Exaggerated claims are commonplace. But one claim that cannot be disputed is that Tokyo is the epicenter of classical music not only in Japan but, indeed, throughout Asia. Where else, for example, can one find eight – count ’em, eight! – full time, full-size, fully professional orchestras of its own? Not London. Not Moscow. Not New York. Not Berlin. Not Vienna. Each has its own subscription base and all enjoy full or nearly-full houses for each performance. Collectively they provide more than 1,200 concerts a year, including services for opera, ballet and other events. The Top Three of these Big Eight, based on salary and budget, are the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Rounding out the list are the Tokyo City Philharmonic, Japan Philharmonic, New Japan Philharmonic, Tokyo Philharmonic and Tokyo Symphony. All eight are capable of superlative work and any attempt to rank them inevitably leads to frustration and failure. Within a period of just two weeks one can often hear performances by all of the Big Eight and, on occasion, purely by happenstance, all eight are performing on the same day.

© Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau

But even these eight are only the tip of the iceberg. Throughout Japan there are about 1,600 orchestras of one kind or another, about half of which are in the Tokyo area and some of which bear such unlikely names as Amadeus, Appassionata, Cosmos, Esperanto, Kinki (that’s a place name!), Maple, Earl Grey and Cordon Bleu.

Halls large and small suitable for classical music can be found all over Japan, with about 200 of them in the Tokyo area alone. No fewer than seven in this city regularly accommodate performances by full-size orchestras, with Suntory Hall leading the pack as Japan’s premier concert venue. Until Suntory opened in 1986, the Bunka Kaikan, located in Ueno Park along with its fabulous museums of both western and Japanese art, served the purpose. Since then additional fine halls have opened, including the Bunkamura, the Metropolitan, Sumida Triphony, Tokyo Opera City (in fact a concert hall, not an opera house) and, in nearby Yokohama, the Minato Mirai Hall. Also just outside Tokyo, but still within the Greater Metropolitan area, is the MUZA Kawasaki Symphony Hall, which rivals Suntory in acoustic excellence. For the 2,000 or so recitals, chamber music concerts and performances by smaller orchestras given annually in Tokyo, there are dozens of smaller beautifully designed, acoustically excellent halls available, among them Oji Hall, Toppan Hall, Tsuda Hall and Kioi Hall. There are even suitable concert venues in department stores and large company headquarters.

The Japanese prepare well for their concert outings, sit in sepulchral silence, heavily patronize what are probably the largest CD stores left on the planet and pay astronomical ticket prices for the top visiting attractions (up to 43,000 yen – over £300 – for the Berlin Philharmonic).

MUZA Kawasaki Symphony Hall
© Satoshi Aoyagi

Where does the Japanese love for western classical music come from? Contrary to common assumption, this is not a recent development. Ever since the opening of Japan to the West in the late 19th century, exposure to western culture has been part of the curriculum in the Japanese educational system. Some of Japan’s orchestras are older than many in the United States – the NHK Symphony Orchestra goes back to 1926 and the Tokyo Philharmonic even further ― well over a century. “Every elementary school has a music room with a piano and portraits of the famous composers on the walls,” notes Shinsuke Inoue, public relations officer at Suntory Hall. “Music is everywhere in your life when you are in school; you can’t get away from it.” The Tokyo Music School, the first institution to teach western classical music in Japan, opened in 1887.

This is the culture that nurtures a phenomenon like the Japanese craze for Beethoven’s Ninth, which receives over two hundred performances each December with choruses singing from memory. One of these events features a chorus of 10,000, so well trained that their German is intelligible despite the gargantuan numbers. The history of the mania for daiku (Japanese for “The Ninth”), as the Japanese call it for short, goes back to World War 1, when German POWs sang the “Ode to Joy” in an effort to sustain their spirits in a time of hardship. Following a performance by the released prisoners, the Japanese started paying attention to this music too. Throughout the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, they increasingly incorporated it into their social, political and, during World War 2, even military functions. By the 1960s The Ninth was as much a part of their culture as bunraku and kabuki. Today The Ninth serves the Japanese not only as a gratifying musical experience but as a deep well of inspiration to encourage achievement and to find courage in the face of adversity.

Classical music even spills over into mangas (Japanese comic books), with titles like Chopin Always in My Pocket and Piano Forest. Nodame Cantabile was serialized in the magazine Kiss from 2001 to 2009, collected into 23 individual volumes, revived in sequels, adapted for four different television series and turned into two live-action movie sequels to the television drama, along with video games and soundtrack albums. The series depicts the relationship between two aspiring classical musicians, Megumi “Nodame” Noda and Shinichi Chiaki, as music conservatoire students and in their life after graduation.

Opera too draws large audiences. The New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT), which opened in 1997, ranks as Japan’s foremost national theatre for the performing arts. Here each season one can attend ten productions (occasionally imported) of the standard operatic repertory, usually with lead roles sung by guest singers from abroad and often sold out, even on weekday afternoons (more than 20% of Japan’s population is over 65, highest in the world). Two additional important opera companies in Tokyo, both artist-owned and managed, are the Fujiwara Opera (Japan’s first professional opera company, founded in 1934) and Nikikai Opera Theatre, which this season offers nine productions of such varied repertory as Massenet’s Hérodiade, Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers and Berg’s Lulu. Tokyo also plays host to visiting companies the likes of La Scala, the Mariinsky, the New York Metropolitan and the Bayerische Staatsoper.

Donizetti's Don Pasquale at the New National Theatre, Tokyo
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

Balletomanes can get their fixes from not only the NNTT’s rich offerings but from at least half a dozen other companies in Tokyo, including K-ballet Company, founded by Tetsuya Kumakawa, a former star dancer at the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden; Tokyo Ballet; Tokyo City Ballet (not the same as the former); Star Dancers Ballet; and the Asami Maki Company. The performances I have seen here rank with the best anywhere, a fact still little-recognised outside Japan.

The entire musical world will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020 and Tokyo will be doing so too in grand style. The city’s annual Folle Journée, patterned after the original format in Nantes and now popular in over a dozen other cities around the world, will have Beethoven as its theme, with more than 300 short performances crammed into three days (May 2, 3, 4) – 127 concerts at prices of just 3,500 yen (about £24) or less, all the rest free. It is destined to be the world’s largest classical music festival of the year, held in six halls (the largest seating 5,000) in the International Forum building in central Tokyo. As if all this weren’t enough, Tokyo also has an annual Spring Festival, now in its fifteenth season. The seven-week festival, with multiple concerts per day throughout April and May all over the city, incorporates not only classical music but also traditional music, theatre, dance, film and art installations. The cliché “something for everyone” would be a gross understatement. Chamber music aficionados can indulge their passion at Suntory Hall’s annual Chamber Music Garden in June, which always includes the complete cycle of Beethoven quartets, each time by a different ensemble.

No matter when one arrives in Tokyo – or departs – there is always some major event the visitor is going to miss. In my case, had I arrived five days earlier, I could have taken in the Czech Philharmonic, the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra and a Carreras recital. Had I stayed a few days longer, the steady parade of visitors would have included the WDR Sinfonieorchester and the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus, the latter with Gergiev conducting fully-staged performances of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, a concert version of Mazeppa and concerts with all the composer’s symphonies and concertos.

Click here to find out more about classical music, opera and dance in Japan.

This article was sponsored by the Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau.