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Soundings: Sonic deities in Japan

by MarinaMatsumoto on Monday 23rd of August 2010

Sonic deities in Japan

In Japanese culture, appreciation of nature is very important. The Japanese believe there is a god for each element of nature (called Yaoyorozu no kami, meaning eight million gods) and if people forget to appreciate them or neglect the natural environment, the gods will be furious and punish them. Perhaps because of this belief, Japanese people have developed an much higher awareness of ecological preservation compared to other cultures – and this awareness even extends to the ‘sound-world’ of nature.

The approach to appreciating and managing the natural sound-world is possibly unique to Japan. And travellers to that country will often be surprised by unusual and carefully ‘placed’ soundscapes evident in everyday life. The idea of wa (harmony) is an important element of the Japanese aesthetic and this extends to the sonic environment also.

One such ‘balanced’ soundscape can be found in a Japanese garden where a specially created ‘sound ornamentation’, suikinkutsu (literally, a water harp chamber), is used. It is often constructed around water basins where people may wash their hands before the Japanese tea ceremony. Water harp chambers have been in existence since the mid-Edo period – the mid 18th century. A ceramic echo chamber, partly filled with water, is buried underneath the chozubachi (stone water-basin). When the water flows into the basin it drips underground. The drops of water resonate and the sound is reflected back to the garden above. Suikinkutsu demonstrates great skill in acoustic design since the construction is extremely complex, involving balancing the amount of water, the shape, material and size of the chamber, diameter of the opening and the size of the pipe leading away. Small changes in any of these parameters can produce radical changes in the sound. You can hear and see examples here.

The beauty of suikinkutsu is not just the sound, but also the effect it has on the listener. The sound of suikinkutsu is very quiet and faint and yet it distinguishes itself from other sounds. When you start to listen to this sound, your ear becomes tuned into a very different audio dynamic level and you gradually become aware of all the other sounds existing in this environment. This simple sound ornament is very enjoyable to listen to and it also makes you aware of all the soundscapes around you. Although an artificial sound created by humans, it sound blends smoothly into the natural environment.

The suikinkutsu has been chosen as one of the ‘One Hundred Soundscapes in Japan’, proposed by the Ministry of Environment in 1996. The aim of this project was to raise public awareness of the precious soundscapes existing in Japan and to make them think about the increasing noise pollution in their environment. After research into many different soundscapes, which included nomination forms available in each Prefecture for inhabitants to recommend local sounds, the Ministry published its work as The Hundred Selections of Japanese Soundscapes Which Should be Preserved.

Some examples (links to images and audio):

  • Kawagoe is in Saitama Prefecture. The town has a large bell for signaling the time.
  • Kawasaki Taisha (Kanagawa Prefecture) has a shrine and a market famous for candy cutting.
  • The bell in Zenkouji’s temple (in Nagano Prefecture) is also used for time telling. It featured in the 1998 Olympics.

The full selection was published on 5 June 1996, which is now designated as National Environment Appreciation day. The places which received this nomination often have a notice board which draws tourists’ attention to the sounds and reminds everyone of the importance of the sounds which exist around us. One Hundred Soundscapes in Japan has created a new perspective for people to observe the environment and to appreciate both nature and their traditional culture. It is also a model of how Japanese sensitivity to the natural world could bring benefits and raise awareness elsewhere.

Marina Matsumoto

Marina Matsumoto has recently graduated from City University, London with a B.Sc in Music. Her dissertation examined the unique approach towards sound in Japan, including analysis of soundscapes and acoustic designs. She has played violin since three years old and has studied in various countries such as the United States, Indonesia, Japan and the UK.

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