Chie Naganuma


Let’s Sing like Sister Act: Evolution and Development of Gospel Communities in Japan


The gospel community in Japan emerged around the middle of the 1990s, and since then it has rapidly expanded and diversified. Many conceive this phenomenon was largely ignited by two American films, Sister Act I (1992) and Sister Act II: Back in the Habit (1993) . Inspired by the popularity of these films , the leading music instruction firms, such as Yamaha Corporation, added a gospel chorus class to their musical instruction program offered by their local shops . Culture centers and private music schools followed this trend . Many of their advertisements appealed to the potential customers by the trite, yet still effective catch phrase, “Let’s sing like Sister Act!” According to Yamaha’s official website, 2,200 members from the gospel classes in the Tokyo metro area participated in the annual concert in 2005. This media-driven gospel boom naturally has generated a criticism of its shallow adaptation: Many Japanese have considered the world of Sister Act to be the gospel culture. Most of the singers who attend these gospel classes are non-Christian and enjoy gospel sound without understanding its close tie with African American history and religious significance. On surface, the Japanese gospel boom simply seems another unfortunate example of Japanese economic appropriation of black cultural forms. While the ongoing commodification of gospel music do es exist, steady church-based gospel communities have also developed through these years. Grounded on their shared faith, Christian communities from both shores of the Pacific Ocean have collaborated, together organizing gospel workshops and establishing respectable relationships. In these workshops, not only musical instruction but also history classes about slavery and Bible studies are offered to educate non-Christian participants. Contrasting these two communities, the paper investigates 1) how Sister Act I & II created Japanese gospel boom and 2) since then how diverse gospel communities evolved beyond the media-driven adaptation stage and have established Japanese aesthetics unique to their social and religious demographics.


I am a Ph.D. student majoring in Musicology at the University of Minnesota, where I teach Rock History as an assistant instructor. I earned master’s degrees in Choral Conducting and Musicology from the same university. I specialize in African American sacred music, such as gospel, which I have taught to choirs at interracial churches in Minneapolis for seven years. Since 2005, I have worked for Akita International University in Japan as an adjunct lecturer; I teach African American Music History and Gospel Choir. My research interests lie not only in musical characteristics of gospel but also in its racial and cultural background. In my master’s thesis, I examined the increasing popularity of gospel among white Americans, especially in two university choirs posing a question if this phenomenon contributes to racial reconciliation or friction . In my dissertation, I will focus how Japanese adapted gospel (or other black musical forms) under the influence of American cultural hegemony and how Japanese have gradually developed their local sensibility away from the stage of shallow, cultural appropriation. As a college educator, I hope that my researches help students cultivate analytical minds through discussions of how culture is shared, adapted, and recreated among races and of its potential problems.