#20 Barbara Ruch

Interview with Barbara Ruch

Barbara Ruch is a Professor Emerita of Japanese Literature and Culture and Director of the Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies at Columbia University. She has been awarded many prizes in Japan, such as The Imperial decoration, The Order of the Precious Crown, with Butterfly Crest. She is recognized as a leading pioneer of the study of Japanese medieval illustrated literatures such as Nara-ehon, and Etoki, “painting recitation.” We had a chance to ask her about her current dedication to Gagaku-Hōgaku, classical Japanese music, the upcoming Wagakki concert in March, and her further aims.


– As a Professor Emerita of Japanese Literature and Culture and Director of the Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies, what was your most remarkable interest in the past?


I began my interest in medieval Japanese literature, culture, and history, because it was the period that was neglected in the old days. When I was a graduate student, everyone studied “The Tale of Genji,” Kabuki, Chikamatsu, and Basho. I was a little stubborn, and didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. And I’m afraid that, in almost every project I have done since, I’ve begun looking for some area that is wonderful culture, but people are overlooking it. But the past 20 years, we’ve been working in Japanese music, which is one of the most neglected areas of all of Japanese glorious culture.

–Related to the previous question, how have your past interests motivated you to your current dedication to Gagaku and Hōgaku?


I didn’t know anything about Japanese music. But when I started to look into it, I realized the disaster that happened in Japan during the Meiji period: A big Tsunami of Westernization came in. Japanese people were tearing down their temples and throwing away their Buddhist statues. Some people found this terrible, so that they saved Japanese traditional art, but there was no one to save Japanese music at that time. Bureaucrats banned teaching Japanese instruments in high schools, because they thought Japanese instruments were primitive and inferior to Western ones. The curriculum of music became focused only on Western music. Today the Japanese government does not give any support to teaching Japanese instrumental music, although China and Korea have supported their traditional ensembles abroad. That’s a big problem that Japan has to solve.

Here in the U.S., our students of music in the 21st century want to taste every beautiful instrument in the world. It’s not just that little part of Euro-American music that they want to do anymore. So first we raised money to buy instruments like Shō, Hichiriki, Ryūteki, and so forth, and then opened the first Gagaku classes around 2006. We started with Gagaku, instead of some other genres of Japanese music, because Gagaku is the most difficult, the most fundamental of all of Japanese music, and it is the oldest orchestral music in the world, with a 1300-year history. We only allow students to play the classics, like Etenraku. By 2009, we had a very nice ensemble that could play very well. We held our first concert at Tokyo, at the Kyūsōgakudō at Ueno Park, and it was full. Funding is difficult because Japanese people think no one is interested in Gagaku and they themselves are not familiar with it. Little by little, however, we got funding from different places. Staring last September, we began Hōgaku, which is a broad term meaning secular art music and salon music of Japan, including Koto and Shakuhachi.

– Why do you think Japanese people are not interested in their own culture and traditions, unlike Chinese or Korean?


I think that one of the reasons is Westernization in the Meiji period, as I mentioned earlier. Maybe it is their loss of pride, which is understandable. I can see how Japanese would think “everything we’ve done must be old-fashioned, we have to change everything.” However, now there is a new attitude, which is not a good one either. Japan is a very tiny country with a huge gorgeous culture, but it has no bridges to other countries for others to easily see its marvelous culture. Mostly i