Part of our series about learning about classical music education in Asia we spoke to pianist Aimi Kobayashi and musicologist Atsushi Ishikawa, both from Japan.

Bachtrack: What can you tell me about the exposure Japanese children get to Western classical music?

Aimi Kobayashi © Akira Muto
Aimi Kobayashi
© Akira Muto

Aimi: Most pupils have one class of music per week from elementary school onwards. However, they don't have all that many opportunities to listen to classical music. Most kids get to listen to classical music for the first time in class or in TV commercials, unless their parents like classical music, in which case they will have listened to CDs at home or been to concerts with their parents. When children go to junior high, at around 13 years old, there are after school clubs offering daily activities for children and I estimate that around 20% of pupils join a brass band club. Even if they don't listen to classical music much, they get to play an instrument.

Atsushi: I have noticed a strange phenomenon of children who only play an instrument but neither go nor want to go to concerts. Adults can be like this too, they are part of an amateur orchestra but they don't attend concerts. For many, there tends to be a division between “those who only play” and “those who only listen”.

Atsushi: I don't think it is music education which influences whether people go to concerts. Although it's true that ever since Japan opened its borders to the West during the second half of the 19th century, Western music has been taught at school. Schools teach the instruments of an orchestra, and give examples of orchestral pieces such as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or Smetana's Vltava. Most pupils get to attend a concert at least once during their school years, but I think whether people like classical music or not is entirely personal, based in some cases on their parents' taste.

I think what we observe in many of the children who join a brass band, choir or school orchestra is a hunger for technical improvement. This could be an expression of Japanese perseverance. It may be particularly Japanese that piano is often thought of as something children ought to learn, just like traditional Japanese arts such as tea ceremony or ikebana flower arrangement.

Bachtrack: Did you get to go to concerts?

Aimi: Because my high school was a music school, I had many opportunities to go to concerts. But most of my friends in junior high were more interested in pop music than in classical.

Bachtrack: Have concert times in Japan changed in popularity much over the years?

Atsushi: I would say that performances on Saturday afternoons enjoy the largest audiences. Sunday afternoons are quite popular too, but not the evenings, probably because people have to go to work or school the following morning so they prefer to relax at home. The gap in audience sizes on weekday evening concerts versus weekend performances has been widening over the years and I think this reflects how busy and tired the modern man has become.

Bachtrack: Does anything distinguish a Japanese audience from other audiences?

Atsushi: The quality of the audience and their high level of concentration is a profoundly Japanese characteristic. Japan is 70% covered in mountains and is renowned for its remarkable landscapes and luxuriant nature. Growing up in such an environment, the Japanese have developed a natural sensitivity and attention to subtle and small details and I think it is that sensitivity – unique to Japan and not even found in other Asian countries – that accounts for the quality of listening of the Japanese audience.


Pianist Aimi Kobayashi was born in 1995, and made her orchestral and international debuts when she was aged seven and nine respectively. A recital to commemorate her debut album, released through EMI when she was 14, was completely sold out, and an additional performance at Suntory Hall in Tokyo made her the youngest Japanese artist to hold a concert there. She has already performed with several major orchestras both in Japan and overseas, including the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century under Frans Brüggen and the Moscow Virtuosi conducted by Vladimir Spivakov. In 2012, she won third prize at the Gina Bachauer International Young Artists Piano Competition. She is currently continuing her studies at the Curtis Institute of Music.