Music and Culture as a Tool of Foreign Policy


The power of culture as a tool within international relations, seems to have been only recently rediscovered by Western scholars and diplomats. But in East Asia, culture played an important role in international relations between China, Japan, and Korea for centuries. For much of Japan’s history, Japan was integrated into the larger Sino-centered East Asian cultural sphere, but from the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, Japan turned to Western then American cultural-political models. At every step of this long development, music played a role in this alignment. Music served a crucial part in creating a common community, reforming Japan domestically and integrating it into international cultural spheres.

In late 5th century Japan, a group of progressive, continent-leaning elites came to power. They instituted reforms aimed at remaking the Japanese government and culture along international standards. Authors such as Holcombe and Hoyt Long have illustrated ways in which this new, more Sino-centered elite culture superceded native religious and literary forms. Music also helped to refurbish Japanese traditions and assert connections to the mainland. Gigaku and later gagaku, musical forms imported from China and Korea, became the court music of Japan during the 7th to the 8th centuries and into the Nara period. These combined changes put Japan firmly into the larger East Asian cultural community.

These new cultural imports worked to more closely associate Japan with the continent politically, economically, and culturally, but the new culture also became a focal point in domestic political struggles. Cultural imports like music were introduced to Japan by the progressives aligned with Shõ toku Taishi. Following his death in 622 A.D., a power struggle erupted and in 643 Shõ toku’s son, a political rival to the nativist Soga clan, was assassinated. But two years later the progressives struck back, staging a coup and killing Iruka, the Soga heir, at a reception in front of Korean emissaries. The assassination brought the progressive, continent-leaning officials back to power. It also demonstrated their triumph and the victory of Sino-centered culture, on an international stage, in front of their Korean guests.

The next time Japanese elites consciously adopted musical styles it was to more closely integrate itself with the West. Following the Meiji Revolution, Japanese leaders adopted Western music forms like classical music and military music. Western music began to accompany imperial ceremonies and functions. Western-style military marches marked the moves of an expanding military, and classical music became a part of the educational system. It was the state’s reforms in areas like education and the military, as well its efforts to Westernize its culture, including music that helped Japan integrate itself into the Western-dominated world. It was also this foundation that helped Japan prepare for its next realignment.

The development of Western music education, laid the basis for appreciation of other Western musical forms, so-called “lower” forms of music like jazz, pop, rockabilly, and rock n roll. With this, as Atkins has noted, Japan turned away from Euro-centric models and began to look towards America. With advances in transportation and communication technology, music became less a controllable elite cultural commodity.

The shamisen was reportedly imported to Japan from the Ryukyu Kingdom to Sakai in the mid-17th century. Supposedly it only had two strings when a man saw a vision of the Hase Kannon who inspired him to add another string.

The importation of Western musical forms will probably follow similar patterns of importation, then mutation. Of course this process is not unique to Japan, as musical forms and culture is exchanged and transformed around the world. An odd end to this may be that Tokyo is now considered one of the best places to buy old vinyl records. Japan has become the treasure-trove of the world’s recent musical past, forming a common musical heritage that spans across the Pacific. Music is inseparable from culture, and Japan’s use of music in the past has shown the ways in which it can create a common culture, work to realign the nation internationally and alter it domestically.


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