Current Writing Projects

Now that Music and the Making of Modern Japan has finally been published, it is high time for me to consider what project to pursue next. Naturally, I intend to spend some of my time promoting Music and the Making of Modern Japan and, possibly, write a related article or two. I have also been asked to contribute chapters to two book projects by colleagues.

I am still hoping to edit and publish selected writings of Kate I. Hansen. Kate Ingeborg Hansen (1879-1968), a native of Logan, Kansas, spent most of her life as a missionary and music teacher in Sendai in Northern Japan. In the over 30 years she spent there from 1907 to 1941 and then again from 1947 to 1951 she not only did much for music education in the provincial town. Her letters and other writings reveal her to be an astute observer of musical culture in Sendai as well as a lively writer, and I believe they deserve a wider audience. This project, however, depends on my locating the copyright holders and receiving their permission, so fingers crossed!  There is, moreover, her string quartet “Schlesvig” (sic), which likewise merits publication. Perhaps this will be possible in connection with the current concert series in the north of Germany.

Meanwhile, I devote an entire chapter in Music and the Making of Modern Japan to Kate I. Hansen as a central foreign actor on the music scene in the northern provincial town of Sendai from 1907 into the 1930s.

As for new research projects, one that I will be pursuing is tentatively entitled From wayô gassô (blended musical performance) to Wagakki Band: A Cultural History of Musical Eclecticism in Modern Japan. In Music and the Making of Modern Japan, I devoted one chapter to wayô gassô, which I translated as ‘blended musical performance’: Chapter 8: “Playing Modern: Blending Japanese and Western Music”. In that chapter, blended music mainly refers to playing Japanese tunes, whether from the koto repertoire or other traditional Japanese genres, on Western musical instruments – often the violin, as I first wrote about in my article Japan’s Early Twentieth-Century Violin Boom’. The practice seems to have been more common that I initially realized. When I idly searched wayô gassô 和様合奏 on Youtube, I came across a gramophone recording of the famous koto piece Rokudan no shirabe played by a mixed ensemble of Western instruments.

Mixing elements from Japan’s traditional music and Western music in order to create a modern national music was, of course, the ultimate goal of nineteenth-century music reformers. However, most of them had very limited understanding of any kind of music and, ultimately, their efforts ended in the privileging of Western music in modern public spaces and institutions.

However, with or without an official agenda, musicians and musical entrepreneurs (including sheet music publishers and recording companies) will experiment and mix and match. I treat eclecticism in the form of blending musical and cultural elements that are – or are perceived to be – Japanese and Western  in the broadest possible sense. Musical eclecticism might mean the composition of Japanese (and especially Japan-themed) lyrics to Western tunes (as opposed to direct translations of the foreign lyrics), playing Japanese music on Western instruments, as well as musical compositions by composers who consciously sought to combine musical elements from Western and Japanese traditions, and hybrid popular genres, such as enka (sentimental popular songs) and Japanese hip hop. The visual effects might be as important as the music in some cases, such as such as musical theatre productions and music videos. In fact, the tentative title of this project came to me when one of the students on a course I was teaching introduced me to music videos of Wagakki Band 和楽器バンド, including their spectacular song Senbonzakura千本桜. I am not sure yet where this project will take me, but that’s what makes it interesting.



Finally, I am still fascinated by the lives and activities of Meiji people in general, even though I’ve shelved a previous book project, playfully entitled ‘The Meiji Miracle’. How did these people cope with the upheavals their country experienced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? How did they face the future in a present which seemed to be so different from the past that the past no longer appeared as a useful point of reference? – I started writing short biographies of selected Meiji Japanese from different areas of life with a view of turning them into a book. I had already published a series of short biographical articles covering the entire history of Japan for the German Japan-Magazin, published by the late Dieter Born. I actually completed a manuscript, but finding a publisher proved a challenge and at some point I lost momentum and turned my full attention to what eventually became Not by Love Alone. However, a few months ago I presented the prospectus to the members of a staff writing group and received some valuable suggestions.

I was too busy with my other projects to attempt the thorough revision of the manuscript in time for the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration. Instead, I started mining the manuscripts for possible blog posts and have posted blogs about Ogawa Masataka 小川正孝, Tanaka Shôzô 田中正造, Sakamoto Ryôma 坂本龍馬, Tokugawa Keiki 徳川慶喜, and Yoshida Shoin 吉田松陰 and others. The anniversary year has passed,  but so much happened in the Meiji period (1868-1912) that for the next 44 years there’ll be some kind of ‘Meiji 150’ anniversary every year. I haven’t posted another biography for a while now, but I intend to continue the series (on and off!).

Contact Margaret Mehl.