GAGAKU - and its history

The word gagaku did not mean specific music, but originally referred to a authentic and refined type of music and dance. In China, however, since the Han dynasty (around B.C.200) the characters of gagaku have come to restrictly refer to the religious music and dance performed at the mausoleums of the emperors or at the shrines of the deified Confusius.

Japanese gagaku originates from different styles of the East and Southeast Asian music and dance that were imported from China and the Korean Peninsula from A.D.700 to A.D.800. So it has a different style from the that of China, though both are called gagaku. But togaku, that is, the Chinese music and dance in the Tang dynasty, occupied the chief position among such imported styles. Chinese music seems to have reached one of the most prosperous peaks from the end of the 6th century to the beginning of the 7th century in the Tang dynasty. At that time the traditional Chinese music was developped highly, and moreover many kinds of music were introduced from the neighbouring countries connected by the Silk Road, India, Persia and the Southeast Asian countries, which were accepted favorably. Indeed, the Tang dynasty is often thought as an international age of music.

Togaku should be devided into the following four categories:

1, gagaku (Yayue)- religious music and dance since the Han dynasty.

2, zokugaku (Suyue)ミ traditional, artistic music of the Chinese court.

3, kogaku (Huyue)- music of neibouring countries connected by the Silk Road and West Asian countries.

4, sangaku (Sanyue)-music created by common people.

During the reign of Emperor Xuan-zong (685-762) zokugaku and kogaku were fused into a new type of music, kozokugaku. Togaku , which was introduced into Japan, is said to consist of the pieces of this new music, kozokugaku and sangaku, because the most of the instruments of gagaku that are used today were played in old times in kozokugaku, and many old documents allude to such composition of togaku.

After the reception of togaku and many other imported styles of music and dance they were preserved and promoted in terms of the national policy, chiefly in Gagaku-ryo ( a music institute in the Court set up in 701 in Hakuho era) and at influential temples.

The Capital moved from Nara to Nagaoka near Kyoto in 784 , and then to Kyoto in 794, which opened the Heian era (794-1192). One of the most imporatnt characters of Japanese culture of the Heian era is the Japanization of foreign culutures imported from China and the Korean Peninsula, as was the case in the field of music and dance. Through the process of various selection and reformations centering around togaku a new Japanese gagaku came into existence. We do not know the exact time and details of the birth of the Japanese gagaku, but it could infer that gagaku had been reformed during the ninth century and come to its present form by the middle of the tenth century at least.


The tastes of the nobility influenced this reform so greatly that the instruments and sound were carefully selected in order to meet their tastes, and accordingly the organization was much reduced in size.

And a new classification of the pieces of gagaku was established in the process of reformation. All the pieces were distributed either to Saho-togaku or to Uho-komagaku. These two types of music and dance form a contrast with each other in every respect; for exemple, in the formation of instruments, the color of costumes, and the style of performance.

In each piece the music was made abstract and the dance avoided extereme dynamism and concreteness. Such transformation made it possible for many people to perform gagaku often as ceremony music in the Court, temples and shrines, or as music at a banquet .

The aristocrats in the Heian era competed with each other in their art of gagaku performance, and afterwards gagaku became one of their indispensable accomplishments. A social occasion when they display their art to each other was called asobi.

During this period, the Gagaku-ryo (a music institute which trained only specialists of lower social class) evolved into the new institute , the gakuso which was a music academy established at the Court where courtiers and officials could also participate.