Introduction to the History of the Guitar in Japan

This article was first published on Matanya Ophee’s Guitar and Lute Issues site in 1997 and later on my personal site icoldwell.com.

The original title was An Introduction to the History of the Guitar in Japan Including Notes on the First Appearances of the Guitar in Japan and Detailed Biographies of Major Guitarists First Active in the Pre-war Period.

Considering that the six-string guitar has not been in Japan for more than 120 years and the fact that the first major activities only began about 80 years ago a lot of information is still available. In the case of this article most of the information was taken from Sei’ichi Konishi’s series of articles in Gendai Guitar starting from June 1967 and running nearly consecutively until his passing away in 1973. Other articles from Gendai Guitar and books and articles by Morishige Takei, Shun Ogura, Isao Takahashi, Jiro Nakano, and Yu’ichi Adachi were also researched. Since all of this information is in Japanese I have made a bilingual bibliography. The fact that about 11 magazines and numerous books were published in pre-war Japan reflects how much interest there was in the guitar, but the format of this article necessarily limits the amount of information I can provide. The bibliography therefore is basically limited to material actually researched. The editor of Gendai Guitar, Jun Sugawara, also provided a tremendous amount of information that has not, up until now, been gathered into one article. Through his guidance I was able to include much more detailed information because the fact that Sei’ichi Konishi was never very active in the guitar community and researched most of the information in his articles through secondary resources limited the accuracy of some of his statements.

Understandably, the focus of much guitar research has centered on Europe (and there is still much to be uncovered). The reality of the guitar is that it has never been exclusive to one area. For this reason it is fortunate that more and more research is being done on the history of the guitar in other parts of the world. For Japan, in particular, there are many instances where rare materials have been gathered by Japanese collectors, which makes research on the guitar in Japan quite enlightening in that new information about the guitar in Europe and America can be gathered. Most guitarists are probably aware of some contemporary Japanese performers (Kazuhito Yamashita, Ichiro Suzuki, etc.) and composers (Toru Takemitsu), but these artists’ activities are only a small indication of the extent of the guitar in Japan, both past and present. Japan is the only country in Asia to have adopted the guitar at such an early date and boasts a long list of performers, composers and collectors. Regardless of it’s removal from the center of guitar activities in Europe and the Americas, the guitar in Japan has had many serious supporters. Unfortunately, most of these people have been forgotten. It is the aim of this article to recognize these guitarists’ efforts.

Though this article’s focus is on the first appearances of the guitar in Japan and the guitarists that were active in the first half of the 20th century, it is not the intention of the author to make it seem as if the war created some kind of discontinuity. Many of the guitarists that appear here were active in both the pre- and post-war periods (and, of course, during the war). For the case of Morishige Takei, who died in 1949, his influence is remembered in the form of a prize awarded at the Tokyo International Guitar Contest (this year presenting the 40th annual contest). The first contest, under the name “Guitar Contest,” was held in 1949 before Takei died. In a way it has provided an unbroken link to Takei’s numerous concours that were held since 1923. Shun Ogura was extremely active up until his death in 1977 and Jiro Nakano is still very active now at the age of 95. Yasumasa Obara, although active before the war, was one of the most influential young guitarists in the post-war period.

There are no longer as many different guitar magazines as existed in the 1920’s and 30’s, but Gendai Guitar, which was begun by the luthier Masaru Kohno, has been active since 1967 in promoting the classical guitar through not only its magazine, but its concert, sheet music, and book publishing activities. There are currently numerous clubs and groups as well as instructors to provide a solid foundation for the continued development of the guitar in Japan. A truly complete record of the history of the guitar in post-war Japan could not be limited to a short, on-line format. For that matter, the history presented here is necessarily limited by the format and could easily take on a much greater size if all of the available information were to be properly documented.

Acknowledgements: Without the support of Jun Sugawara, editor of Gendai Guitar, and the use of images from Gendai Guitar this article would not have been possible. I would also like to thank Matanya Ophee for his interest in this subject and his provision of an on-line forum for making this information public.

• Japanese names have been written in the Western order “First Name” “Last Name.” In Asia names typically follow the “Last Name” “First Name” order.

• All images are courtesy of Gendai Guitar except “1854.JPG” taken from A Picture Scroll of Commodore Perry’s Arrival in Yokohama… (See Bibliography) located in the Tokyo National University of Art and Music Library.

• Foreign names are translated phonetically into Japanese in all of the material I researched so figuring out the spelling for unusual names is very difficult. Anywhere I have placed a “[spelling?]” or a “[?]” indicates that I have been unable to find an equivalent in Western sources.

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