Chinese sources mention singing in Japan as early as the 3rd century ce, and Japan’s first literary works of the 8th century include the texts of many songs; but actual vocal notation in Japan developed first primarily in the context of Buddhist music (see §IV, 3 below). This tradition came to Japan from China and Korea in the period between 553 and 784, and expanded greatly in the subsequent Heian (794–1185) and Kamakura (1192–1333) periods. Surviving theoretical materials show a continuous Chinese influence.
In terms of notation the most important early system is the goin-hakase (‘the five-toned sage’). It is attributed to the Japanese priest Kakui (b 1236) of the Shingon sect, although it may have been influenced by the ritual mudrā (hand gesture) and oracle stick arrangements of ancient India. The Japanese system divides the 15 notes of three octaves of the anhemitonic pentatonic scale into three layers of five notes each; thus the system is sometimes called the goin-sanjū (‘the five tones and three layers’). Individual pitches are represented by short lines placed at an angle like the hour hand of a clock. If started on c, the notes of the pentatonic scale would be represented as in ex.8. As shown in fig.16 (an excerpt from a modern Shingon sect notation with its transcription), the direction of these line symbols does not represent graphically the pitch of a note, as is common in most Western notations. Since Sino-Japanese texts are normally written in columns starting from the right-hand side of a page, the music notations of this system generally appear to the left of the text. The names of specific vocal patterns or styles are included with the pitches. Thus, as seen in fig.17, the notation of the vocal rendition of one syllable may meander considerably. Various Buddhist sects in Japan developed their own notation systems and approaches to the performance of named vocal patterns. In keeping with the rote teaching method and the ‘secret’ piece tradition of Japan, many of the later, seemingly simplified notation systems, such as karifu and meyasu, actually became more abstract and less easily read without guidance than the goin-hakase itself. Many of these systems are still in use, not only in Buddhist music but also in surviving imperial vocal traditions that adopted variants on such notations centuries ago.
Another vocal notation system of greater importance in later Japanese music was the gomafu, in which teardrop-shaped lines were placed beside characters as neumes and indications of longer vocal patterns. The 12th-century secular epic tradition of the tale of Heike (heikyoku, see II, 3 above) adopted this system in a form called sumifu, and the major classical drama form called nō that began to evolve in the 13th century also used such a notation system (often called gomaten), as shown in fig.17. The nō system includes more references to pitch areas as well as to vocal patterns. Each major school of nōnow uses such a system, and there are extensive textbooks in each school for learning the meaning of each symbol. The correct interpretation of such notations, however, remains in the vocal lessons and in a student’s eventual acceptance into a guild, although the advent of records and teaching tapes has rendered the secret tradition somewhat more ritualistic than practical.
Later secular vocal traditions of narratives accompanied by biwa or shamisen seldom made more than occasional graphic references to the vocal lines, although some aspects of the instrumental interjections or interludes normally appear in red between each line of the text. During the later part of the Edo period (1603–1868) music accompanied by shamisen or koto also tended not to depend on notation for vocal lines except by instrumentally derived pitch notations. Therefore the rest of vocal notation is best described in the context of instrumental forms.
A unique example is shown in fig.18. In principle, Japanese folksong has been orally transmitted, but one song, Esashi Oiwake, has been notated since the early 20th century with a variety of related systems devised by locals specifically for use in teaching. The version shown (from the 1960s) reveals Western influence in its staff (albeit of 6 lines) and left-to-right orientation. However, as each of the 5 phrases is to be sung in one breath, the vocal part of each phrase is shown logically as a continuous line whose peaks, loops and dots express specific ornaments quite precisely. The ornaments are identified in the eight boxes at the bottom. Some influence from Buddhist notation is evident. (For a Western notation of part of this song, see §VII, 3, ex.18 below.)