THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Akira Kikukawa and the Japanese American orchestra


bioline_Greg Robinson(Editor’s note: The following article was co-written with Jonathan Van Harmelen).

Some time ago, Jonathan van Harmelen and I wrote a column about the pioneering Japanese xylophonist Yoichi Hiraoka. In the course of our research, we found that in 1970 Hiraoka had performed a concert in Southern California with an orchestra of which neither of us had ever heard, the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra of Los Angeles. Intrigued by the name, we resolved to look further into the history of this ensemble. What we discovered is that the story of the orchestra is very much that of its founder and longtime director, Akira Kikukawa.

Born in Osaka, Japan in 1932, Akira Kikukawa studied cello at the Tokyo Music Academy, earning his bachelor’s degree in music in 1954 and a master’s in music in 1955. Over the three years that followed, Kikukawa joined the classical music circuit in Japan, performing as a cellist on television, NHK Radio, and in various concert halls throughout the country. During his 1958 tour, Kikukawa met the celebrated Hungarian cellist Gábor Rejtő, then chair of the University of Southern California’s Music Department. Rejto encouraged the young Kikukawa to continue his musical education at USC. In early 1960, Kikukawa arrived in the United States and enrolled at USC, studying cello under Rejto and conducting under USC professor Ingolf Dahl. In the fall of 1960, he also joined the Los Angeles Music and Art School as an instructor.

After arriving in the U.S., Kikukawa was approached by Katsuma Mukaeda, the former chairman of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, who asked him about organizing a Japanese American classical ensemble in Los Angeles. With encouragement from the Japan American Society of Southern California and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles, in the spring of 1961 Kikukawa founded the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra of Los Angeles (aka Japanese Orchestra of Little Tokyo). The mission of Kikukawa’s orchestra was to foster classical music among Japanese Americans and promote young Japanese composers in the United States. At the time, classical compositions by Japanese composers were all but unknown. What is more, professional symphony orchestras in America were largely white male clubs, and few hired Nikkei musicians. (Even as Kikukawa organized his orchestra, the Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, a few years Kikukawa’s junior, attracted widespread attention when he was appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic by music director Leonard Bernstein for the fall 1961 season). Kikukawa led the orchestra in its premier concert on Aug. 17, 1961, during the 1961 Nisei Week Japanese Festival, with a performance of pieces by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Bizet and Otto Nicolai.

At first, all of the new orchestra’s performers were Nikkei — a testimony to the level of interest in classical music among the West Coast Japanese communities. To meet its goal of fostering classical music, Kikukawa included young students, or “Little Angels,” as part of the ensemble. Kikukawa encouraged young musicians to join, arguing that musical talent was fostered rather than instilled at birth. Kikukawa also continued the tradition of including the orchestra in Nisei Week performances. For the 1963 Nisei Week, he commissioned his friend, Japanese composer Setsuo Tsukahara, to compose a piece titled “Gardens of Pasadena.” In addition to catering to admirers of classical music, Kikukawa made efforts to offer concerts to the Los Angeles-area Japanese American community. In 1971, for example, Kikukawa led the orchestra in a concert in Long Beach to celebrate the sister city agreement between Long Beach and Yokkaichi, Japan.

From the beginning, the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra ventured beyond the traditional Western repertoire to include both traditional Japanese folk music and classical compositions by young Japanese composers. For example, in a 1972 concert, the orchestra premiered Akira Miyoshi’s “Violin Concerto” (1965), paired with 10th century Japanese court music, a performance lauded by Los Angeles Times reviewer Melody Peterson. Outside groups such as UCLA’s Gagaku ensemble regularly collaborated with the orchestra to provide traditional Japanese music. Kazue Kudo, a Japanese-born koto (Japanese stringed-instrument) virtuoso, was a frequent soloist with the orchestra. In 1987, the orchestra performed a program at the Los Angeles Music Center that included sutra chanting by priests of the Los Angeles Buddhist Church Federation, Japanese composer Toshiro Mayuzumi’s “Mandala Symphony,” “Haru no umi” (a work for koto and orchestra), and Tchaikovsky’s “5th Symphony” as the finale. Kikukawa boldly declared that “our motto is to perform Japanese music at each concert, except when we do Beethoven’s ‘Ninth Symphony.’ That is a whole evening.” Yet even his performance of Beethoven diverged from established norms. At one memorable concert of the “Ninth Symphony” that took place in 1982, the orchestra was joined by the Angel Choir, Chinese Choral Society of Los Angeles, the L.A Seoul Choral and the Santa Barbara Choral Society.

As the years went by, the orchestra shifted from an all-Nikkei group to one composed half of Japanese Americans, and the other half from diverse other backgrounds. The group likewise recruited more professional musicians, in order to perform the works of more avant-garde composers such as Igor Stravinsky. It attracted some important soloists. Yoichi Hiraoka performed as a xylophone soloist with the orchestra in 1970. In 1972 the orchestra played a concert with Akio Tashiro as piano soloist. The orchestra was renowned not just for its skillful playing of both Eastern and Western music, but its discipline. In 1980, at the orchestra’s debut concert in Orange County, Kikukawa lost his place in the score during one piece. The entire orchestra stopped and waited for him to recover — like “the routine ending of a movement,” stated critic Clint Erney — and then continued as if nothing was amiss.

During his first years in the United States, Kikukawa continued to perform on cello. In June 1961 he played cello in a piano trio program at Union Church in Los Angeles. In March 1962, Kikukawa played a recital at the Berkeley College Women’s Club. He was accompanied by the pianist Anni Victorius, a professor at Kobe College. Once he took up the direction of the orchestra, however, Kikukawa largely abandoned his career as a soloist, occasionally playing with his orchestra.

Tragically, Kikukawa suddenly died of a heart ailment on Oct. 12, 1989 at age 57, just days before a scheduled performance of his orchestra at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. On Oct. 17 the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra of Los Angeles performed a modified concert in honor of Kikukawa, with guest conductor (and former concertmaster) Frederic Balazs.

A Los Angeles Times review noted that the orchestra struggled following the sudden loss of their conductor, though the reviewer commended the ensemble for performing at all under the circumstances. James Chute, critic for the Santa Ana Orange County Register, posed the question of the ensemble’s future. Even if the need for an ethnic orchestra had receded, since mainstream symphonies were more open and recordings of world music were widely available, Chute affirmed nonetheless that “Kikukawa’s dedication to bridging musical and cultural gaps was reason enough for the orchestra’s existence.”

In the years after Kikukawa’s death, the Japanese Philharmonic of Los Angeles struggled to remake its identity. It changed its name to the Japan America Symphony, and boasted conductors such as LA Philharmonic violinist Heiichiro Ohyama. Today, the orchestra exists as the Asia America Symphony, renamed to acknowledge the growing diversity of Los Angeles’s Asian American communities. Its director, David Benoit, is a former student of Ohyama. The orchestra’s programs continue to foster the tradition of an “East and West” repertoire. If its mission has expanded since its founding, it remains true to Kikukawa’s vision. If, as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us, “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” Kikukawa continues to tower over the orchestra, which in turn underscores the rich musical legacy of Japanese America.

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. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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