Traditional Japanese Folk Music: Origins and Evolution

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Traditional Japanese Folk Music has been around for centuries and has undergone many changes throughout its history. In this blog post, we’ll explore the origins and evolution of this genre of music.

Traditional Japanese Folk Music: Origins

Traditional Japanese Folk Music has been around for centuries, with its origins dating back to the Edo period. Folk music was originally performed by farmers and other rural folk as a way to pass the time and entertain themselves. The music was often passed down from generation to generation, and sometimes, songs would be written about current events or news.

What is folk music?

Folk music is the traditional music of a people or nation. Folk music is usually handed down orally from one generation to the next and is often specific to a region or locality. It is often part of the oral tradition and tells the stories of a people or nation. Folk music may also be written down, but it is usually intended to be sung or played by anyone who knows the tune, regardless of their social status.

What are the origins of folk music in Japan?

Japanese folk music, sometimes called min’yō, is the traditional music of the Japanese people. It encompasses a wide variety of styles and traditions, from folk songs and dances to religious music and theatrical pieces.

The origins of Japanese folk music can be traced back to the early 12th century, when the first recorded folk songs were written down. These songs were composed and performed by peasants and farmers, and they reflected the daily life and work of these people. Over time, these songs began to be collected and performed by traveling musicians, who would often add their own twists to the tunes.

As Japanese culture changed and developed over the centuries, so did its folk music. New instruments were introduced, new styles developed, and new influences from other cultures were absorbed. Today, Japanese folk music is still an important part of the country’s musical heritage, enjoyed by both locals and visitors alike.

Traditional Japanese Folk Music: Evolution

Traditional Japanese folk music has its origins in the ancient imperial court music of the Nara and Heian periods. This music was called gagaku, and it was performed by court musicians who were called hayashi. The music of the gagaku ensemble was based on Chinese and Korean court music, and it was very different from the folk music of the common people.

How has folk music evolved in Japan?

Folk music in Japan has evolved over the centuries, incorporating various influences from other cultures. The earliest known examples of folk music in Japan date back to the 11th century, when songs and dances were performed for religious ceremonies or as entertainment at courtly gatherings.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), the popularity of folk music grew, with regional styles developing in different parts of the country. Many of these regional styles remain popular today, such as min’yō from northern Japan and shakuhachi music from the south.

In recent years, traditional Japanese folk music has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity, with many young people becoming interested in learning about and performing these traditional songs and dances.

Folk songs in Japan are often related to the seasons, and many of them are about love. Some popular folk songs include:

-“Aka Tombo” (“The Red Dragonfly”), a song about a young girl’s first love
-“Hotaru no Hikari” (“The Light of the Fireflies”), a song about two lovers meeting by chance
-“Kokiriko Bushi”, a song about the harvesting of rice
-“Murasaki no Koibito” (“The Purple Lover”), a song about unrequited love
-” Sakura ” (“Cherry Blossoms”), a song about the ephemeral nature of beauty
-” Tsuki no Sabaku ” (“The Desert Moon”), a song about longing for one’s home

Traditional Japanese Folk Music: Today

Traditional Japanese folk music, also known as min’yō, has a long and complex history. The music is rooted in the daily lives and experiences of the Japanese people. It is said that the first folk songs were created over 1,000 years ago. Today, traditional folk music is still an important part of Japanese culture.

How is folk music preserved in Japan today?

The answer to this question may seem obvious at first – through events, recordings, and broadcasts. But upon closer inspection, there are far more creative and innovative ways in which folk music is kept alive in Japan today.

One such way is through the work of Kinshi Tsuruta. A renowned composer, Tsuruta has been acknowledged as one of the key figures in the Preservation and Reconstruction of Japanese Folk Music (Minzoku Ongaku Hyōgenshū). In 1985, he received the National Award for Culture (Bunka Kunshō) from the Japanese government for his significant contribution to the field.

Tsuruta’s work involves transcribing folk songs from old field recordings, many of which date back to the early 1900s. These recordings were made by ethnographers conducting fieldwork throughout Japan. Tsuruta meticulously notates these songs, often consulting with the original performers or their relatives in order to create accurate transcriptions. In this way, he has helped to preserve a large corpus of folk music that might otherwise have been lost.

Another method of preservation is through collaborative composition. This approach was undertaken by Tsugaru shamisen player Michio Miyagi and folk singer Yachiyo Uchiyama in 1968. The pair travelled across Japan collecting folk songs, which they would then rearrange and compose new arrangements for. This approach helped to ensure that traditional songs would be passed down to new generations in a way that was both creative and respectful of the originals.

With so many methods of preservation available, it’s clear that there is a great deal of effort being made to keep traditional Japanese folk music alive today. From transcribing old recordings to composing new arrangements, there are a number of ways in which this musical tradition is being kept alive for future generations to enjoy.

There are many traditional folk music festivals held throughout Japan. The most famous is the Gion Matsuri, which takes place in Kyoto in July and features a large procession of floats called yamaboko. Other popular festivals include the Takayama Matsuri, the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri, and the Akita Kanto Matsuri.

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