Oriental music encompasses music involving a broad spectrum of countries from the Far East to the Middle East, many musical instruments, and various types of music. Japan is one of the countries with the oldest musical tradition. Traditional Japanese music is not only popular in Japan, but also in the West. Many Japanese compositions have been played and performed throughout the world. In Japan, music plays an important role in the culture. Even in modern times, traditional music is played at social and religious gatherings and is enjoyed by nearly everyone.
There is not much information available about pre-historic Japanese music, although it is known music began to play an important role in Japanese culture during the Jomon and Yayoi periods. During those eras, many tombs were built for poets, composers and musicians. There is evidence, chronicled in the works of Kojiki and Nohon Shoki, that during the reign of Emperor Temmu, many popular songs were composed and recorded by artists, becoming part and parcel of Japanese culture.
Much of Japan's music was borrowed from other countries. A great deal of Japanese music, in particular the traditional music called Gagaku, has Chinese and Korean origins. This music was known in China and Korea as To-Gaku and Komagaku music, respectively. Gagaku, known in Japan as the music of the courts, was created at the courts of important noblemen and the upper classes. Gagaku music can be divided into three categories: pure original Japanese music, original foreign music, and music that was composed in Japan but influenced by foreign countries.
The Chinese and Korean forms of Gagaku utilize an orchestra and do not have vocalists. Often, a dance group accompanies Gagaku music, which uses very popular Japanese instruments such as the flute, drum, mouth organ and zither. The zither is a box with a number of strings stretched over it to produce a flat-sounding tone. The zither player lays the instrument down flat and plays using the fingertips or a plectrum.
Kokufukabu is another kind of pure, traditional Japanese music. This ancient music combines instruments and vocalists and is played only at religious ceremonies and in temples. Although considered pure Japanese, it has its roots in neighboring countries.
More modern, yet traditional, music has developed within Japanese culture. This music became popular with the introduction of new musical instruments. The very popular Shakuhachi music was first played by Buddhist priests in their temples during ceremonies and religious holidays. It took its name from the musical instrument of the same name.
Other styles of traditional Japanese music include Koto, also known as Sokoyoku, and an ancient type of music called Shamisen. This also includes instruments and vocalists, and derived its name from the instrument called Shamisen. The music includes melodious singing as well as narrative.
Ancient Japanese music also features folk songs. Unlike those in Western culture, Japanese folk songs are mostly connected to religious services and ceremonies. Although there are also folk songs that relate to everyday chores, they are still different from Western folk songs.
Modern Japanese music consists of a wide array of different performers, each with their own distinct style. Most songs encompass and combine tradition and modernity. The word for music in Japanese is ongaku, which is a combination of two words, kanji meaning "on sound" and gaku meaning "fun and comfort."
Traditional Japanese music is very calm and does not have a distinct rhythm or beat. A British traveler once claimed that Japanese music could exasperate a European heart beyond all endurance.