Cultural Translation in Two Directions: The Suzuki Method in Japan and Germany

By Mehl, Margaret | Research and Issues in Music Education (RIME), September 2009 | Go to article overview

Cultural Translation in Two Directions: The Suzuki Method in Japan and Germany


Mehl, Margaret, Research and Issues in Music Education (RIME)


Cultural Translation in Two Directions: The Suzuki Method in Japan and Germany

Introduction (1)

The Suzuki Method represents a significant Japanese contribution to the teaching of musical instruments worldwide. Unlike other cultural pursuits that have come to the West from Japan, such as martial arts, however, the Suzuki Method developed in a field that is wholly Western in origin and even regarded as representing one of the supreme achievements of Western civilization.

Japan systematically adopted Western music in the Meiji Period (1868-1912) as part of its overall Westernization policy. The main official routes for the importation of Western music were the military, the imperial court and the public education system. So thorough was this process of assimilation that by the end of the Meiji period Western music and popular Japanese music influenced by it were widespread among the population. This development continued after the Second World War and today most Japanese are more familiar with Western music than with traditional Japanese music, which to their ears sounds as exotic as it does to Westerners. (2)

With Japanese musicians streaming into conservatories abroad, winning places in the world's top orchestras and gaining international recognition as soloists, and with Yamaha pianos and other Japanese musical products taking a large share of the international market, it is hardly surprising that Japan should also make a significant mark in the field of music pedagogy. Japan's education system has, after all, attracted worldwide attention.

Nevertheless, when the Suzuki Method became known in the West, starting with the United States from the late 1950s, critics were quick not only to point out the method's perceived weaknesses, but to question whether a method that originated in a totally different cultural environment could really be adopted in Western countries (Cook, 1970, p. 100; Herman, 1965, p. 53). That Japan within a few decades successfully adopted the music of an alien culture seemed to escape their consideration. Even so the method gained enormous popularity in the United States. In fact it is more popular in some Western countries than in Japan itself. The very term "Suzuki Method" was coined in the West and only later became current in Japan.

Enthusiasts as well as its critics, whether Japanese or Western, tend to emphasize the method's "Japaneseness" (Yoshihara, 2007, pp. 43-45). Western writers take the fact that Suzuki is Japanese and mentions Zen among his formative influences as sufficient evidence "that Suzuki's pedagogy was strongly influenced by Zen and the practice of Japanese traditional arts" (Madsen, 1990, p. 135). Some authors then go on to argue that Western proponents of Suzuki's ideas have not fully understood Suzuki and cannot fully appreciate the depths of his philosophy, a deficit they presumably seek to remedy (Bauman, 1994; Cook, 1970, p. preface). In this way Western observers often question the Western adoption of the Suzuki Method. The underlying assumption is that a cultural practice is somehow more authentic in the country of its origin than in the country which has "imitated" it. Rather than focusing on what is "lost in translation," however, recent research in the relationships between cultures has drawn attention to the fact that just as much is gained. Cross-cultural translation is a complex and dynamic process which deeply affects the way people perceive the world and define themselves. Translation processes, moreover, take place even within a culture (Gimpel & Thisted, 2007).

This article examines the Suzuki Method as an example of cultural translation in several directions: from the West to Japan, within Japan (from Suzuki Shin'ichi's ideas and teaching, to the practices of teachers and families), and from Japan to Western countries. After a brief discussion of the method, demonstrating that it is open to multiple interpretations, I focus on historical context as one of the main determinants of how translation takes place. …

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