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  • 音楽 Ongaku, Onkyō/Music, Sound
  • Hosokawa Shūhei (bio)


Ongaku (music) is a word that underwent a great transformation in the process of modernization. This article will illustrate a lexical history of this word in order to grasp how the conceptualization of what the British ethnomusicologist John Blacking has termed “humanly organized sound” differed between pre-modern and modern Japan.

The word consists of two characters, 音 (on or oto, sound) and 楽 (gaku, a species of human sound expression). It is documented in one of the oldest books in Japanese, History and Geography of the Hitachi Region (Hitachi no kuni fūdoki), compiled in 713. Since the Japanese phonetic scripts had not yet been invented, the text was written exclusively in Chinese ideograms, resulting in endless controversies among scholars on how to read it. While one annotator reads the two characters in question as utamai (song and dancing), another chooses mononone (sound of things, sound of instruments).1 Both of these are vernacular words concerning sound.

Like many non-European cultures, before contact with the West Japan had no all-embracing term referring to any humanly organized sound, religious or secular, vocal or instrumental, aristocratic or plebian, solo or group, vernacular or non-vernacular, national or foreign. Instead of the generic term, Japanese used specific genre names.2 The lack of lexical equivalents for “music” can be explained by the socio-cultural dividing of “musicking” practices according to class, use, instrument, and school (ryūha).3 There were no common notations, terminologies, spaces, or teaching and performing institutions. This institutional separation made the world of individual genres almost self-contained. Without the cognitive power of an all-inclusive concept, Buddhist chant and Shintoist ensemble remained only functional in their religious context, while the Nōh music of the samurai class could not be discussed in the same terminology used for the shamisen genres of the plebian class. Japanese music historiography is more a bundle [End Page 9] of parallel developments of distinct genres and schools than the kind of dynamic succession of stylistic change that characterizes music in the West.4

The written word that is today read as ongaku first designated foreign (Chinese) music around the eighth century. Jesuits as well as Dutch traders (sixteenth to nineteenth century) used it as a translation for “music,” though the word hardly entered everyday language until the Meiji government (1868-1912) launched Western-oriented music education in the 1880s. Although unnoticed by Meiji intellectuals, the epistemological gap between the foreignness implied in the vernacular conceptualization and the humanism and abstraction in the Western one was immense. Modern education has today successfully established the equivalence of ongaku and music. Yet, in recent years the concept of music/ongaku has become obsolete for some contemporary electronic improvisational artists, who redefine their sonic artifacts simply and polemically as onkyō (sound, the sonic). Following an examination of the semantic formation and transformation of ongaku in the process of modernization, I will thus examine the circumstances of its annihilation.

A Foreign Sound

According to the music historian Kikkawa Eishi, the word that can be read as ongaku appeared for the first time in the official history Chronicle of Japan, Continued (Shoku Nihongi, 794-97). Kikkawa presumes that the ongaku in this national history designates the music of the imperial court and Buddhist temples, namely music from China and the Korean peninsula as distinct from indigenous songs and dances (utamai). Kikkawa believes that the word ongaku rarely entered into even aristocratic parlance. He adds that the two-character word in question appeared in a Chinese chronicle dated B.C. 239, but that it was merely a juxtaposition of two characters on (yin in Chinese; sound of voices and things belonging to the lower social strata) and gaku (yue, sound of instruments, practiced by the upper strata), which may have resulted in the sense of “vocal and instrumental, upper and lower sounds.” The Japanese ongaku emerged around the Kamakura period (1185–1333) as a substitute for gaku, since Japanese literati historically preferred two-character terms to one-character ones, occasionally inventing combinations of characters almost non-existent in China.

The word ongaku, however, remained on the margins of Japanese vocabulary...


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