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Ezo Squirrels play the kantele. Illustration by Ayumi Nakamura (Japan)

FT Ying-Hsien Chen is an ethnomusicologist. Her doctoral dissertation (2023) dealt with the Finnish kantele in Japan.

Honoured Custos, honoured Opponent, members of the audience!

Over the years as I have been working on this dissertation, people have been asking me, a Taiwanese national, what inspired me to study a Finnish folk instrument in Japan. The answer is simple and personal. I will try to make this long story, that goes to the roots of my study, short.

When I was considering applying for a place as an exchange student in Europe in 2010, Finland emerged as my destination. Coming from a small island with a diverse population, I was intrigued by the kantele’s beautiful sound and its national status in Finnish history. Later, I was privileged to study at the Sibelius Academy. As a guzheng player, the kantele was familiar to me in terms of its structure and some required techniques. The whole year was inspiring, eye-opening and emotionally profound because it took me to various places. I built a five-string kantele from pieces of wood in a Helsinki suburb. I discovered different kantele variants in a museum in middle Finland. With a small group of international students I visited Nötö, an island in the Baltic Sea with only nine inhabitants, where we found the “singing stone.” By knocking the stone with my kantele improvisation, we created music in the fascinating natural environment. As a non-Finnish speaker, the small and ancient instrument is my window to Finnish culture.

Year 2012 was a turning point. When I was back home in spring, I realized that keeping kantele as a hobby was hard because there were no players in my country. Although instructive videos and other materials made by Finnish musicians were available on the Internet, I was sometimes puzzled by the rhythmic complexity, the tuning method and the lyrics. It suddenly occurred to me that I had listened to some kantele CDs with the Japanese language on their cover at Sibelius Academy’s library. I found many clips with Japanese titles on YouTube when typing the transliteration of kantele in katakana (カンテレ). Among these, there were Japanese songs, and a few of them, such as “The Big Old Clock” (おおきな ふる どけい) aroused my childhood memories. The intimacy was probably not a coincidence. Japan colonized Taiwan between 1895 and 1945 and left influences on our music and music education. I had the impression that the Japanese style was different from the Finnish style. The Internet was an intriguing, shared space that enabled me to cross temporal, national and cultural boundaries, as I felt lonely at home. I started to befriend Japanese kantele players on social media, and learned Japanese, hoping to meet these people someday because their enthusiasm reconnected me with the musical joy I had experienced thousands of kilometers away.

Japan and Finland are geographically and culturally distant. As cultural exchanges have expanded over the past three decades, Japan has become known for its exceptional “kantele friendship” with Finland. The Japan Kantele Friendship Association (Nihon kantele tomo no kai in Japanese) was established in Tokyo on 31 May 2008, which is a sister branch of Kanteleliitto, the Finnish Kantele Association that was established in 1977. According to Masa Watanabe, a former chairman of tomo no kai, its mission is to promote the kantele to a “nationwide” level in Japan. Enthusiasm for the kantele has developed multi-dimensionally over the past three decades. Several kantele groups and individuals coming from Japan were awarded prizes in the kantele competitions between 2013 and 2019. The enthusiasm continued beyond the performance stage. On Japan’s Northernmost Island of Hokkaido, for example, approximately three thousand youngsters have learned to understand the kantele and to play it, thanks to Yuji Itakura, a high school music teacher in Sapporo (the capital of Hokkaido) who started to use it as a way of introducing world music since May 2008.

Kouvolan Sanomat, a local Finnish newspaper, claimed in 2016 that Japan possibly had the most kantele players globally, outnumbered only by Finland. This statement was bold and was probably speculative, the problem being that this musical phenomenon lacks research.

Let me now turn to the objectives of this dissertation. My intention was not to prove that Japan had the second highest number of kantele players in the world. Instead, I was more concerned about why the Japanese people are fascinated with the foreign instrument and what happens to the kantele when it is practised and developed beyond Finland.

The goal was twofold. First, I hoped to contribute to research on the kantele, which lacks a global / transcultural / transnational perspective. Current literature primarily represents research conducted by Finnish scholars or kantele musicians within Finnish cultural and national borders. These previous studies are fascinating because they reveal the continuing attention to the role of the kantele in modern society. However, would it be limiting to suggest that this ancient instrument is meaningful only to Finnish people? Objects of cultural significance are constantly being transformed in the globalized world because they no longer belong to people of specific localities (Stillman 1999, 57). How should one understand the kantele’s transnational move? What does the kantele give to its enthusiasts in Japan? How is it adapted to Japanese tastes? So far, little has been written about these issues.

Second, I aimed to enhance understanding of cultural mixing by studying the kantele as used in Japan. During the past three decades, Japan’s imported musics and dances have become research topics in anthropology, popular music study and ethnomusicology, conceptualized in terms such as transplantation, Japanization, adaptation, (re)creation and reformulation. These terms reflect not only the different foci of researchers but also the complexity of the transformation of imported musics and dances in Japanese contexts. Many of the studies were built on American cases, which diverted my attention to Japanese interest in the kantele, a folk instrument from a Nordic country.

Around 100 and 150 Japanese citizens were taking regular kantele lessons with local instructors before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and these hobbyist groups that were founded in Tokyo, Sapporo and Western Japan are dominated by women. I view these women as active, engaged and transformative rather than as “recipients” or “consumers,” which connotes passivity. As musicologist Marko Aho notes (2016, 16), “as soon as human component[s] step in and the playing starts, musical instrument[s] transcended into living things in slightly more than just the abstract sense.”

Various theories and terms, including multiculturalism and intercultural and cross-cultural encounters, seem to be relevant to my study. I chose to ground it on transculturation. Unlike the concepts mentioned above that presuppose cultures as “discrete,” transculturation concerns the complex interactions and mutual influence of cultures that come into contact.

I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about transculturation. Coined as a term by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz ([1940]1995) in his seminal work Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, transculturation has a history in Latin America. Ortiz wished to challenge the notion of acculturation, a theory predominantly applied by anthropologists in the contexts of colonization and the expansion of Christianity in Latin America. Ortiz took issue with its implied ethnocentrism, its flawed assumption of cultural purity, and its reductive interpretation of cultural transformation. Transculturation has become a primary analytical concept later in sociology and anthropology. Ethnomusicological studies started applying transculturation as effective theory in the 1980s, especially following the publication of ethnomusicologist Margaret Joy Kartomi’s (1981) “The processes and results of musical culture contact: A discussion of terminology and concepts.”

With Elizabeth Kath’s theory (2015) of transculturation in mind, I understood it as a dynamic process encompassing exoticization, resignification and adaptation. I argue that these processes eventually gave rise to the kantele performances with filtered Boreal characteristics in combination with Japanese elements. Thereby, the variant has meaning to the enthusiasts themselves in Japan.

Overall, Borealism, a type of exoticism specifically related to outsiders’ stereotypical and homogenous ideas of the geographical North and its people, led to the dynamics of exoticisation, by means of which “healing” and romantic ideas of Finland and Nordic mythology are developed and highlighted in kantele performances in Japanese contexts as the signature quality. Many enthusiasts conjure up such an image of nature pervading this Nordic state when describing their experiences of playing the kantele. Professional players set the tone for their musical works and public events by adopting the image and the metaphor of nature. Ethnographic data also showed that Japanese enthusiasts use the kantele to enhance well-being. The aim of Pieni Tauko, a Tokyo kantele club, is to create a friendly environment for its members who are “overburdened with work”, “in a panic with their studies” or “swamped with caring and household chores” (Pieni Tauko 2010). “Pieni tauko” means “a small pause” in Finnish, which in Japanese views seems to be equivalent to a break, interval, or interruption during the day. Japanese Borealist views of the kantele inspired the title of this dissertation, “Plucking the Forest Sound.”

The enthusiasm of the Japanese reflects their linking of the kantele to a space imbued with greater freedom. I understood this as a process of resignification. My honoured opponent, Professor and musicologist Minako Waseda (2013), found that imported music, such as gospel music, functioned as a tool by means of which Japanese practitioners could find freedom. As my ethnographic data gathered in a hobbyist club in Sapporo shows, the kantele enables Japanese people to find new, unconventional ways of making music, thereby constructing an alternative space with the inclusion of different voices that Japanese society has hitherto not encouraged.

Japan is a country that has been known historically for its adaptation of foreign items and culture for Japanese use. Ethnographic data have revealed that, in the Japanese case of adaptation, the kantele was initially adopted for its Finnishness but quickly became more familiar as local elements were added. For example, the repertoire of kantele music has been expanded for local use, in which the Finnish sound and the Japanese elements converge. Many kantele repertoires performed in Japan combine “exotic/foreign” and “familiar/local” music, chosen and filtered in accordance with the enthusiasts’ logic. Japanese adaptation of the kantele was also noticeable in the performers’ attire. Finnishness was constantly emphasised through the citing of recognisable elements from Finland to cater to mainstream audiences. Adaptation may lead to domestication, evidenced in the locally-made five-string kantele, a product with decorated body using local materials.

In the globalized world, the kantele is now enjoyed by enthusiasts from different cultures in various time zones. The exceptional enthusiasm in Japan allows the kantele to be studied from a different perspective. In this study, I aim to represent Japanese players as passionate, active and engaged performers. They craft an alternative space for themselves to express different voices with new aesthetics, creating an expressive (sub)culture with the spirit of Finnish folk music for local audiences. The result of Japanese kantele performance is a hybrid product of the context and performers involved, which I understood as transculturation. Transculturation avoids a simplification of kantele as music as static and a subsequent flawed interpretation in assuming Japanese enthusiasts as passive consumers. Both are too one-sided to enhance an understanding of the kantele in globalisation. On transculturation, the kantele is subject to continual change, stimulated by enthusiasts’ passion, feelings, and imagination of Finland beyond Finnish borders.


Aho, Marko. 2016. The Tangible in Music: The Tactile Learning of a Musical Instrument.  New York: Routledge.

Kath, Elizabeth. 2015. “On Transculturation: Reenacting and Remaking Latin American Dance and Music in Foreign Land.” In Narratives of Globalization: Reflections on the Global Condition, Rowman and Littlefield International, edited by Julian CH Lee. 21-37. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kartomi, Margaret J. 1981. “The Processes and Results of Musical Culture Contact: A Discussion of Terminology and Concepts.” Ethnomusicology 25 (2): 227-249.

Ortiz, Fernando. [1940] 1995. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Durham and London: Duke University Press. (Originally published as Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar in Spanish, translated by Harriet de Ońís).

Stillman, Amy Ku'uleialoha. 1999. “Globalizing Hula.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 31: 57-66.

Waseda, Minako. 2013. “Gospel Music in Japan: Transplantation and Localization of African American Religious Singing.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 45: 187-213.

Chen Ying Hsien’s doctoral dissertation "Plucking the Forest Sound: The Transculturation of the Finnish Kantele in Japan" was publicly examined at University of Helsinki on August 28th, 2023. Professor of Musicology Minako Waseda from the Kunitachi College of Music at Tokyo served as the opponent. Assistant professor Susanna Välimäki of the University of Helsinki served as the kustos.  The dissertation can be downloaded at https://helda.helsinki.fi/items/a9f68d72-b818-4098-9c3e-b651048bc53e?fbclid=IwAR17-CPLuhAHKw9384IkLkBVp9ft8xfKbgagGQqOabQ-KH9e1sR-gZbWwSA