Even if you don’t recognize the name of Michio Miyagi, a gifted koto player, you may have heard of his most famous song, “Haru no Umi,” a classic song often played during New Year’s celebrations. Miyagi inevitably comes up when discussing the history of Japanese music. In this issue, we talked with Seattle’s koto master Kuniko Takamura, who directly learned from Miyagi. In 1959, she formed the Seattle branch of the Miyagi Koto Association (Miyagi-kai), and since then, she’s been teaching the koto and shamisen in the local Japanese community.
Interview by Naoko Watanabe, translated by Bruce Rutledge, photos by Kuniko Takamura
Meeting Miyagi, the father of modern Japanese classical music
Kuniko Takamura is soft-spoken with an exquisite demeanor. She is more than 90 years old, but she doesn’t look it. When I rudely ask her age, she laughs and says, “I’ll be 96 this year.” When I ask her the secret to her youthful demeanor, she replies with a smile and in a manner of fact tone, “I guess I’m just happy-go-lucky.” Then she adds as if speaking to herself, “It’s because young people come to visit.”
Expressing gratitude towards those around her comes naturally to Kuniko. She exudes a sense of humility and a polite gentility. As we spoke in the koto practice area in her house, the phone kept ringing. It seems that she still has a busy daily life.
Kuniko was born in China in 1923. As Imperialism crumbled, there was endless fighting. When she was 10, the family returned to Japan. The father stayed behind in China for his work. Kuniko was raised by her mother and siblings in Tokyo. She says they led a relatively privileged life. She started playing the koto in her school years. “Before that, I learned piano and nagauta music, but it didn’t really speak to me, so I quit. My older sister was really good at the piano,” she recalls. At the recommendation of her teacher at the girls’ school, she entered the Tokyo University of the Arts.
At the time, Michio Miyagi was a Japanese classical music teacher at the university. He was known as the great teacher who was blind but still brought to life so many classic songs. Later he became known as “the father of modern Japanese music” as he incorporated elements of Western music, starred with a world-renowned violinist, and racked up countless achievements. Kuniko was nervous facing this great teacher.
But this was in the midst of World War II. The Tokyo airstrikes had started. “I got into an underground shelter with Miyagi-sensei. Once the bombs destroyed our house, I was evacuated to Yugawara in Kanagawa Prefecture. Sensei was evacuated too. We didn’t return to Tokyo for a long time,” she remembers. After the war and even after leaving the university, she continued to learn from Miyagi. He taught her on his own for about 10 years.
I asked her what about Miyagi made the biggest impression on her. She thought for quite a while, probably running through memories in her head. “Miyagi-sensei was a very quiet person,” she finally said. “I remember saying goodbye to him when I decided to leave for the US. He told me, ‘I want you to spread the popularity of the koto in America.’ I will never forget that. I remember thinking I don’t have the strength to do that.” That’s the last time they saw each other. A week later, Miyagi suddenly died in an accident. Kuniko had recently married and was on her honeymoon when she heard the news.
Coming to the US to deliver the sounds of the koto
Kuniko’s reasons for coming to Seattle were tied to her relationship with her now-late husband. He played the shakuhachi. While he was born in Japan, his family had experience living in the US and he had American citizenship. “There are a lot of Japanese who live in the US for decades and never return to Japan. I want them to hear the sounds of the koto,” he told her. In 1957, a year after they married, she accompanied her husband to Seattle. Her husband went first, and when she arrived, his music-loving friends were waiting for the koto teacher from Japan. “Everything was ready to go, and we soon started practicing. There were a lot of Japanese Americans who spent time in the US incarceration camps during the war and learned the shamisen. They were so excited to have an authentic koto teacher from the esteemed Tokyo University of the Arts.
In December 1959, she formed the Seattle branch of the Miyagi Koto Association. They began to hold regular concerts twice a year and ended up holding a lot of recitals. At the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, her eldest daughter Marcia, who was still quite young, put on a koto showcase, which was met with great ovations. At the request of the Seattle consul general, they traveled for a week and as far as Montana giving concerts. She remembered so many memories from those years: how they held special concerts at the 10th and 20th anniversary of the association, were asked to perform by hotels and golf courses, and held collaborative performances with a student who played the flute. “I flew to Spokane on a small airplane to perform once,” she recalls. “I thought we were going to crash. When you play for 50-60 years, so much happens!” Kuniko’s efforts to spread koto music across the US have been recognized and commended by the Foreign Ministry of Japan and the headquarters of the Miyagi Koto Association.
Instead of scolding, I cry
When I ask one of Kuniko’s disciples, Ritsuko Kawahara, what sort of person Kuniko is, Ritsuko replies, “She is friendly. When students are dragging, she doesn’t say a word. Once I even said something instead. She just can’t bring herself to tell students, ‘why don’t you study more at home?’ She never scolds people.”
When Kuniko hears this, she squints and says, “Instead of scolding, I cry. It’s miserable to have to explain something over and over. I cry over the disappointing areas of my teaching style.” It’s difficult to teach. Tempted to play on her own, Kuniko watches over the students as they figure things out. That is her style. “Everyone has moments when they understand,” she says. “All of a sudden, something that you couldn’t do becomes easy to do. That moment brings me happiness. We both share in the happiness. ‘You did it!’”
She has taught about 200 students in Seattle. In her heyday, she would travel to Tacoma and teach there, too. A lot of the students have been Japanese or Japanese Americans, but there have also been plenty of other Americans who were intrigued with Japanese culture. “One Caucasian woman has been commuting from Vashon Island for about 30 years to learn from me,” she says.
Kuniko’s students are from a different era to people of different cultures, traditions, and upbringings. “Were there troublesome students who made unreasonable requests, too?” I asked. “Yeah, that’s true. There are all sorts of people,” she replies. “But I’ve forgotten all that. I forget all the troublesome stuff.”
What doesn’t change
I’d like to introduce an article from the Sunday edition of The Seattle Times back in 1969. “The Jinsei Takamura home on South King Street in Seattle is an unpretentious-looking dwelling from the outside. But behind the walls is a shrine to the classic and traditional forms of Japanese music. It is here Mrs. Takamura, a gracious lady who came to this country 12 years ago, keeps alive the ancient art of playing the little music upon stringed and wind instruments.” Along with the article were a lot of photos of Kuniko and her students, dressed in kimono, playing their koto. The reporter explains the depth of the koto and shamisen. “The musical instruments are all shapes and sizes. Largest is the koto, 13-string object which is carved from one piece of wood. It can be played either placed on a stand or on the floor with the student kneeling. The instrument, while looking unfamiliar to most people, nevertheless produces melodic sounds often heard in the United States through recordings and Japanese movies.”
People born and raised in Seattle today, even people with no connection to Japan, have probably at least once come across the classical koto instrument. This is something Kuniko started by nurturing Japanese culture in Seattle, performing wherever she could, and exposing the music to a great number of people.
Unfortunately, the Japanese room in Kuniko’s house shown in the article is gone. The room made by her husband burned because of a short circuit. Compared with its heyday, students and performances are down. However, Kuniko has powerful helpers today. Her daughter Marcia is now in charge of teaching. Her second daughter, Sherry, learned in Japan how to replace the koto’s strings and helps her mom repair instruments now that it is difficult for her to do herself.
Something that hasn’t changed between then and now is that the Seattle Miyagi-kai has no website, no pamphlets, and no sign. Her students come, referred by people who hear a concert or people who hear about it from others. The Seattle Miyagi-kai led by Kuniko will celebrate its 60th anniversary in autumn. It has been awhile since her last concert, so she is looking forward to putting on an authentic recital then.
Born in 1923 in China, she and her family moved back to Japan when she was ten years old. She studied under Michio Miyagi at the Tokyo University of the Arts. She became one of the great teachers (大師範 Dai Shihan) of Miyagi’s work after the formation of the Miyagi-kai, or Miyagi Koto Association, in 1951. In 1957, she arrived in Seattle, and in 1959, she founded the Seattle branch of the Miyagi-kai. The Seattle Miyagi-kai can be reached at (206)325-9285 or email@example.com.