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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Vintage Electronic Music from Japan, Part 1

1953 to 1963

In post-war Japan, interest grew in Western music. Among the genres that sparked curiosity was electronic music, then taking off in experimental music circles in North America and Europe. In Japan, an inter-disciplinary group of Japanese poets, painters, and musicians formed a loosely knit collective called the Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop). Their goal was to collaborate on multimedia projects, installations, dance and music performances. Beginning Active for about seven years, Jikken Kobo included such musicians as Toro Takemitsu, Kuniharu Akiyama, Joji Yuasa.

Soon after its founding, Jikken Kobo was drawn into the world of electronic music by Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo (Sony). Sony hired composer Takemitsu on a part-time basis to compose music on tape. This led to a mutually beneficial relationship between Jikken Kobo and Sony, wherein the arts collective was provided with access to the latest tape recording and audio-visual technology in exchange for the development of music and projection art for demonstration purposes.

The initial exposure of Japanese musicians to musique concrète came by way of composer Toshiro Mayuzumi, who had attended a concert of Schaeffer’s electronic music while studying in Paris in 1952.[i] Upon his return to Japan, Mayuzumi completed Les OEuvres pour musique concrète x, y, z in 1953), This piece became the first tape composition by a Japanese composer to gain wide exposure in Japan when it was publicly broadcast by radio station. Mayuzumi effectively used this piece to convey the basic electronic music techniques used by his European counterparts. His only available equipment included audio oscillators and tape recorders.

Around 1954, Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai, or NHK, the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, took an interest in the potential of tape composition for the creation of radiophoniceffects and music. Members of the NHK staff translated a handbook from the Cologne studio of German radio and this document reportedly became their blueprint for the creation of their own electronic music studio. Composer Makato Moroi visited Cologne in 1955 to view the German studio first-hand. Upon his return, he worked with fellow experimenter Mayuzumi to guide NHK into the establishment of an electronic music studio. The first composers associated with the studio included Mayuzumi, Yuasa, Moroi, and Ichiyanagi. Takemitsu also became a regular user of the studio by the late 1950s.

The original NHK studio was equipped much like the Cologne studio and featured a bank of tone-generating oscillators, audio filters, ring modulation and recording equipment.

The culmination of this early period of development of Japanese electronic music is considered by some to be the completion of Shichi no Variation (7 Variations) (1956) by Moroi and Mayuzumi.[ii] This was a strictly serial piece based on the composition process used by Stockhausen for Studie II, in which all parameters of the sound, including envelopes, were determined by using serial methods. The work was scored graphically and used seven mixtures of sine waves instead of five as in Studie II.

After these early years of imitating European music, the electronic music of Japan diversified in many ways. Tape music because a tool for the producer of theatrical works and opera. Composers combined it with the orchestra. Some composers worked in television and used electronic music to embellish kid’s programming such as Astroboy. Others were fascinated by the manipulations of the human voice on tape. Some saw the tape recorder as a tool for mixing and creating collages of found sounds combined with electronics. Still others brought electronics into live performances, without tape. Many sought to combine the new sounds of electronic music with the traditional sounds of Japanese culture. We’ll hear a sampling of all of these.

For this program, we’ll hear some historic recordings dating from the earliest years of Japanese electronic music from 1953 to 1963. Part 2 will continue with works from 1960 to 1975, bringing to a conclusion the pre-synthesizer era of electronic music in Japan.


1. Toshiro Mayuzumi, “Les Œuvres Pour La Musique Concrète X, Y, Z” (1953).

2. Makoto Moroi and Toshiro Mayuzumi, “7 Variations” (1956).

3. Toru Takemitsu, “Vocalism AI (Love)” (1956).

4. Group Ongaku, “Metaplasm Part 2” from Music of Group Ongaku (1961, SEER Sound Archive). Live performance featuring Saxophone, Tape - Yasunao Tone and Takehisa Kosugi.

5. Tadashi Mori (conductor), Akira Miyoshi (composer), opening excerpt to Ondine for orchestra, mixed chorus and electronic sounds. (1961, Time).

6. Joji Yusa, Tracks 1-4 (1963). Incidental music for NHK Radio, based on Andre Breton's "Nadja". "The actual chart of constellations was played by three players (violin, piano, vibraphone) which was supposed as the music score. And birds' voices, electronic sound, sound generated from inside piano, through music concrete technique and constructed at the NHK Electronic Music Studio."

The next two works are based on the early Japanese novel The Tale of Genji from the 11th century. Both are called Aoi No Ue." The first is by the female composer Michiko Toyama and captures the story of Princess Hollyhock. The tape is used in this case to subtly modify the vocals and instruments used in the work. The second piece is by Joji Yuasa and is an extended voice and tape work which we will hear in entirety, all 30 minutes.

7. Michiko Toyama, “Aoi No Ue (Princess Hollyhock) (Music Drama for Tape and Narration)” from Waka and Other Compositions (1960 Folkways).

8. Joji Yuasa ‎– “Aoi No Ue” for voice and tape. Tape parts realized at NHK Electronic music studio (1961).

NHK = Nippon Hoso Kyokai (Japanese Broadcasting Corp.)

For the Archive Mix here are two more pieces of vintage Japanese electronic music:

1. Kuniharu Akiyama, 'Demonstration' Of Nissei Theater (excerpt). Music for a public demonstration of the stage machinery of the newly opened Nissei Theatre in Tokyo (1963, Edition Omega Point)

2. Toshiro Mayuzumi, “Mandara” for electronic sounds and voices (1969, Philips).

[i] Takehito Shimazu, “The History of Electronic and Computer Music in Japan: Significant Composers and Their Works,” Leonardo Music Journal 4 (1994), 102–6. [ii] Ibid., 71.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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