Tokyo’s Thriving Classical Music Culture

Classical music is not dying out. When I hear the opposite statement being expressed, I have to stifle a sigh — not a reaction of blind optimism, but of my acknowledgment of active organizations successfully bringing great, living music to large and diverse audiences.


One of the most common criticisms of classical music is that it’s too stuffy or exclusive. Being “different” or “exclusive” in classical music is simply an illusion: isn’t exclusivity a part of any culture or practice? And truly, classical music is no less welcoming than jazz, musical theatre, indie, folk, or even popular music.


With all forms of music, there is a certain pride that comes with familiarity and being educated in the field. This holds true even with pop music. American society is so inundated with it that we’re expected to know names and songs of certain pop celebrities, and we almost couldn’t run away if we wanted. As a result, we’re often judged harshly if we happen to be clueless. The feeling of exclusivity in any field occurs mostly because people have gotten excited enough about the subject that they have chosen to invest their time and money in it. Consequently, they’ve built up a certain pride in the attainment of knowledge or skill, and some handle it quietly and humbly while others may express themselves differently.


Actually, people are much more receptive to classical music than most think. For instance, all our greatest films would be horribly, painfully awkward without their soundtracks. Remember this video of the Star Wars Throne Room scene, minus John Williams?


And I do consider film music a type of classical music, but more about that in a future blog post.


So again, classical music is very much alive. That being said, the music is brought to people by various organizations, so it’s always important to acknowledge specific organizations and cultures that manage it well. In my experience thus far of traveling and observing how classical music is received in various cultures, I was most impressed with Tokyo’s overall receptiveness to and integration of classical music, while keeping in mind that this genre of music is a fairly recent import to Japan.


I’ve been to Japan twice: the first time in 2014 for only four days, and the second during the summer of 2015, when I spent five weeks in Tokyo. Both times, I was awed by the accessibility of classical music and at the respect the people have for music. I’ve been quite fascinated by this, and it’s a topic that repeatedly gets brought up in conversation. It’s about time I wrote a post about all the things that shocked me so much about how music (namely, classical music and cultural music) is presented in Japanese life, with further research to clarify my impressions. While classical music is a thriving entity in Tokyo culture, I believe that the main catalyst for this is the built-in importance of meaningful music in everyday life, whether it’s culturally-significant folk music or classical (some of which really has become as culturally significant as traditional melodies which originated in Japan). While most of this blog post is about classical music, I will also discuss how music in a broader sense is brought to the people.


  1. 1 City, 8 Full-Time Orchestras


Tokyo is saturated with classical music. In just this city, there are EIGHT professional, full-time orchestras that total over 1,200 concerts a year: NHK Symphony Orchestra, Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo City Philharmonic, Japan Philharmonic, New Japan Philharmonic, Tokyo Philharmonic, and Tokyo Symphony. Though the names are incredibly similar, each organization is separate and unique. In all of Japan, there are 1,600 orchestras (professional and amateur) — all in a country with a land area that’s smaller than the state of California but holds a population that’s about 40% of the United States! To put things into perspective, the United States would need about 38,000 orchestras to equal that percentage.


Additionally, these concerts are very well-attended. The halls are usually 85-95% full, and the demographic ranges widely in age with many young people in the audience. The dress code is fairly casual, ticket prices are accessible from US $30-120, and evening concerts usually begin at 7 pm. The Japanese audiences are very respectful and quiet from my experience, which isn’t surprising at all considering the widespread societal aversion to acting out. Programming is also pretty standard. In the 10 concerts I attended in five weeks, I didn’t hear anything past Bartok and Stravinsky. Bruckner is interestingly noted to sell out concerts very well (read more here). (This suited me just fine since I fell in love with the composer after hearing Herbert Blomstedt conduct Bruckner 9 with the LA Phil in a performance that was nothing short of transcendent). Program books are dense and packed with separate flyers for future concerts. Also, most of the orchestra members are Japanese. On the other hand, most of the conductors were European, even while it seems to be quite a trendy thing for Japanese men to want to be conductors.


  1. The history of western music in Japan and Japan’s current music education


How did Western classical music become such a huge part of Japanese culture? I was curious and did a bit of research to find out the origins of this cross-cultural exchange.


Japanese art music originates with shōmyou Buddhist chants, which gradually developed into festival music, , and kabuki theater music. The Tokugawa Shogunate of the Edo period (1603-1867) in Japanese history closed the country’s doors to other nations, cutting off trade of goods, ideas, religion, and art. Japan remained this way for two centuries from 1641-1854, when the United States and Japan signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, which reopened Japan to foreigners. This treaty ushered in the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), during which Japan emerged as a competitive modernized nation. International trade and influence rushed in, and Japan’s leaders attempted to modernize by emulating Western culture, practices, and thought — including music. Minzoku ongaku, or folk music, was gradually displaced by Western classical music, which they simply referred to as ongaku (“music”).


Public school music education began to show this development: Isawa Shūji, a member of a Meiji education search team, and Luther Whiting Mason, a Boston music teacher, teamed up to organize music education in Japan. In 1880, Mason traveled to Japan to create a music curriculum and to begin training teachers. The first children’s songbook, the Shōgaku shōkashū (1881), combined Western pieces that sounded pentatonic (such as “The Bluebells of Scotland,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and Stephen Foster’s songs) with Japanese words and included songs that Mason composed. The teacher-training school that Mason began became the Tokyo School of Music in 1890, and today, the location is occupied by the music department of the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music in Ueno Park, Tokyo. Though the university now offers traditional Japanese music courses like koto, samisen, noh, and Japanese music history, until the late 20th century, music education was completely Western. Children’s education of Japanese music was only presented in middle-school music appreciation courses around ten years after the conclusion of WWII. 20th century youth and workers’ choruses only performed Western repertoire and learned Western-style singing. As worldwide appreciation for cultural identity rose in the mid-20th century, Japanese music education turned back to acknowledge its traditional roots and found ways to combine the Western “robust volume of such functional, harmonized tunes [with the] quieter sounds of older, traditional music” by using the developed Westernized public-school choral tradition for an increased repertoire that now included Japanese music.


Nowadays, in public schools, music education begins at age 6 and lasts as a mandatory class until age 15 (during elementary and junior high schools). In elementary schools, music is taught as an independent subject either by the regular class teacher or by a specialized music teacher. Students learn to play recorders and sing. In junior high schools, music is taught as a separate subject, and starting from junior high, the students learn how to play traditional Japanese instruments as well. At this point in their education, 100% of students in both public and private schools have been exposed to western classical music. Music classes become optional electives at the senior high school levels, and ensembles like bands, choirs, orchestra, etc. congregate in sessions after normal school hours. The normal Japanese education timeline is: 6 years in elementary school (sho-gakko), 3 years in junior high school (chu-gakko), and 3 years in senior high school (koto-gakko).


Further schooling at a college level is subject to a performance audition and aural skills test. All music students are expected to have basic competence in piano playing. Most courses in music schools cover western classical music subjects; however, in order to receive certification as school music teachers in Japan, students are required to take courses in Japanese traditional and folk music in addition to the general music curriculum. The music education program leading to graduation with the license to teach at schools in Japan must include: solfege (fixed-do, unlike most American institutions that teach movable-do), vocal and instrumental ensemble (choir, instrumental ensemble, piano accompanying), conducting, music theory, composition and arrangement, Western music history, and Japanese traditional and folk music — in addition to general education degree requirements. While all these requirements don’t necessarily guarantee great results, the high standard for music educators definitely is a heartening find.


  1. Music in everyday life: train stations and station buildings


Though much of Tokyo’s music is Western in origin, it is distributed and presented by Japanese means. It is incorporated into daily life through the city’s train stations, shopping centers and markets, individual stores, TV commercials and shows, and even household appliances (the last two will be elaborated on in a future blog post).


The train stations in Tokyo are absolutely fascinating because 1) their relative cleanliness despite the insane number of commuters, 2) the amazing shopping for gifts, clothes (Uniqlo!!!), and FOOD, and 3) the MUSIC. The music — the tunes played in the station stores as well as the train melodies to indicate train arrival or departure — always gives me a reason to smile (and forget, for a few seconds, the swelteringly humid heat of Japan in the summer).


A compilation of the JR Line melodies, if you’re curious about the sounds:


If you listen to the train music, the immediate realization is that instead of generic tones and beeps, there are real, composed melodies. It was at the Oimachi Station – Rinkai Line where I first realized that there is a reason for every train melody in every station. When I first arrived at this station, I heard the happily familiar sounds of Vivaldi’s “Spring” from Four Seasons. The Oimachi area houses the Shiki Theatre Company [], the crown jewel of theatrical achievement in Japan. The meaning of Shiki? “Four Seasons.”


This drove me to research the reasons for other station melodies. At Ebisu Station – Yamanote Line, which is named after Yebisu beer and is the stop for the Yebisu Beer Museum, the train melody is “The Third Man Theme” from the classic film The Third Man. This song was used in a very famous Ebisu beer commercial and has since been associated with the company:


The original theme can be found here:


At Kamata Station – Tohoku Line, which was once a prominent spot for the film industry, you will hear this:


It is the theme from the Kamata Film Studio’s movie Kamata Koshin-kyoku (“Fall Guy”), which won Picture of the Year at the 1982 Japan Academy Prize ceremony.


Original here:



Maihama Station – Chiba Line is the stop for Tokyo Disneyland, so naturally…”It’s a Small World” is its theme song:



[More tunes and their background in this incredibly informative article]


Other tunes are new compositions. Musicians like Takahito Sakurai work to create musical miniatures (7 seconds!) to calm the commuters and even to reduce the overall noise level of train stations. In the approximately 300 melodies that he has written, which are played in about 30 of Japan’s train stations, he searches for “presence and energy” in about the tempo of “a human heartbeat” — which I would assume  Sakurai is also inspired by Japanese music traditions, including the sound of the ancient stringed koto and Zen Buddhist aesthetics, like the sound of water dripping on a rock. He views his work as another side of Japanese miniaturization in art, in the tradition of haikus, food presentation, toys, and capsule hotels. After the tune is written, he runs it through a computerized sound-analysis test to see how the music would mix with the sounds of a passing train; if the results are positive, the music is ready for use.


Sakurai’s songs, as well as the other melodies used in stations, have garnered a significant following, which shows that the train melodies are an important and valued part of Japanese culture. Albums and ringtones of train melody collections have been made to a very receptive market, and even an alarm clock equipped with these melodies has been manufactured, only to sell out of all 2,000 units priced at 5,800 yen within the first month on the market in 2002. (If you’re curious, the alarm clocks are available here.)


When I realized that the personality and culture of each stop is revealed through such a subtle but concrete way, it made me think twice about the impersonal feeling of a big city and the impression of impersonality in Japanese people. From a musical perspective, I am thrilled to see music being used in such a culturally relevant way, whether it’s classical melodies, film music, folk music, or newly-composed tunes.


On a much darker note, suicide has been a serious concern in Japan, with 2015 reports stating that an average of 65 people commit suicide every day — though the number has been dropping significantly in recent years. A number of these suicides happen at train stations, but there are several known methods of prevention. Barriers, automatic gates, TV screens showing images of nature and the ocean, and soothing blue light (which have been shown to decrease the suicide rate by 84%) are used to combat station suicides. In addition, there is a hefty fee for the families of suicide victims for causing delays in the train systems and also to discourage people from committing suicide. The most intriguing technique to me, however, is related to music and musical understanding. I was told that the keys of the station melodies are chosen based on the character and history of the stop, based on the music’s “color” and corresponding emotional response. In relation to the suicide topic, brighter major keys are used in stations with a history of suicide.


The buildings of Tokyo’s train stations are quite impressive. You can do some of the best shopping for food, clothes, and gifts right in many of the big stations. One of these huge stations is Shinjuku Station, and one of my best memories was when I was wandering through the station’s crowded underground market, looking for an afternoon snack. When I noticed that the beautiful strains of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony were floating above the noise and chaos of the crowd, I had to stop in my tracks and appreciate the initiative and the music, which somehow still seemed so fitting despite the packed environment. I might have been shocked to hear classical music in this setting, but this is actually the norm in many stores in Tokyo.


Soon I will continue this subject in one more blog post with a few more points – including how Japan takes music to the toilet, quite literally! Feel free to let me know your thoughts, observations, or suggestions via email or in the comments. I would be happy to discuss!