Chindon’ya (チンドン屋) are companies of street musicians engaged primarily in advertising for shops, stores, cabarets, and game parlors. Their development is closely linked to the economic and cultural development of Japan since the end of the nineteenth century.
Although once a common sight in urban Japan, the number of chindon’ya has greatly decreased since the late 1960s. Recently, however, some signs of a new interest in this nearly obsolete profession have appeared.
Their profile has changed somewhat; job offers from rural communities are increasing, and engagements as main attractions in large hotels and at festivals have begun to be booked. The music has even influenced some pop music groups, who are taking up the chindon’ya repertory.
This according to “Chindon’ya today: Japanese street performers in commercial advertising” by Ingrid Fritsch (Asian ethnology LX/1  49–78; RILM Abstracts 2001-24360).
Above and below, chindon’ya in action.
The Japanese rap pioneer and activist ECD (Ishida Yoshinori, 石田義則) was neither the earliest nor most commercially successful rapper, and he would have eschewed calling himself a leader of any protest group; nonetheless, he was what Gramsci would have called an organic intellectual of the working class.
The frankness of his music, writing, and performances touched his audiences at an affective level, connecting them to the movements in which he participated. His life embodied the worlds of hip-hop, contentious politics, and the working class, and his songs convey a vivid account of his life, reflecting his personal and political concerns as well as the ambience of street protests.
ECD was a key figure in the development of the underground hip-hop scene, organizing events that allowed it to take root and to be lifted into commercial viability. He was on the front lines of several Japanese social movements—anti-Iraq War, anti-nuclear power, anti-racist, pro-democracy, and anti-militarization. He wrote protest anthems, inspired Sprechchor, performed at protests, and helped to establish a new mode of participatory performance that engaged protesters more fully. His sheer presence at demonstrations, constant and reliable, energized and reassured protesters.
This according to “‘It’s our turn to be heard’: The life and legacy of rapper-activist ECD (1960–2018)” by Noriko Manabe (The Asia-Pacific journal: Japan focus XVI/6 [March 2018]).
Today would have been ECD’s 60th birthday! Below, a live performance.
Ryūkyūan kumi wudui (組踊, Japanese kumi odori) uses a variety of codified vocal techniques to identify the gender and social class of each character. Degrees of musicality, variation in timbre, and pitch inflection are all understood as emblematic of particular character types.
These vocal techniques are constructed within Ryūkyūan society with reference to the Ryūkyūan language, class system, and gender relationships. Many parallels can be drawn between the ways vocal identities are constructed in kumi wudui vocal culture and in other world theater traditions.
This according to “Listening to the voice in kumiudui: Representations of social class and gender through speech, song, and prosody” by Matt Gillan (Asian music XLIX/1 [winter–spring 2018] pp. 4–33).
Below, some examples of kumi wudui vocal types.
In August 2017 Bloomsbury launched 33 1/3 global, a series of short music-based books related to but independent from their series 33 1/3. The new series brings the focus to music throughout the world, starting with Supercell’s “Supercell” featuring Hatsune Miku by Keisuke Yamada, in the subseries 33 1/3 Japan.
The lead singer on Supercell’s eponymous first album is Hatsune Miku (初音ミク), a Vocaloid character created by Crypton Future Media with voice synthesizers. A virtual superstar, over 100,000 songs, uploaded mostly by fans, are attributed to her. By the time Supercell was released in March 2009, the group’s Vocaloid works were already well-known to fans.
This book explores the Vocaloid and DTM (desktop music) phenomena through the lenses of media and fan studies, looking closely at online social media platforms, the new technology for composing, avid fans of the Vocaloid character, and these fans’ performative practices. It provides a sense of how interactive new media and an empowered fan base combine to engage in the creation processes and enhance the circulation of DTM works.
Below, Hatsune Miku in action.
Japanese fashion, theater, and music played significant roles in David Bowie’s pioneering career.
The Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto devised some of Bowie’s most iconic stage outfits, and in the 1960s the singer studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, a UK performance artist who was influenced by kabuki theater with its exaggerated gestures, elaborate costumes and makeup, and onnagata actors—men playing female roles.
This training with Kemp inspired Bowie as he explored ideas of masculinity, exoticism, and alienation. The inspiration extended to the musical realm as well: on Moss garden from Heroes (1977) Bowie plays a Japanese koto; It’s no game (no. 1) from Scary monsters (and super creeps) (1980) features Japanese vocals; and the instrumental B-side Crystal Japan (1980) was released as a single in Japan and featured in a sake commercial.
This according to “David Bowie’s love affair with Japanese style” by Tessa Wong, Anna Jones, and Yuko Kato (BBC news 12 January 2016).
Today would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday! Above, Yamamoto’s Tokyo pop design for Bowie; below, It’s no game (no. 1).
BONUS: That sake ad.
In the eiri-kyōgenbon (illustrated editions of kabuki plot synopses) of the Genroku reign (1688–1704), evidence is found for the representation of exotic animals on the kabuki stage: tigers and elephants, regarded as Chinese animals, in plays of the Edo tradition, as fierce opponents of the protagonist; and peacocks in the Kamigata (Kyōto-Ōsaka) style, in kaichō scenes (the unveiling of a Buddhist image).
It is not clear whether stuffed prop animals were always used or if actors portrayed the animals; it seems certain that real animals were not used.
This according to “元禄歌舞伎に登場する動物” (Animals in Genroku kabuki) by 鎌倉 恵子 (Kamakura Keiko), an article included in Kabuki: Changes and prospects—International Symposium on the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (Tōkyō: Tōkyō Kokuritsu Bunkazai Kenkyūjo/National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo, 1998, pp. 135–47).
Above, Bandō Mitsugorō I as a samurai subduing a tiger; below, a modern-day kabuki dragon.
In the late 19th century the new Japanese government chose European models for economic and political systems; it also chose European music as its official standard.
European musicians were brought to Japan, and in 1879 Franz Eckert (above) arrived in response to Japan’s request to the German navy for a kapellmeister. As a conductor for the Japanese navy and teacher at military and civilian music schools, he was among the most influential European musicians in Japan in the 1800s.
Eckert is widely considered the composer of Japan’s national anthem, Kimi ga yo, though he maintained that he merely arranged an old Japanese melody.
This according to “German military musicians in Japan during the early Meiji Era (since 1868)” by Wolfgang Suppan and Wilhelm Baethge (Journal of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles III  pp. 13-32). Below, Kimi ga yo as it was sung by Koyanagi Yuki and the audience when Japan played Trinidad and Tobago in 2006.
Related article: The Sultan’s bagpipes
An account by the German physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716) of meetings in 1691 with the shōgun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646–1709) evinces examples of exoticism on both sides.
Each man was curious about the other’s culture, but the situation was unbalanced. The visitor was in a position to gain a fairly objective view of the world of his host, although the situation was far too restrictive to allow in-depth research.
On the other hand, while the shōgun could order his guests to perform for his entertainment—to dance, sing, and so on—he did not know whether or not the information that he gained thereby was reliable. For example, when Kaempfer complied with the order to sing a song and was subsequently asked for a translation of the text, he responded that it expressed his deep wish for the health and prosperity of the shōgun and his family.
This according to “Exoticism and multi-emics: Reflections upon an earliest record of culture contact between Japan and Europe” by Osamu Yamaguchi, an essay included in Music cultures in interaction: Cases between Asia and Europe (Tōkyō: Academia Music, 1994, pp. 243–248).
Above, a version of the map that Kaempfer brought back from Japan in 1692 (click to enlarge); below, the opening movement of Manzai raku (Ten thousand years of music), an example of the bugaku genre that was flourishing in Japanese courts at the time.
Related article: 17th-century Persian music