From Heavy Metal to Zen

Hiromu Motonaga. Photo courtesy Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur


One man’s journey to keep Japan’s traditional musical heritage alive

Japan is the second-largest music market in the world and has been for several years according to reports by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry or IFPI. The range of music produced by Japan encompasses both the digital and physical markets with a dizzying array of musical styles. Yet outside of the formal institutions in the music industry, burgeoning music is not necessarily being nurtured on the city streets of Japan, while traditional Japanese music has lost much of its lustre, as far as the younger generations are concerned.

How does Japan keep their musical heritage alive?

Meet Hiromu Motonaga, a composer, lecturer and musician from Japan. Beginning his exploration of music at the age of four and having experimented with different styles of music, including heavy metal, Motonaga found himself inevitably drawn to the ancient music of Japan. He has since toured Europe, America and many Asian cities playing the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, and composing music for traditional instruments.

Motonaga is travelling to Malaysia this month, with music partner Azumi Yamano to teach and perform in Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur. We catch up with him over Skype to discover how the Japanese government ensures that the nation’s musical heritage is handed down to future generations and to hear about his journey bringing the sounds of Japan’s traditional instruments around the world.

Listen to our conversation below:


The shakuhachi is the musical instrument of Zen Buddhist monks from the Fuke sect. The instrument dates back as far as the 7th century. Photo: 松岡明芳/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0


It is increasingly difficult to find traditional Japanese music in rural areas outside of formal venues and concert halls in Japanese cities. Photo of Kabuki-Za Theatre, Tokyo: Tak1701d / Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0


Motonaga continues to keep the sounds of traditional instruments alive by composing and performing contemporary music with his band, Wasabi.



Playing Western or popular contemporary music helps pique interest in traditional instruments. Azumi Yamano on the koto (below) plays a cover of Toto’s ‘Africa’.

Hiromu Motonaga and Azumi Yamano will be in Kota Kinabalu for a workshop at the University Malaysia Sabah to introduce traditional Japanese music and how the instruments work on January 30th. This will be followed by a rare Arts on the Move performance on January 31st at the Pasar Seni station in Kuala Lumpur. For further information and workshop reservations click here.



This podcast episode contains the music tracks ‘Aoi’ and ‘Gurizayu no Sora’ (Grisaille Sky) by WASABI; and ‘Kokiriko’ and ‘Dayung Sampan’ featuring Che Mat Jusoh on Rebab, Mohd Juffry Yusoff on Gendang, Hiromu Motonaga on Shakuhachi and Azumi Yamano on Koto, courtesy of Hiromu Motonaga and The Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur.

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