc dot cuny dot edu