Ukulele master dedicated to narrowing Japan-U.S. culture gap

MEMORIAL SONG — Jake Shimabukuro strums a ukulele on the island of Oahu in Hawai‘i in 2001, when he wrote a song titled ‘’Ehime Maru,’’ dedicated to the victims of the sinking of the Japanese training ship Ehime Maru near Hawai‘i. Shimabukuro said he wanted to do something to help relatives of the nine people presumed dead. Kyodo News photo

MEMORIAL SONG — Jake Shimabukuro strums a ukulele on the island of Oahu in Hawai‘i in 2001, when he wrote a song titled ‘’Ehime Maru,’’ dedicated to the victims of the sinking of the Japanese training ship Ehime Maru near Hawai‘i. Shimabukuro said he wanted to do something to help relatives of the nine people presumed dead. Kyodo News photo

TOKYO — If any barriers are hindering Japan and the United States from achieving ultimate social harmony, Jake Shimabukuro hopes that his music can break the ice.

Born and raised in Hawai‘i, the Japanese American ukulele virtuoso gets the best of both worlds with a ‘Wa’ on the outside and ‘Aloha’ on the inside.

“I have always felt that Hawai‘i is the perfect bridge to connect Japan to the United States, because Hawai‘i is its own unique culture and place. We are part of the U.S. but people don’t really feel that way,” Shimabukuro said in an interview with Kyodo News.

In 2001, Shimabukuro composed a piece called “Ehime Maru” in a tribute to the tragedy of a Japanese fisheries high school training vessel that sunk in a collision with an American submarine just offshore of Honolulu that year, leaving nine lost at sea.

“I wrote that song because it happened in Hawaiian waters and I wanted to help console some of the family members. I think that helped me build more of a relationship here (in Japan),” he said.

The two-minute instrumental song was selected the Best Single Recording at the Hawaiian Music Awards in 2002, and Shimabukuro donated a portion of his CD sales proceeds to a fund to help families of the Ehime Maru victims.

Today, Shimabukuro feels at home in Japan, a stop he makes sure to include in his tour schedule at least once a year. The 39-year-old says the more he visits Japan, the more he understands what lies beneath the beauty and uniqueness of the island nation.

Being a Japanese American born and raised in Hawai‘i is very different from being a Japanese American born and raised in the continental United States, he says, and fortunately Shimabukuro has never had to cope with racial discrimination.

“I have friends who grew up in the continental U.S. and felt like they were being stereotyped and put under the gun, but in Hawai‘i I’m not a minority. I’ve never felt like I had to prove myself. I could be whatever I wanted to be, and luckily I found music to be my passion,” he said.

“I feel so connected to my Japanese roots in Hawai‘i. We practice the culture, like when we eat ozoni (mochi soup) on New Year’s Day. Even the language is so embraced in our islands. For example, bocha (Japanese word for splash) is a very slang way of saying ‘take a shower or bath.’ It’s like Pidgin Japanese.”

The ukulele soloist never dreamed that he would one day become a touring musician. He was introduced to the four-stringed wooden instrument at the age of 4 through his first teacher — his mother — and quickly fell in love with it.

He started out playing traditional Hawaiian music but gravitated toward pop, rock and roll, jazz and classical music as he got older, and gained fame when his ukulele version of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral on YouTube in 2006.

Because there were very few ukulele instrumentalists who were successful then, Shimabukuro says he didn’t think he could ever join the elite musicians if he couldn’t sing in addition to strumming.

“I was a horrible singer, and I still am, so I had to learn to play a lot of melody. All the songs I liked I would try to play on the ukulele. I guess that’s what developed my style of playing,” he said.

Hawaiian culture has always been popular in Japan, and it was here that he signed a record deal with Epic Records in 2002, becoming the first ukulele player to sign with Sony Music.

Since then he has turned into a world-renowned artist known for his complex finger work, touring across North America, South America, Europe, Oceania and Asia, and topping Billboard’s World Music Chart numerous times in the process.

A constant traveler, who puts on about 140 shows a year, Shimabukuro says that Japan is his second-favorite place to spend time after Hawai‘i.

“I come as often as I can. One of the things I love about the Japanese mentality is the feeling of when to do something and when not to do something. It’s that sensitivity. My roots are here and my ancestors came from Japan, so it’s nice to be able to connect with people on that level.”

Shimabukuro, who recently recorded his first all-original album to be released this fall, says all the music he creates is based on his life experiences, and music is an outlet for him to express his reaction to a feeling.

When he got married in 2011 he was surprised at all the new emotions that he was filled with, but after the birth of his first child a year later he was overwhelmed with a flood of positive energy and an urge to create.

“Over the last few years there were always things that were happening, like becoming a husband and a dad. All those new experiences get turned into songs and ideas for me,” he said.

Shimabukuro says that since the birth of his second son a year ago, there have been exhausting days where he chooses to crash rather than pick up his ukulele, but that again, just gives him another excuse for being thankful.

“My dream is to just continue to feel this enthusiasm for life. I’m so passionate about music and I want to keep that enthusiasm to be passionate. I doubt it will ever happen, but if somewhere down the line my passion might become something other than music, I still want to have the energy to do something positive.”

Shimabukuro believes the ukulele fits the modern day lifestyle where people prefer mobility and compactness. A ukulele can be carried easily like an iPhone or an iPad, and it’s a perfect mobile instrument whether you’re hiking, driving or flying, he says.

He suggests a first-timer to visit a local music store and pick out a ukulele that “feels good to you.” Prices range from about $50 to $10,000, but Shimabukuro thinks if you spend about $300 you will most likely get your money’s worth.

Even the master himself took lessons as a child at Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studio, and he says it can’t be difficult to find a teacher in your neighborhood.

“If you’ve never played an instrument before, ukulele is great because you can get started right away. There’s only four strings so that makes it a lot easier than playing a guitar which has six. The strings are made of nylon and not steel, so your fingers don’t get as sore,” he said.

He calls the ukulele “a non-musician’s instrument,” explaining that people who feel like they could never play an instrument would not be intimidated by this particular one.
Shimabukuro’s philosophy is that everyone should learn to play an instrument because music is not just a universal language but the most primitive form of communication.

“It’s the language of human emotion. It’s not just listening to music but the experiencing of creating it that is so healing and therapeutic. I think we all have to learn that language and become familiar with it because it is in all of us. I feel that people who don’t play music or have music (in their lives), there is something missing,” he said.

“I would always tell my grouchy grandpa that he’d be so much happier if he learned to play the ukulele. It just makes you feel better, makes you feel more connected, changes your attitude, changes your demeanor, changes your rotten day into a nice relaxing moment.”

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