Why they are hooked on classical
Another advantage of Western music was that it seemed better suited to modern sensibilities than the old traditional songs. The writer Nagai Kafu, who studied in Paris, remarked sadly that "no matter how much I wanted to sing Western songs, they were all very difficult. Had I, born in Japan, no choice but to sing Japanese songs? Was there a Japanese song that expressed my present sentiment - a traveller who had immersed himself in love and the arts in France but was now going back to the extreme end of the Orient where only death would follow monotonous life? I felt forsaken. I belonged to a nation that had no music to express swelling emotions and agonised feelings."
But Kafu lived long enough to see that his fears were unfounded. Japan embraced Western ways as its own, a process only briefly interrupted by the Second World War. By the 1950s, Japan had its own artists' agency, and foreign artists were again visiting the country.
At first, the cost was prohibitive. Kaz Nakaya, a retired university English professor and self-confessed opera buff, says that when he first became interested in classical music an LP cost as much as an average month's salary. But the upward momentum was unstoppable. Japan was by now no longer an importer of Western music; it had its own orchestras, some of which, such as the Tokyo Philharmonic, had quite long histories. It had several distinguished manufacturers of pianos and other instruments, which were serious rivals to Western firms. It had its own performing virtuosi, and its own composers, one of whom, Toru Takemitsu, had a worldwide reputation.
It seemed as if Japan was now set to repeat the trick it had pulled off in the economic sphere: beating the West at its own game. Soon Europe and America would be importing Japanese orchestras and singers the same way it had imported Japanese fax machines and Hondas.
The fact that this hasn't happened shows that after nearly 140 years, classical music isn't yet thoroughly naturalised. The roots seem shallowest in opera, the area of classical music where Japanese performers most obviously lag behind Western ones; only a handful of Japanese singers have made even a modest impact in the West. One reason for the disparity is that the Japanese themselves have a prejudice against their own performers, which is why so many Japanese performers choose to live in the West.
Noriko Kawai, a pianist living in London, says there are all kinds of barriers against home-grown talent. "It costs around a million yen, about £5,000, to promote a concert in Tokyo, and unless you have in a way become a Western artist, like Mitsuko Uchida, people won't come. And the leading agents like Kajimoto and Japan Arts give much better terms to foreigners. I know the Japanese artists have equal prominence in their glossy brochures, but the difference is that they have paid to be there! Whereas the agent takes the financial risk for the foreign artists."
A deeper reason, in the eyes of many Western critics, is a distressing lack of any striking individuality in many Japanese performers. Always one hears the complaint that Japanese performers have staggering technical facility but a certain emotional reticence. A factor in this is the very strict training, which, according to Kawai, is bound up with just the same rigid social hierarchies you find in traditional music.
"I knew one violin teacher who used to prick the young player's wrist with a needle if it sank below the required height. And I caused a huge row when I tried to study with a very distinguished teacher without first studying with one of his pupils. I was breaking the rule that you have to work your way up step by step."
According to the critic Takuo Ikeda, another big problem for Japanese classical musicians is the sheer distance between themselves and the West, which has created a strange time-lag. "Teachers pass on the ideas they picked up from their studies in Europe 30 years before," he says. "But I think things are changing. Air travel is so much cheaper now, and of course there's the internet. And young people today are not so conformist as their parents."
Maybe so. But when I attended a masterclass for young Japanese singing students given by two distinguished German singers, I was struck by how inhibited the students were. The distinguished visitors didn't really succeed in persuading the students to express the feelings in the words.
At the bottom of these young students, who seem so completely Westernised, something stubbornly refused to let go. The story of Japan's long affair with classical music is a healthy reminder that, when it comes to cultures, an affair isn't easily turned into a marriage.
- The City of London Festival (0845 120 7502) in June features Japanese musicians including Noriko Ogawa and the Tokyo String Quartet.