Japan from the inside out

Exquisite music

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 14, 2011

MORE than 800 years ago, in 1196, the Buddhist priest Hozan Kengyo was sent from the Myo-on-ji Jorakuin temple in what is now Shiga to attend the opening of a new temple in today’s Hioki, Kagoshima. Hozan was proficient in the biwa, and he taught 12 pieces of religious music to the local priests. It was performed with eight instruments, including the biwa, flute, taiko drum, and shell horns.

The name of the new temple was the Nakashima Jorakuin, and the music Hozan brought with him was known as Myo-on Junigaku (myo-on means exquisite music). The Japanese biwa is derived from the lute by way of the Chinese pipa, but several different types have been developed in Japan since then. This temple is said to be the origin of the Satsuma biwa, which was used not only for performing music, but also for the mental and moral training of the local samurai. In the past, only blind priests could serve at this temple, and many of the chief priests were renowned for their musical talent.

Nakashima Jorakuin is affiliated with the Tendai sect, at one time the mainstream Buddhist sect in Japan and at its zenith when the temple was founded. Tendai was once associated with the Imperial court, and the Jodo and Nichiren sects are derived from it. A class of warrior-monks emerged from the sect after the 12th century, which applied pressure to the Imperial court and took sides in military and political disputes to defend what it considered to be temple interests. That ended when the warlord Oda Nobunaga almost completely destroyed their headquarters in 1571.

The main temple of Nakashima Jorakuin was moved to a location near the Kagoshima Castle in 1619. With the early Meiji-period anti-Buddhist movement to disestablish Buddhism and replace it with Shinto, and the damage suffered during American bombing missions in World War II, the temple was again moved, this time to Miyazaki. What remains on the original site in Hioki was the subsidiary temple, which has been reduced to one building and the graves of the chief priests. Kagoshima has designated it a prefectural historical site.

Kagoshima also designated the 12 pieces of myo-on junigaku music as an intangible cultural treasure of the prefecture in 1971. The repertoire was once performed by blind priests throughout southern Kyushu, but it is now heard only once a year and only at Nakashima Jorakuin, accompanied by readings of sutras unique to the temple.

That performance always falls on 12 October. Ten musician-priests came from Kagoshima and Miyazaki this year to play. Said a sixth-grade boy who attended:

“I think it’s amazing when I wonder how the people of the past, who couldn’t record music, were able to memorize a performance of nearly an hour.”

Here’s a two-minute YouTube clip from last year’s performance of music that has changed little, if at all, from a millennium ago.

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