Japanese Music Vocabulary explained

When people think of Japanese 音楽 (Ongaku – Music), they often think of two kinds. They are J-POP (Japanese pop music) and Japanese folk music.

I also believed in this stereotype, but when I moved to Japan, I discovered so much more than just these two genres. The Japanese music industry is just as modern and diverse as other countries. They even like listening to a large variety of foreign musicians too, such as Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande.

That’s not to say that the traditional music of Japan has died out in any way. Many people still continue to learn and perform with 和楽器 (Wagakki – Traditional Japanese instruments). You’d struggle to find a summer 祭り (Matsuri – Festival) that doesn’t have a 太鼓 (Taiko – Japanese drums) ensemble performing.

In this article we’re going to talk about what’s what in Japan’s music scene, while learning some Japanese vocabulary words at the same time.

Vocabulary terms for traditional Japanese instruments

Wagakki (Traditional Japanese instruments) are a core part of traditional Japanese music. These instruments come in many shapes and forms, so to better understand what makes Japan’s traditional music traditional, let’s talk about some of the more common wagakki.

  1. Taiko drums

    Taiko drums (太鼓) , as mentioned before, are large drums that can be played solo or in an ensemble. Played with (Bachi – Drumsticks), a large part of what makes a good Taiko drums performance is the way that the musicians move their bodies. Similar to a dance, the performance is choreographed down to the details.

    Watching a large 太鼓 ensemble move in perfect tandem is an incredible experience that everyone should see one day.

  2. Koto

    The national instrument of Japan, the Koto (   ) is a stringed instrument that is played lying on its side. There are many variations of the instrument, with differing numbers of strings and pitches available. The Koto can be played solo or in a group with a variety of instruments. They have actually been used in some western music before, appearing in the likes of David Bowie’s Moss Garden!

  3. Shakuhachi

    The Shakuhachi (  尺八 ) is a bamboo flute that was first created in China before it was brought to Japan in the 7th century. They were originally used by monks to help them meditate, but before long began to be used as an instrument in its own right. They can be used solo, but are commonly used to accompany 琴, as well as used in ジャズ (Jazu – Jazz) bands.

  4. Shamisen

    The Shamisen 三味線 (Three strings) is a three stringed instrument. They can be made in several different forms, but generally have a thin neck, square base and no frets. Known for their notorious difficulty, it’s said that no one can truly play the 三味線 to perfection. During the coronavirus, sales of the 三味線 hit a record low, so there has been a drive to revitalize the industry.

    Whilst 和楽器 are primarily used in traditional Japanese music, there are artists who try to use them in the modern music scene too. The best example of this would be 和楽器バンド (Wagakki bando). They are a band that use 和楽器 to create modern rock music, which has ended up creating their own unique style. They’ve proven themselves popular among both young and old, so definitely give them a listen!

Japanese vocabulary terms for music styles

So now that we’ve talked about some 和楽器, let’s talk about some of the types of music that they can be used in.

雅楽 (Gagaku – Traditional Japanese court music and dance) is a rather unique type of performance, even by Japan’s standards. A mixture of music from various Asian countries, it was performed at the Kyoto Imperial Palace during festivities. This music was performed with a large variety of instruments, including the 尺八 and 琴, and had numerous dancers appear alongside the musicians. It’s hard to describe due to just how unique the performance is, but performances can still be found online!

演歌 (Enka – Performance song) is a genre that is most easily compared to the American blues. Performed with a variety of instruments including the 琴, 三味線 and 太鼓 alongside Western 楽器 (Gakki – Instruments), these bluesy ballads are filled with emotion. The main themes behind these songs are love, heartbreak and nostalgia.

Japanese vocabulary terms for contemporary music

Modern Japanese music takes various forms, much like Western music. Whether it’s variations on an already existing genre, or making something more original, Japan has got it. Read on for a glimpse into some of the more popular genres that originated in Japan.

J-POP is one of those variations on a genre. But what’s the difference between J-POP and pop music? Musically, J-POP is quite similar to pop. The difference between the two is mostly in the image and marketing. J-POP artists focus on maintaining a 可愛い (Kawaii – Cute) image.

It’s this Kawaii image that they push in their advertising, attracting new fans. Of course, the music is good too, often sounding a little more quirky than regular pop!

Another variation is J-Rock, or Japanese rock. Whilst it’s called rock, the music can vary from being similar to J-POP to heavy music. The genre is very wide, with a lot of variety available. Some popular bands in this genre also sing primarily in English, or with a mix of English and Japanese. If you like to understand the lyrics being sung, make sure to look into some J-Rock artists!

Whilst not a genre in itself, ボーカロイド (Boocaroido – Vocaloid) are uniquely Japanese and something I want to tell you about. ボーカロイド is a singing voice synthesizer that allows users to create synthesized vocals to go with their music.

This software spawned a huge variety of music, becoming very mainstream and profitable. These synthesizable voices belong to ボーカロイド, that often have names and characters to go with them. The most famous example would be 初音ミク (Hatsune Miku). There’s a lot of variety in this subject, so be sure to check it out!

Get listening!

We’ve ran through some of the modern varieties of Japanese music as well as some of the traditional. What takes your interest? Regardless of the genre or sound, there’s plenty of resources out there on the internet to listen to, so get searching! My recommendations for Japanese artists are 和楽器バンド, きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ (Kyary Pamyu Pamyu) and WANIMA.

PS: you can use our free web app, VocabChat to record your own Japanese vocabulary and phrase lists.

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