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  • Resonances of Chindon-ya: Sounding Space and Sociality in Contemporary Japan by Marié Abe
  • Jay Keister (bio)
Resonances of Chindon-ya: Sounding Space and Sociality in Contemporary Japan. By Marié Abe. Wesleyan University Press, 2018. xxvi, 288 pages. $85.00, cloth; $27.95, paper; $22.99, E-book.

This is a welcome study of a genre that is routinely overlooked in the ethnomusicology of Japan. Chindon-ya, a modern genre of street band music in which musicians are employed by local businesses for advertising purposes, has long been unappreciated in the world of Japanese music. In the persistent hierarchy of traditional Japanese music, genres of hōgaku—such as gagaku (imperial court music), and kabuki theater, and sankyoku (chamber music)—enjoy national heritage status, while folk genres such as min'yō are recognized but viewed as second class. Compared to those genres, chindonya barely registers as music, having never been treated seriously by academics nor canonized as a legitimate genre. Blending elements of nineteenth-century performing traditions with modern Western music and instruments, chindon-ya has fallen between the cracks. It sounds neither traditional nor modern and strikes people as an anachronism when experienced in the city streets of today.

Marié Abe's book locates the essential tensions in chindon-ya in the uncategorizable nature of this genre, revealing contradictions between assertions of Japanese uniqueness and claims to modern nationhood. She questions the ontological status of chindon-ya as a form of music from the outset. The sound of chindon-ya is not so much listened to as it is simply overheard in the bustling urban soundscape. Indeed, many chindon-ya practitioners openly claim the genre is not really music (ongaku), referring to it instead as sound (oto), a distinction reflected in the name of the genre itself. Chindon is the term used for the portable percussion set consisting of a gong and a drum, typically played by the ensemble leader, an instrument named after the onomatopoeic sounds of "chin" made by the gong and "don" made by the drum. The word ya refers to business which leads Abe to translate chindon-ya as "sound business."

Abe's study of the sound business of chindon-ya is in line with sound studies and environmental approaches in ethnomusicology that have proliferated in recent years. As a form of sonic advertising in public spaces, [End Page 483] chindon-ya raises questions different from those one encounters in most studies of Japanese music and calls for different analytical methods. Abe's focus on how chindon-ya helps produce public space through sound leads her to develop the Japanese word hibiki or "resonance" as an analytical lens. Using hibiki as a multifaceted trope that frames her study, she analyzes how chindon-ya resonates acoustically, spatially, politically, and historically in Japanese culture.

On a purely acoustic level, chindon-ya musicians pay careful attention to how the sound resonates through the city streets as it reverberates off the walls of buildings in urban corridors. Despite the genre's estrangement from traditional Japanese music, this notion of sonic resonance is closely related to the concept of ma, a crucial element in Japanese musical aesthetics that values the subtlety of sounds generated by sonic spaces between sounds. Although the author does not make this connection, this aspect of chindon-ya reveals roots in traditional Japanese ways of listening. Other applications of the trope of resonance concern the sociological aspects of chindon-ya. Abe views space in the way it is conceptualized by Henri Lefebvre: not as a container in which we live, but as an environment that is produced through social action. In this way of thinking, space comes into being through the interrelations of sounds, social encounters, and histories. Thus, the resonance of chindon-ya produces social space in a dynamic process involving performers, listeners, histories, and cultures.

As in many studies of Japanese music, in this book Abe finds that embodiment is a crucial aspect, especially in learning the art form. Chapter 1 explores the act of walking, which is constant in any chindon-ya performance. She describes in detail a workshop by Hayashi Kōjirō, the leader of an Osaka-based chindon...


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