I am an ethnomusicologist. That is to say, I study music as an anthropologist as well as a musician. I love music. I love to play it, to listen to it, to think about how it is put together, and how it makes me feel. But I also want to understand how music works as a social, cultural, and political practice. I want to understand not just how it moves us, but also what it moves us to do and what we are moved to do with it.
Here is a simple example. At the beginning of any major sports event, such as a football or baseball game, everyone in the stands and on the field stands to sing the national anthem. We don’t sing this before eating dinner together, or watching a movie, or beginning a concert. We don’t celebrate the opening of a new restaurant, or a marriage, or the life of someone who has passed away in such a communal way. Moreover, we always open sporting events with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” or perhaps “America the Beautiful,” but never “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” or even “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Why is this?
As a social scientist, I see two closely related reasons for singing the national anthem before a sports event. One is functional: A football or baseball game is an agonistic competition, a kind of ritual performance that substitutes for intercommunity conflict and, therefore, has the potential to stimulate real conflict (see soccer riots in Europe). Beginning an agonistic competition with a group song is a gentle reminder that the competition is a substitute for real conflict, a performance that is meant, in the end, to connect people to one another, not to divide them.
The second reason is rooted in identity as Americans. Win or lose — through this song we reaffirm that we share citizenship in a community much larger than the places or institutions represented by the opposing teams. This is not to say that individuals only have a single, American identity — on the contrary, if it were true that we only shared an American identity, there would be no need to reaffirm it — rather, it is a way of asserting a broader, more inclusive identity shared by both sides of the competition. It is a way of saying “At the end of the day, this is only a game. It does not affect our shared identity.”
Representing a national identity through an anthem is a convenient approach, but it is far from the only one, particularly when the identity being represented is more complex, or when it is being represented by people who don’t share in that identity. For example, thanks to film and television, we are all familiar with the representation of ethnic or national identity through specific melodies or even the sound of a specific musical instrument. American media commonly represents "Japaneseness" through the sound of the koto, usually playing the opening notes of "Sakura,” or, more recently, with the ominous sound of a taiko drum ensemble thundering away. We use such simple sonic markers of "Japaneseness" because we have a rather simple notion of Japanese identity, one grounded in exoticism and an image of Japanese culture that is, frankly, out of date by more than a century.
For Japanese listeners, Japanese identity is much more complex, but in some cases wholly problematic. The sound of the koto — associated as it is with a long-gone aristocracy in central Japan, and as a means for middle-class young women to show an attractive, if not useful, accomplishment to boost their marriageability — cannot represent the totality of Japanese identity. Similarly, the sound of the taiko ensemble, although quite popular all over Japan, is too closely linked to seasonal festivals. It’s something like using “Jingle Bells” as a marker of American identity.
In Japan, the musical instrument most consistently associated with Japanese identity, whether local or national, is the shamisen, an instrument that looks and sounds like an American banjo. This type of instrument is not unique to Japan — indeed, its origins in Okinawa and China are key to the role it plays in Japanese identity — but the ubiquity and importance of the instrument across the country is unusual in East Asia. The shamisen serves admirably to represent many kinds of Japanese identity in the 20th and 21st centuries because of several features.
First, the sound of the instrument is loud, sharp, and percussive, allowing it to dominate ensembles ranging from traditional instruments and vocals to rock bands. Second, the major traditional schools of shamisen playing emphasize the individuality of the performer, the ability to synthesize other musical traditions and improvise upon them, and a level of technical skill that reaches the virtuosic. Third, the shamisen is closely associated with subcultures that have been socially (and legally) marginalized over much of Japanese history — ethnic Okinawans, shamans, prostitutes, beggars, and professional musicians. Unlike koto or taiko, all of this history is available and audible to a Japanese listener when they hear the sound of the shamisen.