The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Hiromitsu Agatsuma
AGATSUMA, Hiromitsu
Born in 1973, he is the trailblazer of the generation following Shin'ichi Kinoshita. He started practicing the Tsugaru shamisen from when he was six, and in 1995 and 1996 he won the championship in a national conference for Tsugaru shamisen. With his outstanding technique, he plays original pieces mixing Japanese classics, jazz and rock in his live performances. AGATSUMA has performed in many sessions with musicians of other genres both in Japan and other countries. In 2003, he also made a successful tour on the East Coast of the United States with his own band. His physical appearance also appeals to the younger generation — he has a trendy brown hairstyle, pierced ears and wears a leather jacket.

“EU-Japan Year of People-to-People Exchanges” Hiromitsu Agatsuma Band - Tsugaru shamisen performance (events planned by the Japan Foundation)

Jan. 12: L’Auditori, Barcelona
Jan. 14: Centro Cultural Olga Cadaval, Lisbon
Jan. 16: SALLE ZINO FRANCESCATTI (Conservatoire Annexe), Marseille
Jan. 19: Conservatoire de Musique Auditorium, Luxembourg
Jan. 21: Auditorium du Passage 44, Brussels
Artist Interview Artist Interview
A shamisen player from the rock generation, Hiromitsu Agatsuma talks about taking his shamisen music to Europe  
The shamisen is one of the traditional Japanese string instruments that has given birth to several music genres. Among the different types of shamisen, the "Tsugaru shamisen" is one with a larger body (as a sound box) and a thicker neck and strings that evolved among local performers of the Tsugaru region of Aomori prefecture at the northernmost end of Japan’s main island, Honshu. It was originally used as an instrument to accompany folk songs and it wasn’t until about a half century ago that it came to be played as a solo instrument for stage performance. The appeal of Tsugaru shamisen performances comes from the technique and skill of the performer in working variations on a theme much like jazz performance. For this reason it has found an audience among the generation raised on rock music. Young performers today are introducing elements of Western music in their search for contemporary expression in their shamisen music, and Hiromitsu Agatsuma is one of the leaders of this movement today.
(Interviewed in Dec.10, 2004 by Kazumi Narabe)

At what age did you begin the shamisen?
I was six. My father studied shamisen. Although ours was not a family of performers handing down their art from generation to generation as is common in Japan’s traditional arts, growing up listening to my father play from childhood had a big effect on me. Since the Tsugaru shamisen is one where you really strike the strings, there is a strong sense of rhythm and speed to the music. I was very much attracted to that sound.

Wasn't it quite rare for an elementary school student to be learning shamisen in your generation?
Yes, it was. I never told my friends that I was learning it. There is a strong image of the shamisen as an instrument older people play. Since there were no other children around me who were learning it, I was a bit embarrassed about it. During the weekdays I would be practicing whenever I had the time, so I didn’t play much with children my own age. Then, when I was about 10, I was on a TV show for talented young children because I played the shamisen. That is when my friends found out about it and they all said it was cool.

When did you decide to become a professional performer?
When I was 14. That was the year I won a national competition for Tsugaru shamisen players. For the first time, I felt that maybe I had some talent for the shamisen after all. At that time it was really only a case of my being good for a 14-year-old, but it made me want to take on the challenge of making it in the world of adult performers. Where I lived at that time in Ibaraki prefecture, there weren’t many really good performers. The top performers were mostly centered in Tokyo. I thought that would be the place where I could hear the best shamisen music and also build connections in the music world. So, I moved to Tokyo after graduating from middle school.

Did you study under a teacher then?
I studied by myself. The most common path is to enter an organization under some teacher, but when you enter such a group most of your time is taken up with the group activities. I wanted to become a professional performer, so I knew I had to practice performing and learn a lot of pieces. There was so much I needed to learn, so I knew I didn’t have time for group activities. The kind of a system where a lot of people aren’t necessarily skilled as performers are able to get along just on the strength of the organization didn’t agree with me. There were some other performers at the time who never joined an organization, and there were a lot who were dispelled from their organizations, too. These were people who were expelled because they wanted to try different kinds of music activities from those of their teachers. I joined a rock band, for instance, and that would have caused a problem if I were affiliated with some teacher. In order to improve my technique and expand my musical expression, working alone was easier for me.

The Japanese traditional music world is one where most of the performance opportunities come from your affiliation with an established teacher. Didn'T that decision to go it alone make it difficult for you?
I would follow along with older friends who were performers and I played in the folk music bars in Tokyo’s Asakusa area and gradually got jobs through word-of-mouth. Also, I didn’t want people saying that I was playing in a rock band because I couldn’t play the traditional shamisen repertoire, so every year I entered the All-Japan Tsugaru Shamisen Competition held in the city of Hirosaki in Aomori prefecture. Because this isn’t always a world where you can win strictly on the basis of your own talent, I was determined to beat the students of the top teachers. You have to be really good to win a competition like that, so I practiced hard. With Tsugaru shamisen every teacher teaches a slightly different style of playing, so there are a number of "schools" of performance. I would study the music scores of the different schools. I collected cassette tapes and SP records in order to learn the phrasing of the masters who are recognized as the roots of the different schools of Tsugaru shamisen performance. I thought that I could win recognition if I won the All-Japan Tsugaru Shamisen Competition just once. I ended up winning it in 1995 and ’96.
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