I recently received an e-mail from a foreign journalist in Japan asking me to comment on "the ongoing boom in Japan of traditional music." The request both puzzled me and made me think. Traditional Japanese music, hogaku, is not exactly booming. Attendance at traditional concerts and enrollment in university hogaku courses remain at about the same (or lower) levels, major record companies rarely release CDs of traditional music unless the artist agrees to purchase outright a certain number of the product, and most young hogaku musicians rely on supplementary means of income to make ends meet. I wondered exactly where this putative boom might be?

Careful reading of the journalist's mail revealed that she was referring to the phenomena of folk (rather than traditional "art") hogaku -- more specifically, Tsugaru shamisen. Certainly, the popularity and CD sales of groups like the Yoshida Brothers, the female duo Anmitsu and individuals like Hiromitsu Agematsu and Shin'ichi Kinoshita have rocketed. All of them are solid musicians who have worked hard to master the basic Tsugaru shamisen music while developing their own styles; yet they, or perhaps their management, ultimately have to rely on artificial means to maintain their mass popularity; for example, youthful sex appeal (both the Yoshida Brothers and Anmitsu have this in abundance) or musically questionable ventures into rock and other forms of commercial pop music. Given the nature of the commercial music industry, this is probably necessary, but oftentimes the artifice obscures the natural beauty of the music.

The folk music boom is not a recent phenomena, however. This genre became a viable commercial form during the mid-'70s with the so-called min'yo boom, fueled by NHK's min'yo specials and nationwide contests. During that period, folk singers such as Akiko Kanazawa became superstars with their renditions of folk melodies from around the country. About the same time, legendary shamisen performers Takahashi Chikuzan, Chisato Yamada and Yujiro Takahashi introduced the country to the powerful rhythms and melodies of Tsugaru folk music. Taiko music was made popular by the pioneering group Ondekoza and its successor, Kodo, from Sado Island. The current "boom" in folk music is an extension and reworking of this earlier phenomena.