Margaret Mehl

Published On


Page Range

pp. 203–236


  • English

Print Length

34 pages

8. Playing Modern

Blending Japanese and Western Music

Chapter 8, ‘Playing Modern: Blending Japanese and Western Music’, examines the widespread, albeit short-lived, fashion for performing Japanese music (chiefly koto and shamisen genres) on Western instruments, particularly the piano or organ and the violin; a practice known as wayō setchû (mixing Japanese and Western elements), wayō chōwa gaku (music harmonizing Japanese and Western elements), or wayō gassō (Japanese-Western ensemble playing). The propagators of the practice can be categorized loosely as ‘reformers’ and entrepreneurs.’ The former group consisted largely of graduates from the Tokyo Academy of Music. Their arguments about the importance of music reform were similar to those of the older Meiji elite, but in practice, their musical training resulted in their privileging Western music in the long run. More persistent was a grass-roots trend, promoted by enterprising musicians, often performers of indigenous music. They published sheet music in Western staff notation. This marked a departure from studying Japanese music in the traditional way of direct transmission from teacher to student, because it enabled independent study without a teacher. Wayō setchû, although frowned upon by the contemporary musical establishment in the capital, is regarded as having facilitated the assimilation of Western music. Another aspect, however, are the changing practices within traditional Japanese music. The practice suggests that the strict separation between Western and Japanese music (which from around 1900 began to be called hōgaku), was not a foregone conclusion, despite the privileging of Western music by the government.


Margaret Mehl

Associate Professor at University of Copenhagen

Margaret Mehl is a historian of modern Japan with a special interest in musical culture. She is currently an Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen, having previously held appointments at the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Stirling, and Berlin. As well as a doctorate from the University of Bonn, Margaret Mehl holds a Dr. Phil. (Habilitation) from the University of Copenhagen. She has lived and worked in Japan as a researcher on several occasions, where she has had affiliations with the University of Tokyo, and with Waseda University. Margaret Mehl has published widely on the history of historiography, education, and music in modern Japan. Her previous books include History and the State in Nineteenth-Century Japan (which has been translated into Japanese), Private Academies of Chinese Learning in Meiji Japan: The Decline and Transformation of the Kangaku Juku, and Not by Love Alone: The Violin in Japan, 1850–2010. When she is not reading, writing or teaching, Margaret Mehl enjoys playing her violin and has performed in amateur orchestras and chamber ensembles in several countries.