Japan from the inside out

Music class

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 28, 2010

ALL THE BOYS had mixed emotions whenever we heard the sound of the upright piano rolling down the hall as the music teacher pushed it to our primary school classroom. Our initial reaction was delight because we would be spared some the rote drudgery of what passed for public school education even then. But in the back of our minds was the realization that we would be forced to sing some of the most dismal gloop ever put to music. The girls seemed to enjoy the act of singing more than we did, and they have more patience for that sort of thing, but they too must have been disappointed in the school songbooks.

Both the boys and the girls at the Yamagata Daihachi Primary School (P.S. #8) in Yamagata City appear to have more fun with their musical instruction, however. The school held a special class in traditional Japanese music for 91 sixth-graders last week. A local group of six amateur musicians performed on the shakuhachi and the so, and then divided the students into two groups for instruction.

Making a noise with a stringed instrument is easy, but they had trouble with the shakuhachi. Said 12-year-old Oka Fumika, “I play the trumpet and music for wind instruments, but the blowing techniques are different and very difficult.”

Here’s what it looked like:

The song they’re practicing is Sakura, Sakura (Cherry blossom), which all Japanese have long known by the time they reach that age. I’ve even heard some people suggest it would make a good compromise choice as national anthem to placate those Japanese republicans who dislike Kimi ga Yo. (The lyrics to the latter are a millennium old and were originally a love poem, but it’s now associated with the Imperial house.)

Here’s what Sakura, Sakura sounds like without its lyrics—performed on a chromatic harmonica!


To call that stringed instrument a koto is technically incorrect, as I understand it. A koto was originally something else and is written with a different kanji. The so has moveable bridges, while the similar kin has none. The report from Yamagata called it a so and specified that reading.

And to get linguistically carried away with myself, the Japanese have a different architectural term instead of bridge for the structure of traditional instruments. They use the kanji for column or post (柱), but pronounce it ji instead of hashira or chu.

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