Japan in the early 1940s was a very strange place. The country was engaged in “total war” against three countries to which it owed much of its civilization, both ancient (China) and modern (the U.S. and the U.K), using a combination of ultramodern military industry and an ideology of culture that was equal parts anthropology and fantasy. Thus, it should be no surprise that at the height of the country’s military expansion in Asia and the Pacific, an organization calling itself the International Cultural Council (Kokusai Bunka Shinkōkai) produced a set of LPs documenting the traditional music of the Japanese home islands. Originally produced in five volumes of a dozen 78s each, and recorded over the span of five years by ethnomusicologists Tanabe Hisao and Machida Yoshiaki, the series attempted to document performances of shakuhachi, koto, shamisen, gagaku, festival music, religious music, theatrical music, and folk music with roots in the early modern Tokugawa period (1600-1886) or earlier. This was actually one of several projects attempting to preserve pre-opening Japanese culture and place it in the context of the rest of Asia and the world, but the only one which appears to have survived the end of World War II, thanks in no small part to the efforts of western Japan experts Beata Sirota Gordon and Donald Richie.
The third of a projected five CDs, this release includes a variety of koto music from the two major schools (Ikuta-ryū and Yamada-ryū), as well as shamisen music from the jōruri (puppet) and kabuki theatrical traditions. The recordings were of the highest quality, as were the performances, although the casual listener may find it difficult at first to hear this excellence through the surface noise, which was minimized but not removed in the digital restoration by Allen Evans. The English liner notes by Dr. Terauchi (an accomplished scholar of traditional Japanese music specializing in gagaku) provide some musical and historical context, as well as brief descriptions for each cut; the Japanese notes are significantly more complete, however. Listeners with little knowledge of Japanese traditional music may want to augment the notes with more in-depth sources, such as William Malm’s Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (Kodansha, 2000) or the volume of the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music on East Asia.
Unfortunately, due to the short playing time of 78 RPM discs (less than four minutes per side), most of the recordings represent excerpts from or condensations of longer pieces. The classic koto piece “Rokudan no shirabe,” for example, a theme-and-variations piece very familiar to western listeners, is condensed to a bit over three minutes; seven to 10 minutes is more typical. For the late 19th century sung poem “Mikuni no homare,” on the other hand, the compilers chose to present only the instrumental interlude, leaving out the two verses in which the singer extols the young Emperor Meiji and his new government. Pieces that are normally short, such as the jōruri song “Matsu no hagoromo,” are also removed from their complete performance context, diluting or eliminating the emotional strength that comes from a full performance. In short, this is a disc for specialists and enthusiasts, not for the casual listener. For the former, however, this is a priceless contribution, providing a rare window into pre-war, and in some cases pre-modern, Japanese music.