Two Reviews of "Wind Bands and Cultural Identity in Japanese Schools"

Dr. CedarBough Saeji and Dr. Richard Colwell review the new book by Dr. David G. Hebert, Professor of Music at the Grieg Academy, Bergen University College, Norway

Wind Bands and Cultural Identity in Japanese Schools. New York: Springer, 2012. 287 pages with illustrations. $110 ebook, $140 hardcover.


Review by Dr. CedarBough Saeji:


David Hebert's book exhaustively explores the relationship of wind bands and the formation of cultural identity in Japanese primary schools in the twenty-first century. Wind bands are a type of "Western" classical music that has become extremely popular in Japan, challenging the very idea that Western classical music is foreign in Asia. This book will be most interesting for scholars interested in contemporary Japan and music pedagogy. The writing is bounded by academic convention but primarily due to interweaving copious observations from ethnographic research, it is approachable for undergraduate students and non-academics (in tone if not in the cost of the hardback).

In a print journal a strict word count would push me to confine my thoughts to a critique of Hebert's work. The beauty of online publishing is that I can interweave comments particular to my own subject position with my thoughts based on reading Wind Bands and Cultural Identity in Japanese Schools. As a scholar of performance focusing on the Republic of Korea, I find many of Hebert's points resonate—although I have never conducted research in Japan, the book sometimes reveals trends and transnational truths broadly applicable in Northeast Asia. While reading I often thought of Mari Yoshihara's Musicians from a Different Shore in which Yoshihara wrestles with the treatment of musicians of Asian descent in America and Europe. She discusses how those of Asian descent (whether they are Asian or immigrant) are repeatedly framed as foreigners who have miraculously achieved mastery of a music absent from their heritage. Yet Western music is prevalent in Japan and other parts of Asia—as Hebert explains "Japan has become a world center for the production and consumption of "Western" music" (p. 203). Evidence of the interest in Western music includes the All-Japan Band Association Annual Competition (the focus of chapter six) which draws 700,000 participants. The number of Japanese children who not only play wind band instruments, but do so well enough to participate in this contest despite the deep disappointment they will feel at anything less than a top outcome (as described in chapter seven), brings home how staggeringly mainstream the playing of Western musical instruments is in Japan.

In this meticulously researched book Hebert methodically guides the reader through a highly organized account of every aspect of Japanese wind bands. After a short introduction Hebert begins to demonstrate his fascination with the processes of musical transculturation in Japan's schools through the sixty-page second chapter. This covers the history of the introduction of Western music to Japan and Japanese schools and the development of school wind bands. In several chapters Hebert returns to history briefly, but the remainder of the book is almost entirely based on ethnographic research carried out between 1999 and 2009 with abundant references to the work of other scholars. Stylistically, with the exception of the second chapter, all eighteen chapters are short, well-organized, and focused. Most chapters are framed through Hebert's experience observing the Ishikawa Middle School Wind Band. We learn how wind band fits into the school, the rituals of rehearsal (twenty hours or more per week!), who teaches and how, what sort of music is chosen and about the important wind band competition. Other chapters deal with closely related topics, such as chapter thirteen; Corporate Giants: Yamaha and the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra. This chapter is necessary as a follow-up to chapter twelve where we learn that educational universities do not prepare music teachers to lead bands, even though it is almost always a requirement for music teachers. The chapter details how "a powerful music industry god has arisen and offered its support for the establishment and maintenance of a vibrant tradition of wind bands in Japanese schools" (p. 213). Overall, Hebert stays tightly focused on school bands, leaving abundant room for additional studies on the Japanese instrument makers' activities to promote music-making.

Scholars of music education, pedagogical transmission, or Japanese culture may find many points of interest in these ethnographic chapters, all of which are written in a dry but accessible tone. Hebert raises more theoretical concerns in chapters fourteen to seventeen, where he discusses issues of community and identity (musical and national). In Metaphors of a Japanese Band Community (chapter fourteen), Hebert uses the metaphors employed by the students of the middle school wind band ("matching produces beauty") to provide insight into the band by demonstrating how principle ideas from Japanese culture were interwoven with the musical activities. The next chapter, Musical Identity in the Band: Social Class and Gender, seems more like an extended answer to questions Hebert may have been asked at academic conferences. Rather than being deeply theoretical, the chapter pursues class and gender providing data and observations related to how they contribute to the demographics in a wind band based on the role of music in construction of self. Chapter sixteen, National Identity in the Japanese School Band, follows an incident where certain members refused to rehearse the Japanese national anthem. Hebert introduces the history of the song and the implications of the lyrics. Here, as in the previous two chapters, Hebert does not indulge in an extended theoretical discussion, instead calling for an international-comparative study into nationalism and music education systems (p. 247).

In Hebert's conclusion he helpfully creates three figures (p. 261-263) that provide a clear encapsulation of his observations of band directors, students, and the Japanese school band system. The clarity of his presentation of information, and his ability to succinctly identify key points is one of the greatest strengths of this book, although when touching on issues related to tradition my curiosity was not sated. Hebert's overarching conclusion is that wind bands contribute to the construction of cultural identity in Japanese schools (p. 259). As with Hebert's other theoretical arguments, I am not entirely convinced. Although all activities could contribute to construction of cultural identity, I felt as I was reading that (as with other activities in school) the students were being inculcated in appropriate group behavior—training the students to be good workers or citizens, more than specifically training them to be culturally Japanese. Hebert worked arguments about identity construction into several chapters, and as I read I often pondered how well Hebert's work and arguments resonated with the research of Dorinne Kondo (Crafting Selves: Power, Gender and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace) and chapters from an edited volume by Thomas Rohlen and Gerald LeTendre (Teaching and Learning in Japan). Ultimately I believe that this book is best read by those interested in education, specifically pedagogical transmission in the arts (rather than those interested in issues of construction of national identity).

The Japanese institutionalization of Western music within Japanese schools to the extent demonstrated by Hebert's research has contributed to a consumption of Western music as "music." The occupation of the soundscape in Japan by Western musical instruments, Western musical training, and Western concepts of musical aesthetics has simultaneously pushed Japanese traditional performing arts to the side and contributed to an elevation of traditional Japanese musical forms. Any student can learn and practice flute or French horn within the school setting for little outlay of funds (as described in Hebert's chapter ten it may cost around ten American dollars per month). Yet study of traditional Japanese arts remains expensive and outside certain areas instructors can be hard to find. In general Hebert does not address traditional music, nor does he seem to have broached the topic in interviews. The one section in the book where he most thoroughly explores traditional arts is in the chapter Instruction in the Japanese School Band. Hebert compares the director of the band to a hogaku sensei (teacher of traditional music) and the method of learning to that laid out by scholars of Japanese traditional music. Hebert presents eleven points of commonality, such as the emphasis placed on institutional lineage, respect shown to the teacher both verbally and non-verbally, emphasis on modeling and imitation and the minimal role of student creativity (p. 113). Many of the eleven points could be applied to any type of educational setting or subject in Japan, but I found this section one of the most interesting in the book because it clarified how the method of teaching and learning music in Japan was more closely tied to Japanese culture than to Western culture, regardless of the Western origin of the instruments and music. 

Reading about the serious participation in wind bands in Japan, I found myself questioning why a similar phenomenon does not exist in Korea. Western music arrived in Korea only slightly after it arrived in Japan, and attitudes towards Western art music, such as associating it with culture and refinement, are similar. Korean parents also encourage their children to learn piano, violin, or other common Western instruments. Just as Hebert describes in Japan, Korean music teachers struggle under relatively recent requirements that they teach Korean music because they received little or no training in Korean music during their education. The Ministry of Education developed a program whereby traditional performance professionals are certified and sent to Korean schools to supplement music education by music teachers unfamiliar with traditional music. Although the program is free and the application is simple, few schools participate. The constant practice of music, in schools, and with peers is rare in Korea—it is almost entirely confined to residential middle and high schools for the performing arts. Drawing on my two years as a middle school teacher in Korea (in a relatively affluent neighborhood), students would sing at school ensembles, but there was no instrumental performance (although students studying dance outside school presented dance solos at assemblies). Extracurricular activities in a Korean middle school are largely complementary to academic subjects—such as English clubs—and serious study of music occurs in private music schools. School principals are concerned with national test results, not the arts.       

Hebert is strongest as he clearly describes the teaching process, particularly because he has created a portrait of peer-to-peer training and mentorship by older students (part of chapters four, five, ten, and eleven). Learning from a master has been beautifully captured in books such as Tomie Hahn'sSensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance, but Hebert contributes a discussion of how the Ishikawa Middle School band members cooperatively train despite little or no previous education in their instrument. Their music teacher is responsible for a large group, and we learn her background was in piano and voice—despite what she learned through the community of wind band directors and from Yamaha workshops—older students must teach younger students part specific techniques. Furthermore Hebert's observations are even more important because this musical growth occurs at school without rehearsals at home, private lessons, or special parental encouragement. Because Hebert was able to observe almost their entire learning process reading this book provides a unique portrait of musical training.

Finally, another joy of the online format for presenting a review is that I can direct you to these videos of middle school Japanese wind bands. I was not able to find a video of the specific band Hebert worked with, but these videos may help you to picture Hebert's research environment.

Sakai Noda Middle School in 2008:

Tsubata Middle School in 1986:

Kodaira Dairoku Middle School in 2008:


Review by Dr. Richard Colwell

Hebert’s text is an important contribution to the profession, important and unique. The book’s importance stems from Hebert’s first-hand knowledge of students, schools, and teachers at the middle school level in one suburb of Tokyo. He interviewed the band students, observed and video-taped a large block of instruction, and attended professional meetings and the denouement for the middle school band members. The title is somewhat misleading as the emphasis is on the middle school band movement in Japan and, to some extent, cultural identity among participating students. 

The middle school band movement in Japan may not really be part of music education but an activity for middle school age girls (95% of the membership is female); there is almost no outside instruction, the girls begin the study of an instrument when they enter middle school, they work unbelievably hard at mastering the instrument, and, in general, they show little interest in continuing to participate in instrumental music after middle school. Thus, when Hebert discusses community music principles, he is not thinking of life-long participation, through high school and college and eventually in a community band such as is trumpeted by community music disciples in the United States. The community involvement that he sees is the cooperation of music industry in Japan and the role played by professional band organizations in providing professional development.

Hebert investigates the university education of the middle school band directors and finds that they receive no preparation for this time-consuming activity. Music education follows a strict curriculum with an emphasis on music appreciation, and these teachers teach “the curriculum” during the day and must switch to a non-paying after-school teaching responsibility where the contest music constitutes the curriculum. Hebert likes the idea of modeling, a strategy important in US instrumental teaching, but the teacher observed modeled primarily on an electronic keyboard. If one thinks his or her teaching load is onerous, reading about the schedule of a middle school band director in Japan will make any teaching load seem light. The teachers receive more support from peers than from school administrators or parents and certainly none from university colleagues.

Japanese music education stresses the teaching of moral values more than musicianship, but the reader is given minimal evidence of the results of this instruction. We are told that the “good students” participate in instrumental music while those with a character flaw or two participate in athletics. Students are also to cooperate (which they certainly do) to express themselves and to love music. After reading the book twice, I would be reluctant to suggest that evidence is provided that becoming expressive or loving music was a general outcome of this intensive drill-oriented instruction.

Hebert argues that the philosophy of music education may be set by corporations like Yamaha and Rolland, but later provides us with different philosophies by Japanese scholars that one must read with considerable care. He appears to advocate using the students’ music in a curriculum which is today dictated by the media and does not lead to depth and cannot be considered a sequential curriculum. There may be elements of Vygotsky’s scaffolding in the instruction but not in the way American educators think about his approach to learning.

One learns many facts about middle school instrumental music and its context and one can honestly say that the book provokes one to learn more. Hebert attempts to relate much of what he observed to the band movement in the United States, to education practices that might be familiar to the reader, to band literature, and even to the role of music in nationalism. It might be that space prohibited him from more extensive descriptions, but in some cases I found these broader connections lacking depth.

I am glad to have read the book and I learned a lot, but the connections were not satisfactory. The Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra is certainly a superb organization but I could see little connection between music education and this ensemble beyond the use of recordings as models.

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