One of the customs of the common people in the early 8th century ce was the singing of utagaki, or kagai, courting songs between men and women sung during spring and autumn festivals. This was documented by the writers of the Fudoki (compiled in 713), the official documents containing cultural and topographical descriptions of the five regions of Japan. Similar folk traditions, usually combined with agricultural rites, were observed until the mid-20th century by villagers in various places in Japan.
The two oldest chronicles, Kojiki (‘Record of ancient matters’, 712) and Nihon shoki (‘Chronicles of Japan’, 720), contain the texts of early folksongs called hinaburi (‘rural manner’), sakahogai no uta (‘songs of the drinking rite’) and wazauta (divination songs and songs of political events). Twenty-one songs from the two chronicles are also found in the Fudoki, where seven more songs are recorded. Although the texts have various metrical forms, the form with 5+7+5+7+7 syllables is most common among these songs: when the first comprehensive anthology of songs, the Man’yōshū (20 volumes), was edited in the latter half of the 8th century, this metrical form was found to be almost exclusively the basis for about 4500 songs dating from the 4th century to the mid-8th century. Among these were many songs of everyday tasks such as cloth-bleaching, rice-pounding, corn-grinding and sake-brewing. The song texts with 5+7+5+7+7 syllables are usually considered the most typical of Japanese poems and hence are called waka (‘Japanese song’). These were actually sung in the early days, but later, by the Heian period (794–1185), they had become purely written poems occasionally chanted or recited in a stylized manner. These still survive and are performed every year at the imperial New Year song party.
The musicians of the imperial palace also preserve and often perform the repertories of kagura and saibara, which have much to do with the folksongs of the Heian period. The former includes the ceremonial rites, specifically called mi-kagura (see §V, 1 above), performed by the court musicians for the Shintō deities. Although it has been highly stylized, with gagaku influence, and respectfully arranged as the imperial rite, kagura reveals many elements of folksong style, such as leader-chorus (responsorial) singing and the alternate singing of two groups. Saibara has an even more direct relationship with the folksongs of the period. There are several opinions about its origin, including the theory of Kawaguchi Ekai (1866–1945), who insisted that saibara originated in the Tibetan love-song called saibar. It is, however, generally believed that saibara consisted of a group of folksongs from the central and western parts of Japan that were chosen by the aristocracy for singing and were set to gagaku instruments. This tradition was almost forgotten by the middle of the Kamakura period (1192–1333) but was partly reconstructed (in greatly modified form) in the 17th century and more so in the 19th and 20th centuries. Within the aristocracy there was yet another group of folksongs, called fuzoku, from eastern Japan; these remained in complete obscurity after the Middle Ages. However, one of the imperial court musicians, Yamanoi Motokiyo, has deciphered notation from an old scroll dated 1186 containing 14 fuzoku, which reveal the interesting fact that most of the songs are based on the same scale structure that underlies modern folksongs, the min’yō onkai (see §3 below).
During the Middle Ages, that is the Kamakura and Muromachi(1338–1573) periods, many kinds of folk performing arts came into vogue. Some of them, such as dengaku, sarugaku and kusemai, were later performed by the specialized professionals who were the first in Japanese history to create a new artistic form, the nō theatre (see §VI, 1 above). Many others, such as bon-odori (folkdances for the late summer ancestral festival) and hayashida (rice-transplanting ritual performance), have remained folk performing arts even in the 20th century. In addition to these there were many folksongs recorded in a few anthologies of kouta, short songs of the time. Some of them can still be found among the texts of 20th-century folksongs.
Most modern folksongs date back to the Edo period (1603–1868), however. Although the townspeople were more creative than the villagers in their musical art forms, the people from rural areas were also very productive during that period. In the early 17th century a genre of typical Japanese theatre, kabuki, was created by Okuni, a shrine maiden, who later organized a group of entertainers and dancers, both men and women, to perform furyū dances on stage. Like the nō theatre, kabuki was deeply rooted in folk tradition in its early days (see §VI, 3 above).
The shamisen and a short version of the shakuhachi (flute) known as the hitoyogiri came into vogue among the people in the latter half of the 17th century. In 1664 Nakamura Sōzan, a blind musician, wrote a book entitled Shichiku shoshin-shū (‘Collection for beginners on silk and bamboo’); its three volumes were intended for beginners on the hitoyogiri, koto and shamisen, one volume for each. He used the popular songs and folksongs of his time as studies for the instruments; among them are found many bon-odori songs, some of which still survive.
There have also been several anthologies of folksongs; the most informative one concerning work songs of eastern and central Japan, including Hokkaidō, is Hina no hitofushi, edited in 1809 by Sugae Masumi (1754–1829). Towards the end of the Edo period and during the Meiji era (1868–1912) a very large number of popular songs appeared, depicting the life of the people in that changing society as well as the succession of social events. Most of these songs were soon forgotten despite their popularity; some, however, remained for a longer time and became folksongs, most of which are now sung as ozashiki-uta (songs for geisha and other parties).
After urbanization of the whole country, some of the folksongs and traditional performing arts became more popular in a wider region through the mass media; many are now performed by amateurs and semi-professionals, while others are gradually being forgotten by the people, who are no longer working and living in the ways they used to. But in the 1960s and 1970s an increasing number of folksong enthusiasts among young people and artists began to use traditional folk materials for their music.
Japanese folk music had never been studied scientifically before Machida Kashō (1888–1981) began his private gramophone archive of Japanese folksongs in 1934; this was later transferred to NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), where Machida continued his work editing the voluminous anthology Nihon min’yō taikan. His study was followed by those of many musicologists, including Takeda Chūichirō, who edited Tōhoku min’yō-shū, Hattori Ryūtarō, Koizumi Fumio and Takeuchi Tsutomu.