Discover the Ambient Music of Hiroshi Yoshimura, the Pioneering Japanese Composer

The his­to­ry of ambi­ent music is a dif­fi­cult sto­ry to tell in the same way we tell oth­er his­to­ries, name­ly by ref­er­ence to great men and women and the move­ments they inspired. When it comes to ambi­ent music, there are few stars, and it can be dif­fi­cult to lump artists togeth­er into cat­e­gories. But what else would we expect from music designed to exist in the back­ground?

The con­ve­nient ori­gin point of the genre is Bri­an Eno’s 1978 Music for Air­ports, the first album released as an “Ambi­ent” record and imag­ined as music made for a wait­ing room. Eno’s spir­i­tu­al fore­fa­ther, Erik Satie, famous­ly called his min­i­mal­ist com­po­si­tions “fur­ni­ture music” and also thought of them as accom­pa­ni­ment to mun­dane tasks.

Through these con­cep­tu­al reduc­tions of music to its most util­i­tar­i­an function—creating a mild­ly pleas­ant atmosphere—ambient explores the space of day­dream­ing and the vague emo­tions asso­ci­at­ed with it. Few com­posers of ambi­ent have pur­sued the genre’s osten­si­ble pur­pose with as much prac­ti­cal­i­ty and direct appli­ca­tion as in Japan, where “the influ­ence of min­i­mal­ist com­posers like Philip Glass and Ter­ry Riley met a gold­en era for elec­tron­ics” in the 1980s, Jack Need­ham writes at The Guardian.

Japan­ese com­posers adapt­ed cen­turies of tra­di­tion to dizzy­ing mod­ern­iza­tion:

Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese music has mir­rored its sur­round­ings for cen­turies – the shakuhachi, a sev­enth-cen­tu­ry bam­boo flute, was designed to play all 12 tones of the west­ern chro­mat­ic scale as a way to give voice to nature’s diver­si­ty. So in Japan’s 1980s eco­nom­ic boom, when cities like Tokyo were mutat­ing at warp speed and Roland syn­the­sis­ers replaced the clas­si­cal instru­ment, ambi­ent was reflect­ing these new, hyper-advanced land­scapes.

The music they made was “unabashed­ly cor­po­rate,” becom­ing big busi­ness when Takashi Kokubo’s 1987 album Get at the Wave was “giv­en away with Sanyo air con­di­tion­ing units.” Andy Beta at Vul­ture details how Japan­ese ambi­ent music became big in the U.S. through a com­pi­la­tion called Kankyō Ongaku: Japan­ese Envi­ron­men­tal, Ambi­ent & New Age Music 1980–1990. The title means “envi­ron­men­tal music,” and it was also referred to as “back­ground music,” or BGM by indus­try insid­ers (and Yel­low Mag­ic Orches­tra). But what­ev­er we call it, we can­not dis­cuss Japan­ese ambi­ent with­out ref­er­ence to the pio­neer­ing work of Hiroshi Yoshimu­ra.

Yoshimura’s Green “is an exam­ple of Japan­ese min­i­mal­ism at its finest,” writes Vivian Yeung at Crack, “with the meld­ing of nat­ur­al sounds—via birds, run­ning water and crickets—to the arti­fi­cial­i­ty of arpeg­giat­ing synths and soft min­i­mal notes deployed to poignant effect.” Wet Land, from 1993, deploys soft synths in min­i­mal­ist melodies that recall Satie’s few, well-cho­sen notes. Yoshimu­ra’s music has spread far beyond Japan through the same mech­a­nism as the recent boom in Japan­ese “city pop”—through YouTube algo­rithms.

After dis­cov­er­ing Yoshimu­ra online, SPIN’s Andy Cush wrote, “Now, I lis­ten to Yoshimura’s music almost every day, both because I find it tremen­dous­ly mov­ing and because YouTube won’t stop play­ing it.” But there’s far more to the recent pop­u­lar­i­ty of Japan­ese ambi­ent music than algo­rithms, Beta argues, not­ing that the “Satie boom” in post­war Japan led to a musi­cal rev­o­lu­tion that is per­haps par­tic­u­lar­ly appeal­ing to West­ern ears. In any case, as one of Yoshimura’s new “acci­den­tal fans” writes, his inter­net fame has far eclipsed his fame in life.

When he died in 2003, Yoshimu­ra “was a foot­note in music his­to­ry…. His work most­ly end­ed up as back­ground noise in muse­ums, gal­leries or show homes.” Beau­ti­ful back­ground noise, how­ev­er, was exact­ly the pur­pose of kankyō ongaku, and com­posers like Yoshimu­ra did not exceed the brief. Instead, he per­fect­ed the form con­ceived by Eno as “ignor­able as it is inter­est­ing,” music made to “induce calm and a space to think.” If you’re crav­ing such an atmos­phere, you may need to look no far­ther. You can sam­ple Yoshimura’s key albums here, and find more of his works (where else?) on YouTube.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Hear the Very First Pieces of Ambi­ent Music, Erik Satie’s Fur­ni­ture Music (Cir­ca 1917)

Decon­struct­ing Bri­an Eno’s Music for Air­ports: Explore the Tape Loops That Make Up His Ground­break­ing Ambi­ent Music

The Ther­a­peu­tic Ben­e­fits of Ambi­ent Music: Sci­ence Shows How It Eas­es Chron­ic Anx­i­ety, Phys­i­cal Pain, and ICU-Relat­ed Trau­ma

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • Laurence Goldman says:

    If we set Bri­an Eno’s “Music for Air­ports” Tape Loops as a par­a­digm, this music fails to grasp the fun­da­men­tal aes­thet­ic genius core of what makes Eno’s music rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Name­ly, it’s NOT MUSIC!. The end­less loops are timed to intro­duce the next sound in a kind of ran­dom interval(s) the way in which nat­ur­al sound occurs. If you sit qui­et­ly and observe how nature sounds enter your body in ear­ly morn­ing maybe you’ll get it. Yoshimu­ra is mak­ing music! HE is mak­ing the deci­sions: which phrase when. So you end up with MUSIC TO LISTEN TO. It requires focused atten­tion to it. Where­as Eno’s music is much clos­er to just being there. Like breath­ing. Yoshi’s music clash­es with ambi­ent nature sounds occur­ring in my room while play­ing. E.g. the birds out­side sound irri­tat­ing to the music. Where­as with Eno it’s all works.

    This is not to say Yoshimura’s music is “bad”. It’s fine if you like it. Eno’s sound is beyond ENO: a gen­er­a­tive art process that will per­haps reach a point where the lis­ten­ers’ bod­ies, bio-rhythms, moods co-cre­ate sounds, tem­per­a­ture, col­or in a 3D inter­ac­tive envi­ron­ment called your home.

  • gwr says:

    Beau­ti­ful. While you’re at it, why not a post on Harold Budd, who sad­ly passed away at 84 from Covid-19 on Decem­ber 8.

  • Philip says:

    With or due to covid? Hard­ly any­one makes the dif­fer­ence but it mat­ters a great deal…

  • Nico says:

    Is it ok to use these works as back­ground music for my upcom­ing video game?

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