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Japan’s Imperial Palace

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Listen to gagaku—Japan’s “gracious music.”

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The Golden Oldies of Japan’s Imperial Palace

Robert M. Poole

the Imperial court listens
Chief court musician Takahiro Sono (center) plays the kakko, a small drum.

The music came from far away, drifting across the neatly clipped azaleas and shaded walks of Japan’s Imperial Palace. It sounded like whale song, a haunting blend of flutes rising up from the deep, accompanied by the strumming of silk strings and the rumble of drums. Listen to the sounds they heard (at left).

With photographer Sam Abell, I followed the sound to its source, a faded brown concrete building where we found 25 musicians hard at practice in a small room. The group was officially designated as “maintainers of a significant cultural asset,” a kind of Japanese National Treasure. They were playing gagaku, literally “gracious music,” which the Japanese claim as the oldest surviving orchestral music in the world. It is ancient music, which came to Japan by way of Korea and China well over a thousand years ago and still survives as the official music of the Japanese Imperial Court.

That venerable legacy stretches back to the beginnings of Japan’s imperial family, which is thought to be the longest running monarchy in the world. The music exists today because of the Emperor’s patronage, which supports the carefully chosen, rigorously trained court musicians who perform at official palace functions, garden parties, religious occasions, and public concerts.

“Most of us can trace our families back to China or Korea,” said Takahiro Sono, the chief court musician, during a break in practice. “We try to keep these traditions alive—for the music itself and for our family’s memory as well.” As he spoke, he looked around at the delicate old instruments it had taken years to master, such as the sho (a flute with multiple bamboo pipes and a metal bowl), and the biwa (a lute originating in Persia and transported along the old Silk Road through China).

But keeping family tradition has become hard for people like Mr. Sono, who has three daughters but no sons. And unfortunately all court musicians must be male. So when Mr. Sono retired recently, there was no heir to take his chair in the band, which is playing this year without a Sono for the first time in some 500 years.

“It’s just the way things turned out,” Mr. Sono told me later, meeting near a Tokyo studio where he now plays music—usually a violin—for commercial producers. “Retirement’s not so bad,” he said in a conspiratorial way, showing me a hand calloused by frequent visits to the local golf course.

Photograph courtesy of Takahiro Sono

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