Art & Design

The Meiji Ensoniment: Conflicting Ears and the Decision to Change Japanese Musical Culture – Jonathan Service

15 May 2017 London

In Doremi o eranda Nihonjin (2007), Yuko Chiba notes that a radical transformation in music-theoretical knowledge, musical practice, and aural habitus took place in Japan from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. In this talk, I ask why and how this transformation occurred. I begin by outlining two schematic ears: an élite ‘samurai’ ear and the ear of the ‘educated Western visitor’. Through a reading of the diaries and reports of representatives from these two groups in the late-nineteenth century, I show just how differently the musical cultures of Japan and ‘the West’ were perceived to be. Indeed, the music of the other was often denied the status of organized sound and was heard instead as noise. Given these differences, I note the insufficiency of the thesis that the transformation in Japanese aural culture can be ascribed to a process of straightforward cultural diffusion. I argue instead that this transformation resulted from a choice that was made on non- or extra-musical grounds – a decision made in the political sphere at a time of gunboat diplomacy; in other words, a decision made on the basis of asymmetrical power relationships rather than aesthetics. From the perspective of music, this decision appeared ‘empty’: it did not prescribe any specific details, but rather a set of broad (political) goals. The immediate response, therefore, involved the hard theoretical work of defining the concept (as Eishi Kikkawa remarks, the term ‘music’ ongaku can be traced to this period). It was this theoretical ‘filling-in’ of an empty decision that was, I argue, the critical juncture in the transformation in musical practice and aural sensibility noted by Chiba.


Dr Jonathan Service is the Okinaga Junior Research Fellow in Japanese Studies at Wadham College, University of Oxford. He graduated from Harvard University with a doctorate in Japanese and music. He studies the transformation in musical culture and aural sensibility in Japan from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. He is particularly interested in the synergies that developed between Western theories of music and Japanese or East Asian theories of music and the impact that these theories had on musical practice. He is currently completing his first monograph, Orchestrating Modernity.



To reserve your place, please call the Japan Society office on 020 3075 1996 or email or submit the online booking form.

15 May 2017, 6.45pm

The Swedenborg Society, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way (Hall entrance on Barter St) London WC1A 2TH

The Japan Society