The Early Guitar and Important Guitarists in Japan

Published by Robert Coldwell on

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

 Japan’s first contact with Europe came in 1542 with the arrival of traders from Macau (near Hong Kong). The Jesuits arrived soon afterwards and set up schools which taught many subjects including music performance. The instruments taught included the organ, viola, trumpet, harp, and the lute. According to records kept by the missionaries, Japanese were performing on these instruments as early as 1550. Some of these students travelled to give performances in Europe, Macau, and other locations in about 1562.

An interesting verification of the existence of the lute at this time in Japan can be seen in paintings done by Japanese students at the Jesuit schools. They obviously had other paintings as models since the same figure is repeated in many different paintings. One particular figure is playing a 4-course lute. Depending on the painting, the number of pegs and peg placement differs, which would suggest that the painters were familiar with different versions of the same instrument. Many of these paintings date from the 1590’s. This image, titled “Fujo dankin-zu [Woman playing a koto (or koto-like instrument)],” is in the collection of the Yamato Bunka-kan in Nara, Japan. It appeared on the cover of Gendai Guitar issue no.124 (3/1977) as part of an article by Sumio Omata titled, “Plucked Instruments in the Iconographical Sources in the 16th Century Japan.”

Unfortunately, foreigners – and the Jesuits’ activities in particular – became unwelcome, leading to a ban on foreign goods and contact with foreigners. In 1615 the Tokugawa shoguns took over political control of the country which led to a complete ban on foreigners and foreign goods in 1616. As a result of this many objects were hidden or destroyed and very little has survived to the present day. The rise of the Tokugawa shogunate marked the beginning of the Edo (former name of Tokyo) period which lasted until the Meiji Restoration (the restoration of the Emperor to political power) in 1868.

This closure of Japan continued until 1854 when Commodore William Perry of the U.S. Navy finally succeeded in persuading Japan to open its doors. Military bands were an active part of the crew’s entertainment and one performance attended by Japanese was recorded in this sketch. It was made by Bunsen Takagawa who worked as a physician to one of the Japanese magistrates present at the treaty negotiations between various foreign representitives and the Japanese government.

The “Powhaten” was the name of the ship commanded by Commodore Perry. Most of the instruments are readily recognizable (tambourine, triangle, violin, flute, and banjo), but the guitar seems to stand out as slightly odd. The fact that a banjo is readily recognizable suggests that the guitar-shaped instruments are indeed guitars. But if the heads are examined closely only four pegs can be seen. My thoughts are that the artist took liberties in the depiction and drew a shape he was more familiar with: a shamisen (a three-stringed, plectrum instrument with large tuning pegs) or biwa (a four- or five-stringed, plectrum instrument with large tuning pegs).

In 1859 Japan made agreements with England, France, Russia, America and other countries to allow foreign concessions in the areas of Yokohama (near Tokyo) and Nagasaki. The ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artists of the time were so interested in these odd foreigners’ activities that there was actually a genre created based on the depictions of foreigners’ dress and daily activities. Due to the popularity of musical entertainment in the concessions many ukiyo-e were done on this theme. Unfortunately I have not been able to find any which include depictions of the guitar. One of the most well known foreigners active in the musical scene of Yokohama at the time was the Englishman, John William Fenton, who arrived in Yokohama in 1868 and taught Western instruments to the Japanese and formed bands of Japanese musicians. He also composed music to various Japanese songs.

In 1894 the well known mandolinist, Samuel Adelstein, performed in Yokohama. Apparently he was offered a position at the former Tokyo Music School, but declined.

The Japanese said to have been the first to own a guitar was Hiroshi Hiraoka (1856-1934). In 1871, at the age of 15, he went to America and worked at the Manchester Rail Works in New Hampshire (his family owned a rail works factory in Japan). When he returned in 1877 he brought three important things with him: baseball, roller skates [Ed. 2018-12-23: I was originally told “ice skates” in 1997 and it was pointed out to me by Gregory Schotanus that this was in fact “roller skates“], and a guitar. He is recognized at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Tokyo as one of the founders of baseball in Japan. It is uncertain exactly what kind of guitar he brought back with him, but it is known that he was not an advanced player. According to an interview (by Sei’ichi Konishi) with his son, Hiraoka mainly accompanied his singing of American minstrel songs with simple melodies on the guitar. His main devotion in life was the shamisen.


From the first Japanese to own a guitar we move to the first teacher of the guitar. This is generally recognized to be Kenpachi Hiruma (1867-1936). From 1887 to 1890 he studied the cello and zither in America, Germany, and Switzerland. He traveled overseas once again in 1899 and studied the guitar and mandolin in Germany and Italy. Pictured above is Hiruma’s Perfumo brought to Japan in 1901 which was made in 1843, No.192. After returning to Japan he began teaching and in 1905 became the conductor of the first mandolin orchestra. In 1906 while teaching at the Tokyo Music School (precursor to the current Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music) he formed a mandolin orchestra. Unfortunately, Hiruma presumably only taught the cello at the School and the study of the guitar or mandolin has never been part of the curriculum (a situation which is not likely to change soon). In 1908 he wrote the first mandolin method to be compiled by a Japanese. Among Hiruma’s private students were Morishige Takei and Hideo Saito (instructor of the famed conductor Seiji Ozawa).


The first foreigner to be active as a teacher and performer of the guitar came to Japan in 1911. Adolfo Sarcoli (1867-1936) was born in Sienna and before his arrival in Japan was known as an opera tenor and performer on the mandolin and guitar. In Japan he performed with the Keio private school (now a university) mandolin orchestra and was active as a vocal teacher. Many of his students went on to become well known in Japanese opera circles. He composed several compositions for the guitar and in addition to performing them himself his students often used them in their own performances. In the November 30, 1925 issue of “Mandolinista italiano” there is a photo of Sarcoli with his 12 member mandolin orchestra. (The book The Classical Mandolin contains much interesting information that is not included in the present article.)

One of his students, Bunzo Sekine, performed Sarcoli’s “Tarantella” on June 20, 1915 at the first string instrument recital to include solo performances on the guitar. Unfortunately, this solo appearance could not be considered a strong start as Sekine repeated basically the same works in each of his performances and soon stopped performing altogether. These performances were always during recitals which included vocal works, mandolin solos, and works for mandolin orchestra.

It was not until 1926 that the first solo guitar recitals were given. These were held in Yokohama by Fuku’ichiro Ikegami. Unfortunately nothing is known about Ikegami except for his recitals. Two were held in 1926 and one each in 1927 and 1928. The program for the first recital is unknown, but at the second recital held in April, 1926 he played Carulli (duo), Giuliani (duo), Mertz, Giuliani, Sor and Regondi. Here is the program for the third recital from April of 1927:

• Abendlied (Mertz)
• Notturno, Op.3 No.1 [or No.3?] (Zani de Ferranti)
• Russian Theme and Variations, Op.10 No.12 (Carcassi)
• Sonata, Op.15 (Giuliani)
• Grand Ouverture, Op.6 (Carulli)
• Lied ohne Worte/ Mazurka, Op.13 No.11(Mertz)
• Ronde de Fées, Op.2 (Zani de Ferranti)
• The Shore at Night (Ikegami)

The fourth recital in March, 1928 was titled “Spanish Evening” and Ikegami played Sor (duo), Tarréga, de Falla, Torroba and Pujol. There is no mention of any recitals held after these four. Ikegami also composed for the guitar, but never had anything published. He sent a total of about eight manuscripts to Morishige Takei over the course of many years. Ikegami’s activities were so limited that it appears Takei was not even aware of his recitals.

* Though Takei is said to have had eight compositions of Ikegami’s I have only seen two or three in the Takei collection at Kunitachi University. Kazuhito Yamashita recorded 9 songs by Ikegami. I don’t know the source for the manuscripts.

Another important guitarist was Chuzaemon Sawaguchi (1902-Jan. 11, 1946) pictured at the left in the photo above. He was born in Sendai (on the north-east coast of Japan) and remained there throughout his life. Though he was only educated to an elementary school level he worked most of his life at a bank and learned German to the point that he could write letters and read Nietzsche without a translation (he could also communicate in English and Spanish). He only began to play the guitar at age 22.

Even though most of the guitar activity in Japan occurred in the Tokyo or Osaka areas, there were many important clubs and individuals who were active in the smaller cities. Sawaguchi was one of the two most important figures (the other being Jiro Nakano) in these areas. He was more active as a founder of mandolin orchestras, conductor and publisher than as a solo performer. His magazine “Armonia” was published bi-monthly from 1924 to 1941 and started out in a B5 size, 25 page format, but later grew to 50 pages. Upon the cessation of publication due to the war it had reached a total of 90 issues. Actually, “Sendai Armonia,” as operated by Sawaguchi, consisted of five sections. The first was the Armonia orchestra and the second was the publication of the “Armonia” magazine and “Biblioteca Armonia” sheet music. In the early 1930’s, in addition to Japanese composers, he published Sor, J. Ferrer, Broca, Giuliani, Tarréga, de Call, Arcas, and music by other contemporary Western guitarists. The third section was a library that lent sheet music and reference books to whomever requested them. This was run by his wife and the service extended to sending the material by mail. Having guitar music available from a library was not so unique, but I’m sure that the fact that Armonia went so far as to provide for sending the material to your home was (and is) something could not be duplicated. The fourth section consisted of an agency for procuring or selling instruments, strings, and foreign sheet music and reference books. Teaching was the fifth section which held guitar and mandolin sessions once a week.

Because of his German abilities much correspondence with German guitarists and German music appeared in the magazine and his orchestra performed many German songs. His German-related activities also extended to including translations of Die Gitarre in the Armonia magazine.

In 1934 his book, Guitar Music, was published in two volumes (and from two different publishers). It covers the history of the guitar from ancient times to the present.


Isao Takahashi (pictured in the center of the photo above) took over the name “Armonia” from Sawaguchi in 1954 and published a similar format magazine until 1959.

One of those who sought to pursue the guitar as a profession in the 1920’s and 30’s was Yoshie Okawara [Yosie Ohcawara] (1903-1935). He was born in Hokkaido (the large northern island of Japan) and after many years of studies that changed from agriculture to business he graduated in March 1930. When he first came to Tokyo in 1925 he joined Morishige Takei’s Orchestra Sinfonica Takei. In 1927 he left and formed his own group, “Lunes Quartet.” He was also among the earliest guitarists to hold solo recitals – starting in July 1928. Okawara was unique in that he played many works by Japanese guitarists in his recitals. After Segovia’s first appearance in Japan many guitarists moved toward a more Segovia-style program, but Okawara was only the more invigorated to promote Japanese guitarists in his recitals. At his last solo performance on April 25, 1930 his program included only two Western guitarists (J. Ferrer and Sor) at the beginning and the rest was devoted to music composed by himself, Morishige Takei and Chuzaemon Sawaguchi – a total of 16 short works.

He composed about 30 works for the guitar and was one of the first Japanese to compile an instruction book, “Guitar Performance Method” (1933). Up until this time guitarists had been using imported methods. In 1931 he edited the “Mandolin and Guitar” volume of a series called “Collection of World Music” published by Shujun-sha. There were a total of 39 works for the mandolin and 40 works for the guitar.

His two recordings on the Polydor Japan label were probably among the first in Japan. For these recordings his guitar was strung with steel strings. For the first one (#606) he recorded Schneider’s “Polka” and Henze’s “Nocturne” and he included 4 songs from a 5 song suite “Hanataba” on the second recording (#797), released in June, 1931. Ernesto Bitetti recorded “Matsumushi” (from “Hanataba”) on Japanese Songs by Classical Guitar (NIPPON COLUMBIA OQ-7080-H, 1975).

In the above photos Okawara can be seen playing a “Violon-Guitar” by Kin’pachi Miyamoto that has a violin-shaped head. The photo on the left shows Okawara at his first recital in 1928.


Shun Ogura (1901-1977) was among this same group of influential guitarists (Takei, Nakano, Sawaguchi, Okawara), but differed from the others in that his main activity was teaching. He was also different from especially Sawaguchi and Nakano in that he graduated from a private university, Waseda. In order to research foreign publications he decided he should study Spanish, so entered and graduated from the Tokyo Foreign Language School.

Even though he began playing the guitar when he was about 16 years old, his first appearance in a recital was in April, 1930 with the Keio Mandolin Club. He must have been successful because the following month a “Shun Ogura Evening” was held. He played Coste, Carcassi, Segovia, Tarréga and Sor. At the same concert he also performed in a mandolin ensemble and played accompaniment for vocal works.

In 1938 he translated and published Pujol’s “La Guitare y su la Historia” (mainly for his students). He published many books after this: “Ogura Guitar Performance Techniques,” ” Guitar Notation and Performance Methods,” “Guitar Music Dictionary,” “Guitar Dictionary” (see bibliography). Many of these contained similar material that was updated over time and went from a little over 100 pages to enough information to fill two separate volumes in 1970-74. He worked for many years as the guitar advisor to the largest music publisher in Japan, Ongaku-no Tomo. In this position he was very influential, directly or indirectly, regarding the amount of methods, anthologies, and other guitar-related material that were published by Ongaku-no Tomo.

Ogura had the distinction of being the first guitar instructor to the current Japanese Emperor when he was still a prince. (The current Emperor gained his title in 1989.)

In the photo on the left, that was taken in 1929, he is holding a “Violon-Guitar” by Kin’pachi Miyamoto. This guitar seems to be closer in shape to an arpeggione than to the “Violon-Guitar” that can be seen in the Okawara photo.

A tremendous boost to the classical guitar came in 1929 with the arrival of Andrés Segovia for performances in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe. Up until this time there had been no dynamic performers who could show the potential of the guitar to Japanese guitarists. Segovia’s performances proved the viability of the classical guitar as a solo instrument and from this time the solo guitar began to outpace the mandolin orchestra in Japan.


Categories: Japan


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