CONTINUING TRADITIONS: The evolution of koto artist Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto


Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto photo by Mark Shigenaga

Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto is literally in the middle of three generations of a family of koto teachers. Rising through the ranks over the years, she was awarded her Dai Shihan master’s degree from the Chikushi Kai Koto School in Fukuoka, Japan in 2000, and was inducted into the Hokka Nichibei Kai Bunka (Japanese Culture) Hall of Fame in San Francisco’s Japantown in 2012.

For nearly six decades, Muramoto has performed and taught the Japanese koto in the Bay Area, across the U.S and in Japan. Discovering that her mother learned to play the koto in American concentration camps during World War II, she turned her research into a documentary film, “Hidden Legacy: Japanese Traditional Performance Arts in the World War II Internment Camps.” The 2014 film aired nationally in the U.S. and in Japan.

Last summer, Muramoto turned her planned live concert “NextGen Geijutsuka: Future Stars of Japanese Cultural Arts” into a weekly virtual program, which featured Japanese kabuki dance, koto, shamisen and shodo (calligraphy). During the pandemic, she has continued to perform in virtual programs and teach privately online by Zoom.

The Nichi Bei Weekly interviewed Muramoto via e-mail to further discuss her journey in teaching, documenting and evolving the traditional Japanese art form.

Nichi Bei Weekly: Your family represents three generations of the art of koto in America, which seems quite rare. How did you, your mother and your son Brian get started in koto?
Shirley Muramoto: There is a very strong sense of respect for our cultural heritage which runs through my family. … When (my grandmother) Masaye and her family were incarcerated at Topaz camp during WWII, she heard koto music coming from the next barracks over. She thought it would be a good opportunity for my mom to learn. My mom was 10 years old at the time. … I was exposed to koto music whenever my mom took out her koto to play. Brian is of mixed heritage, as his dad is Chinese American. Brian … was exposed to Japanese koto music listening to me play and going to festivals with us even before he was born because I was performing while I was pregnant. …

NBW: What about the koto appealed to you?
SM: What appeals to me about the koto is its unique sound. It can also have a very complex and strong sound, capable of extracting a myriad of expression when played with both hands. Yet, the simplest striking of a note can be the most expressive and beautiful.

NBW: Given the global pandemic, how has that changed the way you teach, and how examinations for teaching degrees have changed? Does it make it easier, or more difficult?
SM: In my traditional way of thinking, I was pretty adamant that one should learn koto only in person, and I would refuse to teach in any other way. But the pandemic forced me to look into other ways of teaching to stay connected with my existing students. On top of that, last year, people were asking me for koto lessons from as far as North Carolina and Berlin. I have a couple students who started with me last year remotely and are doing wonderfully well, so I find that I can now teach more students in this way. I learned that even my koto school in Japan, Chikushi Kai, has begun to conduct some of their koto exams by livestream, so they are also changing the way they conduct business in the traditional world of koto.

NBW: You’ve taken a traditional Japanese instrument and applied it to jazz, with your band the Murasaki Ensemble. Have you ever received any backlash from cultural purists who frowned upon such practice, and if so, how do you respond to such criticism?
SM: Actually, I think the only person who objected to my playing jazz on koto was my mom. It’s a little like if one was playing European classical music and then decided to play jazz music. Some people think the two styles are like apples and oranges, but I do feel there is a connection. I respect traditional and classical music because it’s the backbone of koto music. I like to play and study both styles. If one learns the techniques and styles of traditional koto, their soloing and singing will be more interesting and richer expressed in contemporary music. When I play jazz, I try to respect the sound of koto by using Japanese tunings and traditional techniques as much as possible.

Since I live in Oakland, jazz is a huge part of the music scene here, and the diversity of arts in the Bay Area have actually opened up the avenues of collaborating not only to jazz but rock, R&B, country, orchestral, gospel, Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese music, and so on. I do love playing jazz on koto because it is an American art form, and one where I can express myself in a more personal way. I’ve found that the blues are similar to Asian tunings, just a different way of expressing music, which shows there is a human connection, as well.

NBW: Your documentary, “Hidden Legacy: Japanese Traditional Performance Arts in the World War II Internment Camps,” premiered in 2014, examining the Japanese cultural arts in the wartime concentration camps. Why did you want to do a film on that topic, and in the course of your research for the film, what surprised you the most?
SM: I became interested in the research for “Hidden Legacy” organically because my mom was introduced to koto music as a little girl in camp. It’s an unusual instrument in America, so I asked her how she learned, and she would simply say, “In camp …” with no other explanation. … When I attended UC Berkeley, one of my classmates was Mary Arii Mah aka Bando Misayasu. She grew up learning traditional buyo (classical Japanese dance). Mary’s sensei, Bando Mitsusa, had been a teacher of buyo at Tule Lake camp, and had over 140 students! She told me that Mitsusa Sensei even had her own barracks to use as a studio. …

This led me to start looking for others who had practiced Japanese traditional arts in the camps. As I gathered taped interviews, I realize that the best way to capture this information and the feelings that went through artists who were incarcerated was to have as many of them tell their own stories on film. You can’t feel the heart and pain they experienced just by writing about this. I was fortunate to be able to interview some of them. Some have since passed on.

I was already too late to capture interviews of Issei as they had passed on before I started collecting interviews, although I feel none of them would have agreed to talk to me. It was difficult for people who had been in camp to talk about their experiences but even moreso for people who did Japanese arts. It could be misconstrued that because they practiced Japanese arts that they were not loyal Americans. …

Some of the Nisei and Sansei artists I discovered were also reluctant to speak, including my mother. …

I feel that what camp citizens did with their time was also very important. They were in the middle of nowhere with time on their hands, so they found ways to be useful and keep occupied and resilient, something that we all experienced in having to stay in our homes during the pandemic and trying to figure out what to do with our time last year. …

In the course of my journey, I learned that the camps were also designed to assimilate Japanese Americans. This narrative was strong coming out of the camps, which is why many Japanese American families rejected anything remotely Japanese to their children, especially speaking in Japanese. I feel that because we are a nation of immigrants, that traditional arts are part of the fabric of American culture. Our ancestors brought these arts with them, which are, in turn, influenced by other arts to become part of the American fabric in style and practice.

NBW: In 2020, you had originally planned a live concert, “NextGen Geijutsuka: Future Stars of Japanese Cultural Arts.” But then the pandemic hit, and you were able to turn it into a series of weekly virtual programs which featured Japanese kabuki dance, koto, shamisen and shodo calligraphy, while putting a spotlight on struggling Japantown businesses. How difficult was it to shift gears to the new format, and why was the program so important to you?
SM: Because I have been inspired by the people I interviewed for the “Hidden Legacy” documentary, I want to ensure that Japanese traditional arts continues in America and into the future, and want to support up-and-coming artists who have studied and dedicated themselves to their craft. I started to produce the program “NextGen Geijutsuka” to encourage and showcase these artists. I lined up all the artists, and planned a live concert to be held in San Francisco in May 2020. I received funding support … but then suddenly the pandemic was upon us. I considered canceling or postponing the event, but then decided to try and present it virtually. …. Because the pandemic was affecting businesses in our Japantowns, we decided to also feature shops that were suffering from the shutdowns.

The change to virtual programming actually turned out to be a “blessing in disguise,” because through this format, we reached a much larger world audience, demonstrating that we are trying to keep up the arts and traditional businesses here. The programs can still be viewed on YouTube under “NextGenJCA.”

NBW: Speaking of the future of Japanese traditional arts, where do you see the art of koto in America in 25 years? In 50 years?
SM: … It’s so important to keep these traditions alive for the future because they are each a part of the soul of America. If we all become “modern” and only do contemporary things, we will all become one same being. There will be nothing that makes us any different from anyone else, and the beauty of the arts that our ancestors brought with them will be lost. I hope the programs we are putting on today will continue to influence others into the future. Traditional and contemporary arts are a reflection of the people, and as people go through changes, the arts will inevitably change with the times, too. It will be exciting to see how.

NBW: We are certainly in some troubling times, with the pandemic and anti-Asian hate. Do you think the arts have a role to play in healing? If so, how?
SM: I think we have seen how the arts have played a huge part in helping us not only cope with the stresses that came with dealing with the pandemic, but also in creating understanding. My parents were part of the committee that first established the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival in the 1960s. My parents said that they did this because there were still negative feelings surrounding Japanese Americans after WWII, even over 20 years after the war. They felt that if they could present a cultural festival of arts, food, music and dance, people would come to understand the feeling about our Japanese culture. The community pulled together, and it was put on by all local artisans. … Some of the inquiries I get for koto lessons come from people who know that learning koto or Japanese instruments will help them alleviate stress, which is something we all could use these days.

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