Music Jōji Yuasa
Luciana Galliano
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0177


Jōji Yuasa is an internationally renowned Japanese composer among the protagonists of the postwar musical avant-garde. He is a founding member of Jikken Kōbō (Experimental Workshop) in Tokyo, a young artists’ group exploring different media and new languages (serialism, electroacoustics), in which he took his first steps as a composer along with Tōru Takemitsu. Yuasa was born on 12 August 1929, in Koriyama, to a culturally rich family. His father, who had spent years in Germany (1924–1928) as a doctor, was also a poet, musician, and painter. Jōji received an early introduction to both Japanese and Western music by studying organ with his mother and by listening to the many recordings his father brought back from Europe. Additionally, the study of noh chanting that the young Yuasa practiced until middle school was of paramount importance in shaping his musical poetics. In 1952, after a year of studying medicine at Keio University, he turned to music full time as a self-taught composer. His own creative process has espoused Zen philosophy along with Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism in a series of innovative chamber works bearing the word “project” in the title, where influences of Herbert Read are also found. Later, he drew inspiration from literature in both the sciences and the humanities, then expressed in a wide range of musical compositions including orchestral, choral, and chamber music, which won him such prestigious prizes as the Otaka Prize (1972, 1988, 1997, 2003), the Grand Prize at the Japan Arts Festival (1973, 1983), Suntory Music Prize (1996), the Medal with Purple Ribbon (1997), the Imperial Prize (1999), and the Person of Culture Merit (2015). He has also composed music for theater, intermedia, and electronic media; his film and television scores realized at NHK Studio won him several prizes (Jury’s Special Prize at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival, the Prix Italia 1966 and 1967, the San Marco Golden Lion Prize 1967). In 1977, he spent a year in Berlin for the artist program sponsored by DAAD and received commissions from many institutions; there, the young Toshio Hosokawa took inspiration from Yuasa’s avant-garde writing for string quartet. In his mature period Yuasa turned to classical Japanese literature by Matsuo Bashō and Motokiyo Zeami, focusing on the themes of time, language, and the universe’s origin. Between 1981 and 1994, Yuasa taught at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Upon his return to Japan, he taught at Tokyo Music College and the Nihon University. Currently, he holds the post of professor emeritus at UCSD and serves as an honorary member of the International Society for Contemporary Music. His students include Ignacio Baca Lobos, Julien Yu, Mamoru Fujieda, and Hiroyuki Itoh.

General Overviews

A number of sources in Japanese, English, and German offer biographical information on Yuasa and his role in trends of postwar art music in Japan, as well as an overview of his work. Akiyama 1978 focuses on his early career and poetics, while Herd 1987 and Galliano 2002 contextualize Yuasa’s contribution within their overview of the development of 20th-century art music in Japan. Sano 2007a and Sano 2007b offer scattered mentions of Yuasa’s activity, and in particular Yūji Numano (in Sano 2007b) comments on the change that took place in Yuasa’s compositional orientation in the 1980s when he adopted a twelve-tone modal scale in composing for ensemble and orchestra. Galliano 1992 offers a comprehensive overview in German and provides concise but limited biographical and bibliographic sources on Yuasa. Takeda 1986 offers a detailed chronology of works, and a talk with Akimichi Takeda, himself an avant-garde musician in the 1960s, on Yuasa’s poetics of time. Havens 2006 offers an up-to-date and detailed historical description of the postwar performance context.

  • Akiyama, Kuniharu. “Yuasa Jōji. Sono naishokkantekina uchū no projection.” In Nihon no sakkyokukatachi. Vol. 1. By Kuniharu Akiyama, 299–324. Tokyo: Ongaku no Tomosha, 1978.

    Gives an introductory historical overview of Japanese Western-style composition, then dedicates a chapter to each of the main composers. In the one dedicated to Yuasa, entitled “The Inner Feeling Universe of Projection,” Akiyama gives a detailed description of Yuasa’s early career and works.

  • Galliano, Luciana. “Jōji Yuasa.” In Komponisten der Gegenwart. Loseblatt-Lexikon. Edited by Hanns-Werner Heister and Walter-Wolfgang Sparrer. Munich: Edition TextKritik, 1992.

    A brief description of poetics, biography, and works by Yuasa, accompanied by a short catalogue, discography, and bibliography.

  • Galliano, Luciana. Yōgaku: Japanese Music in the 20th Century. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2002.

    The book offers a comprehensive overview of the development of art music in Japan in the 20th century. In Part 2, Galliano focuses on Yuasa’s contribution as a member of Jikken Kōbō and during the 1960s at SAC electronic studio (chapter 6), and of his later works from the 1980s, which demonstrate the influences of Zeami and Bashō (chapter 8). Originally published in Italian.

  • Havens, Thomas R. H. Radicals and Realists in the Japanese Nonverbal Arts: The Avant-Garde Rejection of Modernism. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006.

    An introduction to artists across multiple disciplines that emphasizes oral testimony. Offers the view of a changing terrain of artistic politics and so deals with Yuasa’s early career in the 1950s and 1960s.

  • Herd, Judith A. “Change and Continuity in Contemporary Japanese Music: A Search for a National Identity.” PhD diss., Brown University, 1987.

    Provides a comprehensive overview of the history of Western music in Japan. Herd discusses the birth of a national compositional style, differentiating neo-nationalist, experimental, and the avant-garde that Yuasa is ascribed to. While focusing on some early instrumental pieces, she does mention electronic works by Yuasa and of his reaction to Cage’s thought. The author interviewed the composer in July 1984.

  • Hori, Kyo, ed. Nihon no Sakkyoku 20seiki. Tokyo: Ongaku no Tomo, 2000.

    This collection of essays presents a concise history of the development of art music in Japan in the 20th century and provides a list of representative composers. The entry on Yuasa by Murata Maho consists of a short biography and a comprehensive list of compositions up to 2000.

  • Sano, Kōji, ed. Nihon Sengō Ongakushi: 1945–1973. Vol. 1. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2007a.

    Section 2 (authored by almost the entire editorial board: Ishida, Katayama, Sano, Takaku, Chōki, Narazaki, Mizuno, Murata), chapter 3, the section dedicated to Jikken Kōbō, discusses the specific context in which Yuasa started his musical career in the 1950s, and also documents his involvement with CrossTalk. Yuasa’s contribution to electronic music is also discussed in Section 4, chapter 3 (authored by Kazushi Ishida).

  • Sano, Kōji, ed. Nihon Sengo Ongakushi: 1973–2000. Vol. 2. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2007b.

    The sixth section of chapter 2, (by Yuji Numano) discusses Yuasa’s mature style of the 1980s, as he emphasized his distinctive treatment of time and space while adopting a personal treatment of dodecaphonic technique. Yuasa’s presence within the avant-garde is thoroughly discussed in the fifth section (by Chōki Seiji); various commissions he received are given in the seventh section (by Mikako Mizuno).

  • Takeda, Akimichi. “Taiwa Yuasa Jōji: Takeda Akimichi interview.” Yuasa Jōji, Program of Suntory Monography Concert 1986: 14–21.

    In this interview, conducted by a musicologist who specialized on postwar avant-garde music, the composer’s career up to that point is briefly touched upon. The catalogue contains a detailed chronology of works. Reprinted in Yuasa 1999 (cited under Monographs) as “Sakkyōkuka no cosmology,” pp. 19–46.

  • Wade, Bonnie. Composing Japanese Musical Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

    Examines the recent brief history of the composer in Japanese society, looking at the creative and social circumstances; presents Yuasa’s thought and work briefly but interestingly with musical examples.

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