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Japanese Music from Smithsonian Folkways

Inhabitants of the islands that make up current-day Japan have performed music since prehistoric times. Archaeological evidence as far back as the Paleolithic era demonstrates the use of several musical instruments that accompanied songs and dances in religious ceremonies and daily entertainment. Several distinct genres developed by the tenth century, including, gagaku (court music) and syômyô (shômyo- Buddhist chant). Shinto music, kagura, which was already established, was transmitted steadily during this period. The medieval period (1192-1573) was characterized by the coexistence of an imperial court and shogunates. In the pre-modern period (1573-1867), the genres that are now most popular were born: kabuki (highly stylized theatre), bunraku (puppet theatre); chamber music for syamisen or shamisen (a three-stringed plucked lute), kotô (drums), kokyu (a three- or four-stringed bowed lute), and ryuteki (a bamboo transverse flute). The medieval genres were also performed and continued to be transmitted. Listen to examples of these styles from the Smithsonian Folkways collection.