Songs of peace: on Japanese imayô of the 12th century

by Raisa Ostapenko on 25 June 2015


Elizabeth Markham (PhD University of Cambridge) is an historical ethnomusicologist working on music and culture in East Asia with a focus on the court and temple arts in medieval Japan. She is particularly interested in prosody and melody in poetry, chant and song, and in the oral and the written in performance and transmission.

On 21 May 2015, Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge welcomed historical ethnomusicologist and University alumna Dr. Elizabeth J. Markham to present her paper titled “For the Sake of Future Generations: Collecting Songs and Storing Melodies in Pre-modern Japan.” The lecture, which focused on the documentation of imayô by Japanese Emperor Go-Shirakawa (1127-1192), attracted an academically diverse audience and was followed by a notably interactive question and answer session.

Imayô (original Japanese: 今様), abbreviated from imayô-uta and signifying “songs of the modern style” (chansons à la façon moderne), is a literary/lyrical genre of sung poetry developed during the Heian period (794-1192) – the last era of classical Japanese history and one of the fourteen traditional subdivisions of the country’s overall history. The Heian era, whose name derives from the Japanese word for peace, was characterised by formidable artistic and literary activity and was also the period during which the Japanese imperial court was at its zenith. Imayô themselves were inspired by Chinese Buddhist hymns called kansan (original Chinese: 漢讚) and their Japanese equivalents called wasan (original Japanese: 和讚).

Before the advent of imayô, Buddhism was dominated by the Chinese. Imayô, therefore, marked an important development in the spiritual and linguistic accessibility of Buddhism to non-Chinese civilisations, as they were written in the vernacular Japanese and, therefore, gave the Japanese a form of alternative access to Buddhist texts, in a manner similar to which the reprinting from Latin to the vernacular of the Judeo-Christian bible by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1450s offered Europeans alternative access to scripture.

Imayô were performed for the highest echelons of Japanese society. A liaison of art and religion, they were often sung for peace in the afterlife, though, on some occasions, touched upon more secular themes such as those of love or nature. The lyrical poems were performed by female entertainers who interacted with the nobility. Even individuals whose activity was traditionally frowned upon, for instance prostitutes, were generously welcomed to the palace if they could sing imayô.        

The only extant anthology of imayô is the 12th century Ryōjin Hishō (original Japanese: 梁塵秘抄), which translates as “Songs to Make the Dust Dance on Beams.” The work was complied by Emperor Go-Shirakawa and consists of two collections, those of Kashishū (translation: lyrical collection; original Japanese: 歌詞集) and Kudenshū (translation: oral tradition collection; original Japanese: 口伝集). Only 10 percent of the original anthology is believed to have survived. Imayô faded into oblivion during the subsequent Kamakura period.

Go-Shirakawa was regarded as the greatest musician of his day – a master of court instruments and Buddhist chants. The art of performing lyrical Buddhist poems had been entrusted to him orally by skilled female entertainers. Go-Shirakawa preserved these methods in his compilation. Japanese music has a long tradition of memory-facilitated teaching both for instruments and for voice. Musical instructions were, in essence, “written into the body” through practice and muscle memory and, subsequently, passed on to future generations. Students were tasked with “grasping what their teachers had taught them” in order to achieve mastery of the compositions they engaged with.

Whilst the Western (i.e. modern Europe) tradition of musical notation involves staffs of pitch, the Japanese system of musical transcription used to preserve imayô relied on communicating direct “instructions” on how to play a piece. In terms of notation, the Japanese system produced what Dr. Markham called “maps” similar in concept to guitar tabs, which established precisely how an instrument was to be interacted with. Singing instructions too came in the form of “mental maps” presenting an “image of how the voice looks when it sings.” Such images relied on strokes to indicate how individual characters were to be read. Breathing instructions were also included.

Emphasising the relationship between notation and the actual learning process, instructions and commentary were always clear and, when interpreted correctly, allowed performers to produce “real, flesh and blood melodies,” remarked Dr. Markham. This transmission technique allowed melodies to remain “alive and accessible,” and for musical interpretation to be markedly consistent from generation to generation.

The impact of imayô went beyond providing members of the Japanese court with a more intimate and spiritually accessible experience of Buddhism. The lyrical poems also served to celebrate and preserve Chinese court music. The compilations of Go-Shirakawa are, therefore, a significant historical vestige of the cultural relationship between Japan and China.

Go-Shirakawa was motivated to preserve imayô specifically because of the ephemeral nature of musical experience before advancements in modern sound recording. “The sad thing about an art of the voice is that after my body has passed away nothing will be left behind,” wrote the Emperor. “Accordingly, I have laid down for the sake of future generations the oral teachings of imayô.”

Images of Go-Shirakawa sourced from Wikipedia.