Tango in Japan: Digesting and Disciplining a Distant Music

Yuiko Asaba

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis examines the dynamics of Japan’s tango culture by analysing issues and tensions surrounding cultural transmission, performance practice, and cultural meanings. Oswald de Andrade’s “cultural cannibalization” is employed as a theoretical lens to reveal the uniqueness of tango in Japan and demonstrate how musicians, fans/patrons and market forces attempt to maintain tango’s idiosyncratic features while incorporating local qualities, where Japanese tango also becomes an export. It is also suggested that, in certain respects, the institutionalization of Japanese tango culture bypasses the East-West axis to stress a Japan-Argentina nexus.

The early part of the thesis is historical in approach and examines tango’s introduction into Japan in the early twentieth century, as part of wider Westernising and modernising processes. It demonstrates how the genre’s arrival from Argentina was preceded by tango’s popularity in the form of British ballroom dance (chapter 1). The arrival of tango and other forms of couple dancing also led to the renegotiation of sexual morals, highlighting disjunctions between class positions, impacting attitudes to bodies and dress, and determining laws that persist to this day (chapter 2). The narratives and politics of nostalgic elderly fans, many of whom act as patrons, are shown to play a critical role in the Japanese tango world. These key protagonists not only generate and circulate tango knowledge and values, but also often dictate the course of musicians’ careers, creating both opportunities and deeply felt tensions (chapter 3). In contrast to the nostalgia of their fans, musicians’ discourses tend to stress traditional mythical values about suffering and the virtue of age, superimposed onto tango’s Argentina-derived aesthetics of emotion. In turn, it is seen how this virtue of suffering shapes musicians’ biographies (chapter 4). It is argued that Japan’s traditional system of schools has been adapted by tango culture, providing a rigid hierarchical system in which professional tango musicians learn etiquette and the aesthetics of emotion (chapter 5). The tensions and factionalism between various regionally-differentiated tango schools is highlighted, whilst also showing how in recent years reactions to such tensions and constraints have motivated innovative approaches to tango performance and composition.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Stobart, Henry, Supervisor
Publication statusUnpublished - 2017


  • Tango in Japan
  • Ethnomusicology
  • Dance studies
  • Japanese Popular Music
  • South American Popular Music

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