A worms eye view of busy Shibuya crossing in Tokyo

The history of Japanese music

The history of music in Japan is rich and varied, from its traditional folk music to JPop’s global takeover. Here’s our overview of Japanese music and how it’s also been brought to an international audience through movies and video games.



Types of Japanese music:

Classical Japanese Music

Historically, Japanese folk music was strongly influenced by music from China, with some of its forms being imported from China more than a thousand years ago. Many popular Japanese musical instruments originated in China and were then adapted to meet local needs.

Traditional Japanese music

Traditional Japanese music usually refers to Japan’s historical folk music. Two forms are recognised as the oldest - shōmyō, or Buddhist chanting, and gagaku, or theatrical court music

Shōmyō is a ritual music sung in a Buddhist ceremony by a group of Buddhist monks – literally translated, the word ‘shōmyō’ combines the characters for ‘voice’ and ‘wisdom’.

Gagaku is the oldest traditional music in Japan and includes dances and songs in two styles – kigaku, which is instrumental music, and seigaku, a form of vocal music.

There are several Japanese dramatic forms in which music plays a significant role. The main ones are kabuki and noh. Kabuki is known for its highly stylised dancing and singing, together with its elaborate make-up (sported by a predominantly male cast).

Noh is a form of classical Japanese musical drama which has been performed since the 14th century. Noh is often based on tales from traditional literature, with a supernatural being transformed into human form as a hero narrating the story – usually involving a mask being worn.

Noh has been dubbed ‘Japanese opera’ and is a ‘chanted drama’, but the singing is dependent on a limited tonal range. The music has many blank spaces (ma) between the sounds; the negative blank spaces are in fact considered to be the heart of the music. The accompaniment is provided by a hayashi ensemble of three drummers and a flutist.

Instrumental Japanese music

An interesting feature of classical Japanese music is its sparse rhythm and absence of regular chords. All of the rhythms are ‘ma’-based and silence is an important part of the songs. The focus is on creating music that flows, in an attempt to mirror the behaviour of nature.

Japanese Music Instruments

The key instruments used to play Japanese music are:

  • Shamisen
  • Shakuhachi
  • Koto

The shamisen resembles a guitar, with a long, thin neck and a small rectangular body covered with skin. It has three strings, with the pitch adjusted by tuning pegs on the head, like a guitar or violin. It’s played with a large triangular plectrum that’s used to strike the strings.

Two women wearing traditional Japanese dress playing the Shamisen instrument

(Image via)

The shakuhachi is a flute made of bamboo that’s played by blowing on one end.

Sometimes called a ‘five-holed bamboo flute’ in English, it has four holes on the front, and one on the back, and is characterised by its distinctively poignant tone.

A collection of shakuhachi flutes

(Image via)

Historians think the koto was invented around the fifth to the third century BC in China, with the 13-stringed version coming to Japan during the Nara period (710-794).

This large, wooden instrument is played with picks worn on the fingers, and uses movable bridges placed under each string to change the pitch.

Of these traditional instruments, the koto is probably the most familiar and popular. During the New Year holidays ‘Haru no Umi,’ a duet with the shakuhachi, is often piped in as background music, and during the cherry blossom (sakura) season, the popular tune ‘Sakura, Sakura’ is performed on the koto.

Explore these different aspects of Japanese music culture with our shamisen, shakuhachi and koto tracks. 

Traditional Japanese Music Artists

Many of the popular musicians playing traditional Japanese music release albums and tour globally, bringing their music to a Western audience. For a great introduction, have a listen to:

The Yoshida Brothers

Their debut album sold over 100,000 copies and since then they’ve toured the US and recorded an album in Los Angeles, attracting international fans. Their music was also used in the TV commercial for Nintendo’s Wii. Their style pushes the shamisen’s sound from traditional music into jazz, experimental music, rock ‘n’ roll and pop.

The Nenes

The Nenes (‘sisters’ in Okinawan) are four women who sing Okinawan folk songs, performing on traditional instruments and in traditional costumes. Ryuichi Sakamoto recorded with them and took them on a European tour in the mid-1990s, which gave their music global recognition.


Kodō are one of the elite taiko drumming groups and have been a major force in the post-World War II revitalisation of taiko drumming, regularly touring in Japan and the United States. Their shows also include other traditional Japanese instruments, such as the shamisen, together with traditional dance and vocal performances.

Discover more taiko sounds from Audio Network's esteemed taiko drummer, Joji Hirota.  

Modern Japanese Music

Japan’s modern music scene encompasses a huge number of sub-cultures, covering everything from pop through to the more underground local ska and punk scenes.


JPop refers to Western-influenced Japanese pop music, which has, over time, become highly influential in its own right. As with pop in the West, however, it’s an umbrella that covers lots of different sounds. Whilst plenty of bands have the classic cutesy, ‘bubble-gum’ sound, others are more on the edgy, dance, r&b or funk spectrum. In common with Western pop stars, band members and singers such as Morning Musume, Arashi, Perfume, Scandal, and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (dubbed ‘Japan’s Lady Gaga’) attract legions of devoted fans and are trend setters for fashion and style.

Discover more J-Pop now:


Most JRock bands are guitar and drum-driven. One of the biggest, L’Arc-en-Ciel, have sold over 40 million records and were the first Japanese act to headline at Madison Square Garden. Sub-genre Visual Rock has a focus, as you’d expect, on how the band looks, with vibrant costumes, bright, flamboyant hair and make-up and a fair bit of drag. Visual Rock bands to check out include DIR EN GREY, the GazettE and X Japan.

Discover more J-Rock now:


Japanese electronic music has flourished both in Japan and abroad in recent years. Japanese artists such as Takako Minekawa, Fantastic Plastic Machine, and Kahimi Karie are creating ground-breaking beats.

Japanese music for film

Japanese composers, artists and music have been showcased in a variety of film genres, taking in everything from Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1’ (the 5,6,7,8’s giddy rockabilly ‘Whoo-Hoo-oo-oo-oo’) to Akira Ifukube’s scores for the Godzilla movies.

Here’s a selection of composers, genres and soundtracks that use Japanese music to its best effect.

Ryuichi Sakamoto

Perhaps the most famous Japanese film composer in the West is Ryuichi Sakamoto. The singer, songwriter, producer, activist and actor has collaborated with international artists as varied as David Sylvian and Youssou N’Dour and composed the music for the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Sakamoto’s film scoring career began with ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’, in which he also acted alongside David Bowie. As well as working on scores for Pedro Almodovar, Oliver Stone and Brian de Palma, Sakamoto won an Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy Award for the score he created for Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘The Last Emperor’. 

Isle of Dogs – Alexandre Desplat

Alexandre Desplat’s Oscar-nominated music for director Wes Anderson’s stop-motion adventure about an exiled pack of dogs and a young boy’s heroic journey has two environments to play off – the futuristic urban Japanese metropolis and the dogs’ exile, Trash Island.

Propelled by Anderson-esque idiosyncrasy, Desplat blends thunderous taiko drums and jazzy woodwinds with a double bass to add a spy motif (underscoring the film’s political intrigue) and a group of saxophones to embody the dogs’ barking.

Spirited Away

Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-winning animated coming of age fantasy ‘Spirited Away’ is heavily influenced by Japanese Shinto-Buddhist folklore. The score was composed and conducted by Joe Hisaishi and performed by the New Japan Philharmonic. The music is a blend of minimalist western classical music and the distinct sounds of Japanese classical. There are sentimental piano pieces (Sixth Stop), uplifting ballads (The Name of Life) and eastern string orchestrations (Dragon Boy).

Hisaishi’s skill is in bringing together the triumphant and uplifting with the melancholic and tragic, the mystical and fantastical with the unsettling. 

Need more music for film? We've got you covered:

Japanese music for video games

Japanese composers have been at the forefront of creating music for video games and are responsible for some of the most memorable soundtracks ever created. Here’s our pick of the top 5 you should name-drop.

1/ Koji Kondo

Kondo answered an ad for a sound designer posted by Nintendo in 1984, and has worked for the company ever since as a sound director and composer. A true maestro, you’ll recognise the earworms he created for the ‘Super Mario’ series, ‘Star Fox’ and the ‘Legend of Zelda’ series – his soundtrack for ‘Ocarina of Time’ often tops the charts of video game music picks.

2/ Junichi Masuda

Masuda heads up all the music for the ‘Pokemon’ franchise, from the very first Game Boy game to the world-dominating ‘Pokemon Go’. His music draws inspiration from the work of celebrated classical composers such as Stravinsky and Shostakovich, though he used the Super Mario series as a model of good video game composition.

3/ Nobuo Uematsu

Best known for scoring most of the titles in the ‘Final Fantasy’ series, Uematsu is sometimes referred to as ‘the John Williams of the video game world’ and has appeared five times in the top 20 of the annual Classic FM Hall of Fame. Uematsu’s influences are diverse, bringing together everything from stately classical symphonic pieces and heavy metal to prog rock, new age and techno-electronica and jazz. The intro to ‘One-Winged Angel’ from ‘Final Fantasy VII’ was inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’, while the lyrics were inspired by the medieval poetry on which Carl Orff based ‘Carmina Burana’.

4/ Yoko Shimomura

Perhaps the most famous female videogame composer, Shimomura has showcased a huge range of different musical styles in her soundtracks, most famously for the ‘Street Fighter II’ and ‘Kingdom Hearts’ series. Her compositions include rock, electronica, oriental, ambient, industrial, pop, symphonic, operatic and chiptune.

5/ Masato Nakamura

In his home country, Nakamura is most famous as a member of JPop band Dreams Come True, who have sold over 50 million CDs. But internationally, he’s best known as the composer for the iconic ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ and ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 2’.

Discover more music perfect for gaming:

Japanese Music Facts

Did you know that:

  • It used to be illegal to dance in Japan. The ‘Fueiho Law’, also known as ‘The Flashdance Law’ was passed just after World War II, making it illegal to dance inside music venues which didn’t have a certified ‘dancing licence’. The law has been lifted in recent years, in an attempt to be a bit more tourist-friendly
  • Japan boasts the largest pop group in the world. AKB48 features a rotating cast of over 130 members, who have their own theatre in Akihabara, where they perform nightly.
  • Japan also lays claim to the world’s shortest pop hit. The viral hit PPAP, aka Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen shot Japanese comedian Pikotaro into the Billboard Hot 100 – the first time in 26 years that a Japanese singer had made the US list
  • Despite their love of tech, the Japanese still love CDs – 85% of all music sales in Japan are CDs
  • And it’s illegal to sell a CD for under $25 – leading to a huge market in CD rental services

Where to download Japanese music

Looking for Japanese music? Audio Network’s Sounds of Japan showcases high quality, authentic music from shamisen-based rock to JPop, and delicate yet powerful Japanese instrumental performances.

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