The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
The world of Hidetaro Honjoh – pursuing shamisen music as a traditional Japanese folk art, and even venturing into British contemporary theater
Hidetaro Honjoh
Hidetaro Honjoh
Photo: Daisuke Ishizaka
What was your intention in going independent under the name Honjoh Hidetaro? Did you have an image in mind at that time of becoming a shamisen performer active in multiple musical genres?
    In my case, it was a situation where I was forced to go independent. At the time, our shamisen world had no family-line [school] system, so I thought that as long as I had to go independent, I would start my own family-line school of shamisen music under the Honjoh name. It was partly the impertinence of youth and I regret it now, but I thought that if I created my own family-centered school, apprentices would come and support my musical activities and make it possible for me to pursue the kind of shamisen music I wanted more freely (laughs). So, I started a new genre of music that I called Risougaku and gave myself the new name Honjoh Hidetaro so I would be the founder and head of a new family-centered school. I regret that now.
    Usually, when you start a new school of music like this under a new name in the hogaku [Japanese traditional music] world, you have a commemorative celebration and concert series, but I didn’t do any of that. I thought there would be time for that once my activities took some definite shape [style], and in fact, for a concert I had celebrating the tenth anniversary of my establishing the Honjoh name, master artist Fujimoto Hideo came to perform with me. I will never forget the thrill of that moment.

Did any apprentices come as you expected?
    They didn’t, because nobody knew what was going on (laughs). A year after I quit [the Fujimoto school] and went independent, I had “Honjoh Hidetaro no kai” concert at the Yomiuri Hall [in Tokyo], and for that concert I composed and performed a piece based on music of the Silk Road called Camels and Ships, inspired by the idea that the shamisen had originally come to Japan via the Silk Road and the sea routes from Persia. The piece was like a story of the journey of the shamisen to Japan by camel and ship. That was at a time before the Silk Road became a popular subject and destination for the Japanese due to a series of NHK [national television] documentaries. After that did concerts every year at [Tokyo’s] Kosenenkin Hall and Nihon Seinen Hall, and this continues today.

Those are big halls. Were you able to get enough audience to fill them?
    They were sell-outs. I found out that I had a large number of fans from my days with the Fujimoto school (laughs). In my Fujimoto days I only performed in the student recitals but whenever I performed the hall was always full, and after my performance it would empty again.

I guess you were an idol, weren’t you (laughs).
    I guess so (laughs). Partly because I was the youngest performer in the minyo scene at that time. Among the shamisen genre at the time, the minyo performers wore the most flamboyant kimonos, but I didn’t like that. And, partly because I didn’t have the money, I made it my style to wear a plain [pattern-less] kimono with a pure white Kenjo [Hakata] obi sash and white zori sandals. And when I did, that style became popular among my fellow performers as well.

And you began composing from the time you first went independent, didn’t you?
    I never really studied composing, it just came out naturally.

Until the influence of Western music came into Japan, I don’t believe there was no separate profession of composer in Japanese traditional music. The musicians of old both composed and performed. And what remain among their works is what we have the classics today. But today, performing and composing are separate professions and it seems that there are few like yourself who actively compose and perform.
    For me, especially with the shamisen, I have a sort of basic distrust of composers. When someone who specializes in composing writes a piece for shamisen, I feel that something is amiss. They don’t understand what it means for a piece to have the [fluctuating] “sound character” I mentioned earlier. As in Western style composing, people put notes of specific pitches together into a melody, I feel. In the case of the shamisen, because there is a “sound character” each piece has its own distinct pitch, and making sounds of those distinct pitches fit together in a piece is in itself a very difficult thing. If a piece is written with notes in the same way as a koto [Japanese harp] or shakuhachi [bamboo flute] piece, the shamisen doesn’t resonate at all. For me, the biggest problem is when the shamisen doesn’t resonate, and that is why I feel that I have to compose pieces myself. Because I want to bring the shamisen to life more and enable it to resonate.
    For me, composing comes just as naturally as speaking with words. I pursue sound with the desire of finding new things that can be done with it. When composing in a field of traditional music like hauta, the forms are set to some degree and those phrases can be used, and in the lyrics you can use word play to an extent.
    In pieces that will be classified as contemporary music, as well, I want to be able to compose things that only the shamisen can perform, things that have the “language” of the shamisen and achieve a “fragrance” [flavor] of the shamisen.
    The shamisen is by nature a monophonic instrument, but because it has “sound character” you can achieve expression purely with that, and that immediate opens up a new world of dimension [of musical expression]. When using an equally-tempered scale, you need to use more than one sound in order to achieve that kind of expansive effect, but with the shamisen you can do it with one [monotonic] sound. I feel that is what is amazing about the shamisen.

Back in 1977 you did the soundtrack for director Masahiro Shinoda’s movie Hanare goze Orin when you were 32. The year before that you had performed with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra for the Tokyo Ballet Company’s production of Niji no hashi, and you went on to work on the music for film and television. Clearly you have worked on a wide range of projects.
    Since I had been active in a number of different shamisen genres, I was probably the easiest one for film or TV people to come to. And I myself was young and anxious to try a lot of different things. I even took on projects based in times when there was no shamisen music. Since there was of course some kind of music in Japan before the shamisen was imported, I tried to imagine what kind of music would be appropriate and then compose works within that concept. One of the things that has made me glad I studied minyo folk music, is that there are cases where some melodies of very old Japanese music remain in parts of old songs from different regions of the country. Sometimes I piece those fragments together to compose a song, like piecing together fragments of an old pot found at an excavation site to recreate the original.

And you are able to do that because of the variety of different types of music you have studied since you became an independent musician, aren’t you?
    That’s right. Something my mother used to say often is to not just look at things without focus or purpose but to look well and then file what you have seen away in your drawers. I was also told to look at everything, both good things and bad. And since I have that approach in mind when I read a book, for instance, I will often hear something later and be able to recall that the same thing was written in such-and-such a book I read. So, when I am asked to write music to fit a certain era, its ideas come to me very naturally out of those draws of things I’ve experienced until now. I remember things that would be suitable and am able to use them. Things come to me intuitively that way.
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