The Appeal of the Foreign in Toshio Hosokawa’s Opera Matsukaze

By Tomoko Deguchi

This blog post is the first of multiple posts related to the opera Matsukaze (2010) by the Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa (b. 1955).

During the summer of 2019, Gavin Lee, Ya-hui Cheng, and I led an online seminar in which we explored the concepts of “tradition,” “form,” and “copy” reconceptualized in global modernism that were discussed in the book A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, edited by Eric Hayot and Rebecca Walkowitz.<1> As a case study, I apply the above three concepts to Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa’s opera Matsukaze.

Toshio Hosokawa is one of the most successful and influential composers whose works are performed in Europe, the United States, and Asia. He is a Darmstadt product who was trained in European modernism, however as Padraic Costello puts it in his thesis, “this compositional alignment with European modernism is molded in tandem with strong references to Japanese classical aesthetic and philosophical ideals.”<2> This is especially reflected in the philosophy of Zeami, who established the style of Noh Theatre that has not changed to this day, and also to the aesthetics of Noh Theatre. <3>

Matsukaze is an adaptation of a popular Noh play by the same title. The original Matsukaze is a Mugen Noh,” which translates as Noh play of dream and illusion, in which reality and dream intersect, and the protagonist is a spirit that lingers in this world.<4> The story follows a monk who encounters the spirits of two sisters, Matsukaze and Murasame, who were loved by a nobleman Yukihira. The sisters recount their memories with Yukihira, then love-stricken Matsukaze dances hysterically, and finally the monk calms them by offering a prayer and the sisters disappear into the other world. The libretto follows the original text faithfully, but is translated into German. The music is written for Western-trained voices and scored for traditional Western orchestra (with an array of percussion instruments including the small Japanese bell fūrin). However, the opera clearly attempts to preserve the aesthetics of Noh theater, especially the concept of yūgen, which is described as subtly profound grace.” Yūgen values the power to evoke rather than to state, and the principle of yūgenshows that real beauty exists through its suggestiveness.”<5> This is a Youtube video of the trailer of Matsukaze by the opera company La Monnaie based in Belgium.

Jacob Edmond, the author of the “Copy” chapter in A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, examines “copy” as an integral phenomenon in modern globalism that becomes a cultural dominant, in which such techniques as pastiche, stylization, cut-and-paste, collage, montage, remediation, performance, translation, and appropriation become “an artistic strategy in a technological, economic, and geopolitical context.”<6> Edmond contrasts this strategy in the context of the preconceived notion of modernism – that “the product is original, foreign to preexisting, and idiolectic – the “make it new” rhetoric.” However, Edmond argues that “copy” is fundamentally different from “mimetic desire.” He cites Rey Chow who has termed a “mimetic desire” as responsive and oriented toward the West’s imposition of itself on the rest. This mimetic desire of non-Western, peripheral, or global modernism is “to speak in the other’s language in order to be recognized by the other” that is the West. However, the “copy” is different from the “mimetic desire” in that it does not privilege what has been copied. The focus on “copy” is to recognize that the replication acquires the power of the represented.<7>

Hosokawa’s Matsukaze copies from the original Noh play Matsukaze the archetype of “Mugen Noh,” the characters, certain expectations of the characters’ roles, plot development, and, to some extent, the chant-like singing style and the percussive sounds of Noh Theatre. However, the original Noh play is not privileged as the art form that was copied – they are simply two different art forms. Noh Theatre preserves traditional performance practice that has not changed since the 14th century.

How, I question, is the opera Matuskaze conceived through “mimetic desire” by a non-Westerner? Is the opera accepted and recognized by the European and American audience since “it speaks in other’s language that is the West?” Hosokawa was trained in a Japanese conservatory, and then in Germany, which at least in Japan, Germany is considered as the power of dispatch of information in the contemporary concert music world, that speaks of the dominance of the German tradition that is still pervasive. However, Japan went through more than 100 years of “mimetic desire” of the culture, musical styles, and techniques of the West, basically copying the European and American cultures and institutional structures into its own. I think it is no longer meaningful to talk in terms of “copy-er” and “copy-eed,” thus leaving the idea of “mimetic desire” futile. In Japan, it seems to me as if the notion of “foreign” has flipped; the traditional Japan has become “foreign” to the 21st century Japanese people and society.

The author of theForm” chapter, Jahan Ramazani, poses a question: When forms that have originated from one part of the globe are transported to another part of the world, how can we understand the meanings and effects of this movement?<8> The author challenges the scheme of foreign form and local contents,” however, as Ya-hui argues, the main issue remains in that the boundary between foreign and local aspects is hard to delimit and easy to oversimplify or mistakenly dichotomized.”<9> In the case of Japan, if we limit the notion of local” as pre-import and pre-circulation of Western music, the local” is no longer local but insteadforeign” to the average Japanese population, and the original foreign” (the music from the Western) is no longer foreign. But did the foreign and local actually flip? The chant-like vocal style in Matsukaze, timbre-oriented orchestral writing, microtonal pitch bend that reminds me of the pitch bend of Japanese traditional instrument koto, the non-teleological temporal structure, and the operas sense of ma are distinctively Eastern-derived, which also distinguish many compositions by composers of Eastern origin. I do not characterize these attributes as the flipped foreign,” since consciously or unconsciously, these attributes are inherent in Eastern composers’ music. The multi-faceted reading of Matsukaze is a prime example of a trans-national product that is an amalgam of foreign” and local” whether in form or content. The complexity and ambiguity of the notions of foreign and local establish a new level of cultural hybridity and contribute to de-center the West.

I believe that Matsukaze’s success largely owes to this cultural hybridity that appealed to the audience in Europe and America, but it might be the “foreign-ness” of traditional Japan that appealed to the Japanese audience. I imagine that in Japan, a sense of cultural pride also contributed to Matsukaze’s success, acknowledging that the “foreign elements” (Japanese tradition) are distinctly originated in Japan’s rich cultural tradition. But, in Europe and America, does the popularity of the opera owe to the fact that it was written by a composer who comes from a peripheral global region in a Euro-centric perspective? Toru Takemitsu wrote about how Western music is transplantable, but in contrast, Eastern traditional music is not.<10> For instance, subtle inflection and the mixing of noise on pitch productions, and the use and understanding of ma in the temporal flow of music, are not easily notate-able, and thus not easily transferrable. Would it be possible to consider that in the case of Matsukaze, the “mimetic desire” towards the East (Noh Theatre and its associated aesthetics) by Hosokawa, who was trained in the West, has acquired the power of the non-West as the result of appropriation and creative adaptation of the form, style, and content of traditional Japan? (As reversal of the historic “mimetic desire” by Eastern composers “to speak in the other’s language in order to be recognized by the West.”)

In his writing in the website of the publisher of Matsukaze’s score, Hosokawa refers to the spatial meaning of the Noh stage, specifically the hashikagari, a physical passageway in Noh stage that signifies the bridge that connects the earthly and other worlds. On the Noh stage we are at the same time in this world and the hereafter, and inside the main characters, life and death are present at the same time. Hosokawa says Noh is a theater that plays in a dimension different from Western modern theater.<11> In the opera, the chorus takes the role of hashikagari, acting as a passageway of the spirits of the two protagonists, as their psyches shift from lingering in the earthly world to the state of hysteria, eventually attaining transcendence, disappearing to the other world. The form also seems to allude to the traditional Japanese tripartite form of jo-ha-kyū, which translates as “beginning, break, and rapid.” As the narrative unfolds, the music intensifies culminating with the instrumental ecstatic Dance movement with no more spoken words by the two women. In my second blog post on Matsukaze, I will focus on the chorus that takes the role of hashikagari. In the third blog post, I will focus on the form of jo-ha-kyū in Matsukaze.

Matsukaze poses many questions on global modernism concerning cultural hybridity, appropriation, transnational attributes, Western perspectives on Eastern aesthetics, among others, and the complex interaction of cultural identity complicates the intricacies. It is imperative to continue to cultivate vocabulary to truly captivate the nature of global modernism.


<1> This online seminar was one of the activities of Society for Music Theorys Global Interculturalism and Musical Peripheries Interest Group (formerly Global New Music Interest Group).

<2> Padraic Costello, “Opera as Japanese Culture: Creativity, Modernity and Heterogeneous Social Expression in Japanese-Composed Opera” (Master’s thesis, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, 2016), 211.

<3> Noh Theatre is a classical stage art in Japan, which consists of literature, music, and dance with a mask, developed from a variety of sacred rituals and festival entertainments established during the medieval period (circa 1300 – 1400 AD).

<4> In general in Mugen Noh, there is one main character as the spirit that lingers in this world, who is referred to as the “shite (protagonist).” Matsukaze is unusual in a way that there are two characters who are identified as protagonists.

<5> In my opinion, the Urban Dictionary’s English definition of the Japanese term yūgen captures and summarizes the essence of the word the best. See Yugen,” Urban Dictionary, accessed August 3, 2020, Yūgen is one of the important aesthetics in Noh Theatre that express the different kinds of beauty involved. Among the aesthetic terms in Noh, yūgen is the most difficult to define. John Wesley Harris writes, “It was originally used in poetry to describe transient but beautiful experiences… which are emotionally charged but which, of their very nature, last for only a few seconds. However, in Noh acting it is generally held to mean that certain sensitive types of mood or emotion can only be hinted at by the actor if they are to be effective.” See John Wesley Harris, The Traditional Theatre of Japan: Kyogen, Noh, Kabuki, and Puppetry (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), 103-104.

<6> Jacob Edmond, Copy,” in A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, eds. Eric Hayot and Rebecca Walkowitz (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 97.

<7> Ibid, 98.

<8> Jahan Ramazani, Form,” in A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, eds. Eric Hayot and Rebecca Walkowitz (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 114.

<9> Ya-hui Cheng, Form,” accessed August 5, 2020,

<10> Takemitsu writes about transportable and non-transportable music relating his experience with Aboriginesmusic and using Japanese traditional instruments shakuhachi and biwa in his orchestral piece November Steps. See Toru Takemitsu, Confronting Silence: Selected Writings. Translated and edited by Yoshiko Kakudo and Glenn Glasow (Berkeley, California: Fallen Leaf Press, 1995), 59-67.

<11> Toshio Hosokawa, “Über meine Oper Matsukaze,” accessed August 6, 2020,


Cheng, Ya-hui. Form.” Accessed August 5, 2020.

Costello, Padraic. Opera as Japanese Culture: Creativity, Modernity and Heterogeneous Social Expression in Japanese-Composed Opera.” Masters thesis, University of Hawai’i‘ at Mānoa, 2016.

Harris, John Wesley. The Traditional Theatre of Japan: Kyogen, Noh, Kabuki, and Puppetry. Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2006.

Hayot, Eric and Rebecca Walkowitz, eds. A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Hosokawa, Toshio. Über meine Oper „Matsukaze.” Accessed August 6, 2020.

Takemitsu, Toru. Confronting Silence: Selected Writings. Translated and edited by Yoshiko Kakudo and Glenn Glasow. Berkeley, California: Fallen Leaf Press, 1995.

Urban Dictionary. Yugen.” Accessed August 3, 2020.


Winthrop University: CVPA Faculty and Staff Profile - Deguchi, Tomoko

Tomoko Deguchi, a native of Kobe, Japan, is a professor of music theory at Winthrop University. She holds a Ph.D. in music theory from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her research interests include the music of Toru Takemitsu and other Japanese composers, musical narrative, film music, and intersections between music theory and culture and aesthetics. Her articles appear in Indiana Theory Review, Journal of Film Music, Athens Journal of Arts and Humanities, Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy and currently she is working on a book on Toru Takemitsus music and its cultural identity. She also remains active as a pianist, specializing in contemporary music.