THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Yoichi Hiraoka: International musical star

bioline_Greg Robinson

Yoichi Hiraoka was an internationally renowned xylophone virtuoso, one who helped popularize the xylophone as an instrument for both classical and popular music. Through daily radio performances and live concerts, he became the most celebrated Nikkei musician in the United States during the 1930s. However, even his fame did not save him from being targeted as a Japanese alien after the United States entered World War II.

Yoichi Hiraoka, born in Hyogo Prefecture on Aug. 16, 1907, grew up near Osaka. He studied the piano as a child, but gave it up when his tiny hands proved too small to span even an octave. He switched to a miniature Japanese-style xylophone called the mokkin. After he heard some Western xylophone recordings, he decided to study it on his own. Though there were hardly any such instruments in Japan in that period, he bought a secondhand xylophone and began playing. While at Keio University, he joined a jazz band as a xylophonist. After breaking his first instrument while rehearsing, in 1928 he persuaded his family to sell a treasured ancient oriental flute to finance the purchase of a better instrument from the United States, which he then proceeded to use for the next several years.

In 1930, Hiraoka played a series of five xylophone recitals in Tokyo. Pleased by this success, his father offered him a trip to the United States. In mid-1930, the depths of the Great Depression, Yoichi Hiraoka traveled to New York. Though he arrived without contacts, within weeks he found work with the National Broadcasting Company. In October 1930, he began appearing on a daily 15-minute morning show for NBC’s New York-area radio station WEAF. In 1933 he switched to WJZ. In the 10 years that followed his debut, he performed an estimated 4,000 solo spots on NBC radio programs. In addition to his daily performances, he also performed interludes between news bulletins in times of International crisis.

In December 1936, Hiraoka made his live New York debut with a solo recital at The Town Hall, under the sponsorship of the NBC Artists Service. Included in the program were transcriptions, mostly made by Hiraoka himself, of pieces by Joseph Haydn, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Yamada, and others. The concert was warmly received by critics. The New York World-Telegram’s critic praised not only his tone but his “footwork and exuberant gesturing.” The New York Sun lauded his “considerable skill.” Unfortunately, he chose the night of the Metropolitan Opera season’s premiere for his recital, so it was less well-attended, and did not attract major critics. In November 1937, he played a second Town Hall recital, this time with selections from Handel, Jean-Philippe Rameau and Beethoven, plus his own transcriptions of pieces by composers such as Haydn and Mozart, and a traditional Japanese minstrel song, “Echigo-Jishi.” Another critic marveled: “He knows how to realize compositions in a lofty vein as well as a music that is earthbound. He can play with humor and with dignity.”

He went on to other notable appearances. In 1941, he recorded an album of classical works for Decca, with piano accompaniment by Vladimir Brenner. It was reported that the great conductor Arturo Toscanini personally asked Hiraoka to play for him, though it is uncertain whether he ever actually did. Meanwhile, in January 1937 he performed on the Town Hall radio program hosted by popular comedian Fred Allen. He also performed that year before a visiting Japanese Economic Mission, and then at the Japan Day festivities at the New York World’s Fair in June 1939.

Although Hiraoka remained based in New York City, during the 1930s West Coast Japanese American communities followed him closely. Numerous articles from the Rafu Shimpo and the Nichi Bei Shimbun extolled Hiraoka, as both a musician and symbol of Japanese American success. In its 1938 Christmas issue, the Rafu Shimpo boldly declared, “Yoichi Hiraoka Hailed World’s No. 1 Xylophonist.” They also covered his 1937 marriage to Shizuko Yamaguchi, a New York-born Nisei.

While Hiraoka rose to stardom in America, his fame could not protect him from the influence of world events. On Dec. 7, 1941, Hiraoka was preparing to play on his NBC program when news of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was announced. Because of Hiraoka’s Japanese citizenship, the network cancelled his appearance, and ordered him banned from its programs. Hiraoka’s friends pointed out vainly that he was a friend of democracy. Columnist H.E. Spenser, sarcastically referring to Hiraoka as the war’s first enemy casualty, added “Somebody owes NBC a medal” for its craven attitude. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia publicly invited Hiraoka to appear on a local radio program with him. Hiraoka performed a series of patriotic songs, including “The Marines’ Hymn.” After the broadcast, LaGuardia told the New York Herald Tribune: “I thought that I could in no better way testify to my confidence, as mayor of this city, in Mr. Hiraoka than to have him on the program with me.” Nonetheless, NBC refused to rehire Hiraoka, claiming that as an enemy alien he was unacceptable. Fearing for his life and livelihood, in June 1942 Hiraoka decided to move to Japan with his family, and sailed on the exchange ship Gripsholm.

Hiraoka soon became a star performer in Japan. During the postwar years, he played some 80 concerts a year, plus radio appearances. He performed for the U.S. Occupation forces and General Headquarters radio. In April 1949 he was featured in an all-star program presented by the Special Services Section of GHQ at the Stilwell Theater. In 1955, he played sets at the Latin Quarter, a Tokyo nightclub, and was listed as having his own show on NHK by 1957. In November 1961, he made a concert tour of Okinawa (then under occupation by U.S. forces).

Throughout this period, Hiraoka dreamed of returning to the United States. In 1951 he visited Los Angeles to play a set of concerts at the Wilshire-Ebell Theater and in Little Tokyo. Nevertheless, he remained in Japan until 1961, when the New York Philharmonic arrived on tour. During the tour, Hiraoka renewed his friendships with various of his old colleagues. They encouraged him to return and helped make concert bookings for him. On Nov. 27, 1962, Hiraoka played a concert at Carnegie Recital Hall, his first appearance in New York since Pearl Harbor. He was accompanied by the Philharmonic-Symphony string quartet (made up of members of the New York Philharmonic), a pianist, and percussionist.

The concert was well-publicized and enthusiastically reviewed, and it relaunched Hiraoka’s American career. He moved to New York, and undertook a recital tour. His career took a further turn when American composer Alan Hovhaness produced his “Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints for Xylophone and orchestra,” a piece commissioned by conductor Andre Kostelanetz and dedicated to Hiraoka. In July 1965, Hiraoka performed its world premiere at the Ravinia Festival, with the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Seiji Ozawa. In March 1966 he performed the piece with Andre Kostelanetz and the New York Philharmonic, and recorded it with Kostelanetz in 1967. In the following years, Hiraoka performed Alan Hovhaness’ “Fantasy of Japanese Wood Prints” with the St. Louis Symphony, Kansas City Symphony, and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Hiraoka retired in the early 1970s, and died in 1981.

The legacy of Hiraoka’s story is two-fold. First, he helped establish the importance of the xylophone and other mallet percussion instruments for classical ensembles. According to musicologist Akiko Goto, the xylophone was never truly accepted as a solo instrument until individuals like Hiraoka were able to demonstrate its potential. In his preface to the 1941 book “Xylophone Album,” Hiraoka lamented “there is a widespread prejudice against the xylophone, even among music lovers and players themselves …because of the belief that the xylophone is an instrument that cannot sing.” Over the course of 50 years, Hiraoka showed that in the hands of a true artist, the xylophone could be made an instrument of delicate expression. His staunch support helped to move the instrument from the back of the orchestra to front and center stage.

The other is his legacy for Japanese American communities. At a time when Asians were generally barred from performing on the national stage in music and film, and classical ensembles were largely staffed by white performers, Hiraoka demonstrated through his impressive talents that Japanese Americans artists were capable of shining. Hiraoka’s dream that when “instrumentalists know how to play beautiful music on the xylophone, the prejudice will disappear” spoke not only about the instruments, but the artists themselves. For musicians and historians alike, Hiraoka’s story is well worth telling.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. His new book based upon his Nichi Bei columns, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,” was recently published by University Press of Colorado. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.
Jonathan van Harmelen is a Ph.D. student in history at UC Santa Cruz
The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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