For years, the piano has been the most popular musical instrument among Japanese youngsters - or should I say their middle-class parents. This was true decades ago when I was a teenager, and remains so today. Almost half the girls at my daughter's school in Tokyo take piano lessons from private tutors or music schools. I noticed her music books recently, and was struck by how colourful and attractive they were. When I was a high school student many, many years ago, the inevitable books were by Beyer and Sonatina. Their practice pieces were monotonous and boring not only to me: they drove a good number of students to quit the piano after a couple of years. Practising had nothing to do with fun: it emphasised painstaking, meticulous work that brought little pleasure. It was a grim business: some of my teenage friends compared it to torture. I managed to persuade my mother that it was not for me, although my three sisters took lessons with little visible pain. Many Japanese mothers have long held that piano lessons were necessary to give their daughters a touch of sophistication. In upwardly mobile middle-class families, piano skills were thought to improve one's marital prospects. Finally, some teachers addressed the problem: they needed new, illustrated piano books that would catch the interest of young children. Ryoko Kihara was one of them. 'My students worked hard during the lessons, but I realised they did not enjoy the music at all,' she said. She began by writing original melodies, with words, for her students, so they could sing as they played to make it more fun. Today, her book Piano Land - published as a series since l991 - is one of the most popular piano texts in Japan. A charismatic teacher of piano teachers, Ms Kihara also criss-crosses the country giving workshops. Other frustrated piano teachers have also created their own instruction books. Today their works can be found in music stores under titles including Piano Dream, Hello, Mr Piano, and others. They are all colourful instead of strictly black and white; every page carries a cute illustration; and each practice melody is short, with large, easy-to-see notation. The melodies, with rhyming verses, are meant to be fun, such as: 'Let us dance waltz, one, two, three, wonderfully'. The push for better teaching materials is driven partly by the dropping birth rate. Every child-related business is feeling the pinch. In 20 years, annual piano sales have dropped from nearly 200,000 to 33,000 by 2001. Teachers, textbook publishers and piano-makers are fully aware that only the active innovators will survive in these difficult times.