The All Japan Band Competition (AJBC) is a familiar event to band people from all over the world. Despite the fact that one may have seen the videos of the performances in the National final of the competition through DVD or online clips, I do feel that the structure of the competition is not made known when I talk to non-Japanese band people. Therefore, I’d like to introduce the general picture of AJBC through this article.
The competition started in 1940. As it was during wartime, the competition was rather militaristic. The competition was discontinued from 1943 to 1955 because of the escalation in World War II and the confusion during the postwar period. AJBC was restarted in 1956 as the 4th competition, and it is the 64th this year.
AJBC is held under the auspices of the All Japan Band Association (AJBA). In each year, more than 10,000 bands participate in the competition, and in this year, we see the participation of 14,241 bands. By these figures, it means that at least 250,000 people would have performed every year, with more than 4 million of people with AJBC experiences so far. Thus, it is regarded as the largest music competition in the world. On the other hand, only 11 to 30 bands for each level are picked to perform at the National final. In order for them to get to the National stage, they need to win at least 2 or 3 stages to qualify.
The competition usually starts from the local areas. In the Saitama prefecture where I live, there are 4 areas: East, West, South and North. In the case of a South Saitama local competition, only 10% of the bands can advance to the next stage. If there are not many bands in the level or area (for example in the country area), the local competition is omitted.
The second stage is a prefectural competition in which about 30 bands perform as a representative of each area but only 8 bands can win the gold prize with a qualification to the next stage. The third stage is a district competition. Saitama prefecture belongs to the Nishi-Kanto district which is composed by 4 prefectures; Gumma, Niigata, Yamanashi and Saitama.
The qualified bands are gathered at a common venue for the competition where only the top three bands can book the place in the National final. In this final stage, only 30 bands from each level (15 bands from university) can perform. This figure is roughly equivalent to the top 0.5% of all junior high school bands, and 2% of all high school bands.
Many foreign band people who have seen videos of Japanese band performances often say that Japanese bands are special. However, what they see on these tapes are usually the finest Japanese bands, but it does not accurately portray the overall standard of Japanese bands. The average standard of Japanese bands has developed a lot in this decade, but there are some lower standard bands. In fact, the gap between top class bands and lower class bands in Japan is actually rather big.
There are 5 levels in the competition, namely, elementary school, junior high school, high school, university, and, community and office bands. The last level used to be divided into the 2 different categories; community bands level and office band level, but they were combined in 2009.
Junior high school and high school levels have a few categories. The regulations of category A are as follow:
- Perform both set piece and choice piece
- Performing duration is 12 minutes, including set piece
- Maximum number of performers is 50 people for junior high level and 55 people for high school level
In actual fact, only bands in Category A will qualify for the National final. The National final used to be held at the 5,082 seater Fumon Hall in Suginami, Tokyo, which belongs to Risshō Kōsei Kai, a new Buddhist movement in Japan. It had been regarded as a holy place among Japanese band students.
However, after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, Risshō Kōsei Kai decided to discontinue to offer the hall for AJBC as it is not that earthquake-resistant. Now, the National final of junior high school and high school level is held at Nagoya Congress Center instead.
In the AJBC, there are other categories, where the judging system differs from different associations. Most of the competitions have Category B, with the regulation as follow:
- Perform only one piece
- Performing duration is 7 minutes
- Maximum number of performers is 30 or 35 (it varies for each area)
The final stage for category B used to be the district competition. However, in 2001, 6 district band associations from the East half of Japan came together to establish the East Japan School Band Competition (EJSBC).
For category B bands under these 6 districts, EJSBC is regarded as the equivalent of the National final. After its establishment, the performance standard of bands with smaller instrumentation made marvelous progress. Many pieces have also been composed and published by Japanese composers and publishers too. As Japan is now facing a decline in birth, EJSBC has become very suitable for the current situation.
Unfortunately, for category B bands in west Japan, the district competition is still the final stage for them. This category is not considered mainstream in Japanese band culture, but its presence and importance is getting higher and higher in Japanese band scene.
The categories C, D or Junior Band exist in other areas of Japan, where the regulations vary for each band association. In the categories for university, and, community and office bands, the regulations are almost the same as category A. However, in case of community and office bands level, the maximum number of performers is raised to 65. A thing to note is that the regulations of elementary school bands are the same as category B.
With my article above, I hope that there is a better understanding of the All Japan Band Competition. How do you feel about it? Perhaps it is different from what you have thought about so far.
Ending off, I would like to recommend you to listen to the live performances of AJBC if the situation permits. Although it is hard to purchase tickets to the National final due to its huge popularity, it is relatively easier to purchase tickets to the local competitions. There could be a language barrier in retrieving more details about the competition as most of the information is in Japanese. However, if you wish to have know more, feel free to contact me. I believe that the performances around Japan have great enthusiasm that may delight you in the music they make.